By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Feb. 22, 2012) -- For dismounted Soldiers patrolling Afghanistan roads, improvised explosive devices can be even more devastating than for those in armored vehicles, but a new line of protection may help.
"A few years ago, in certain areas of Afghanistan, we started to notice the dismounted improvised explosive device (known as IED) threat becoming more prevalent," said Lt. Col. Frank J. Lozano, PEO Soldier protective equipment. "There were a lot of significant injuries, and very traumatic injuries occurring to Soldiers in the lower extremity area. A lot of Soldiers losing their lower leg below the knee. A lot of above-the-knee amputations, and a lot of high hip amputations."
Soldiers who stepped on an IED might suffer injuries that required amputations which didn't leave enough of a limb for a prosthetic leg, for instance. But those Soldiers were also suffering extensive damage to the perineum region, the part of the body that includes the anus and reproductive organs.
"It's very traumatic, very heartbreaking, when Soldiers go through those types of events, and they are very young, and then they come home and they are not able to have children," said Lozano. "It's one of the harsh realities of this type of warfare when you have dismounted IEDs."
The Army wanted to do something to offer protection to Soldiers. Taking a cue from British forces that had already found a material solution to the problem, the Army developed the Pelvic Protection System. The system includes two layers of protection for Soldiers, including the Tier I protective under-garment, called the "PUG," and the Tier II protective outer-garment, called the "POG."
"We wanted first to be able to protect the genital region so that Soldiers going through those traumatic events would still be able to do things like have a family when they get home," Lozano said.
Both components of the system are worn like shorts. The PUG is worn under a Soldier's ACU pants. It can be worn in place of underwear, or over the top of a Soldier's underwear. Some Soldiers have called them "Kevlar boxers" or "combat underpants" and it's not far from the truth.
"It's kind of like a bicycle shorts garment," Lozano said. "It's designed to be worn under the pants, close to the skin. You can wear it like you'd wear a normal piece of underwear."
The PUG has a breathable, moisture-wicking material on the outer thighs. Along the inner thighs is knitted Kevlar to protect the fleshy inner parts of the thighs and the femoral artery. Over the groin, more knitted or woven Kevlar. "It's not really very complicated," Lozano said.
The colonel said that as a result of an IED blast, sand, dirt, and "manure that's been in the ground for decades" is pulverized and can wind up embedded in a Soldier's flesh.
"It can take 20 or 25 surgeries to go through and pick all that out," he said. "If you don't get it all, then that causes infections and it can lead to further amputations," Lozano said.
The PUG is part of a system to prevent that from happening in the first place. The fabric used in the garment has also been tested to ensure that it won't melt or drip when exposed to high heat.
"Since it's so close to the skin, we don't want to exacerbate any type of heat damage a Soldier might get in an IED blast," Lozano explained.
The outer garment, the POG, provides even more protection for Soldiers, and performs similar to the soft portions of the improved outer tactical vest. It "protects along a greater range of fragments," Lozano said.
While Soldiers can wear the undergarment on its own, Lozano said if Soldiers are going to wear the outer garment they should wear it in conjunction with the undergarment.
"Because the Tier II has more ballistic protection, it is a little more rigid," he said. "If you wear the Tier I under the Tier II, it prevents chafing. It also provides the maximum amount of coverage together with the maximum amount of protection, without restricting your movement."
Wear test and user evaluations have ensured that the tiered pelvic protection system is comfortable for Soldiers to wear," said Lozano said. "You might go through testing and think you've got a great design, but then you put it on a Soldier and tell him to road march for 20 miles and shoot and go through an obstacle course and find out, it's a terrible design."
He said that even if the protection is great, if it's not comfortable, Soldiers might not want to wear it.
Soldiers in theater who have worn the gear have reported back on their experience and have helped inform changes to the pelvic protection system, Lozano said. Early on, he said, there were reports of chafing and "poor thermal management," for instance.
"We've worked with the Soldiers in theater to redesign the system; we've gone through a couple of design iterations," Lozano said. "It's taken a good six to nine months. We're getting now to an optimized system where Soldiers are seeing their feedback codified in a material solution and it's more comfortable and breathable and Soldiers are more willing and apt to wear it."
The Army first put the pelvic protection system into theater in June 2011. Now, the system has been fielded to some 15,000 Soldiers. The typical issue includes three PUGs and one POG. Fielding is happening now for Soldiers in theater and for Soldiers stateside.