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Life-saving ESAPI plate returned to Soldier

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Sept. 19, 2013) -- When Sgt. Joseph Morrissey stepped out of his vehicle onto a military supply route in Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2012, he didn't know it would be the day his body armor would prove to be worth the weight and discomfort that comes with wearing it.

"It was basically like getting a sucker punch that you didn't expect," Morrissey said of being shot. "It's kind of an unexpected feeling and takes your breath away; it knocks the wind out of you a little bit -- but I kept my balance the whole time."

A man in a military uniform stands next to a woman in civilian clothing.  They hold a wooden board with a ballistic insert mounted on top.  Behind them, words on the wall read "PEO Soldier Fort Belvoir, VA." An Army flag is also against the wall.
Sgt. Joseph Morrissey and wife Nikki Morrissey will take this ESAPI plate home with them to Fort Bragg, N.C. Sgt. Morrissey was wearing the plate in Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2012, when he was shot in the chest with a 7.62mm round. After the plate was evaluated by PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., it was returned to Morrissey during a ceremony there, Sept. 18, 2013.

Despite being hit in the chest with a 7.62mm round from about 30 meters, Morrissey remained uninjured. The ceramic "Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert," or ESAPI, he wore, which weighs about 3.5 pounds, stopped the bullet and saved his life.

On Sept. 18, 2013, a year after the incident in Afghanistan, Morrissey and his wife Nikki Morrissey traveled from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Program Executive Office, or PEO, Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., to retrieve the ceramic plate that enabled their life together to continue.

"It's amazing how much my life has changed in the last year, and to think it wouldn't have been possible without that piece of equipment," Morrissey said. "I've been married since then; I have a child on the way."

After he was shot, Morrissey finished out the reminder of his tour protected by a new ESAPI plate. The plate that saved his life redeployed so it could be evaluated by scientists at PEO Soldier and the Joint Trauma Analysis and Prevention of Injury in Combat Program. Their analysis of the plate will help the joint war-fighting team better understand injuries, and will also help PEO Soldier design better protective gear.

Command Sgt. Maj. Emmett Maunakea, PEO Soldier, returned the plate to Morrissey in a small ceremony at PEO Soldier headquarters. The event was attended by dozens of scientists, engineers and staffers of the agency responsible for fielding to Soldiers such things as body armor, laser sights, and individual and crew-served weapons.

"These are the hidden faces behind all of the equipment that gets issued by PEO Soldier," Maunakea said, addressing Morrissey. "These are the science and technology folks, the research and development folks, the acquisition professionals. These are the people who bring together all of the kit that you wear down range. And this is as much their moment for them because this is one of the few times the PEO Soldier team actually gets to watch one of the plate returns."

To the PEO Soldier staff, Maunakea let them know that Morrissey, standing there in the room with them with his new bride -- is the reason they come to work in the morning.

"Everything I've talked with you all about before, this is where it all culminates," he said. "We've got a Soldier who got hit, went back in to continue to patrol, and finished an entire rotation, came back and he's standing here today -- here with his wife and father-in-law and a battle buddy from one of his deployments. And he's here because of exactly everything you all do. It's every piece of equipment you put your blood sweat and tears into -- that's what saved Sergeant Morrissey's life, and that's why he's able to be here today."

A ballistic insert shows damage from a bullet.  The words "handle with care" are printed on it.
Sgt. Joseph Morrissey was wearing this ESAPI plate in Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2012, when he was shot in the chest with a 7.62mm round. After the plate was evaluated by PEO Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., it was returned to Morrissey during a ceremony there, Sept. 18, 2013.

For making available to him and other service members the protective gear that saved his life, Morrissey thanked the PEO Soldier team -- a team he said he hadn't known existed until he arrived to pick up his plate.

"I didn't even know this place existed," Morrissey said. "I didn't understand the process of testing our equipment. I just know equipment is given to you, it's what you use, and you go on every day with it. I want to say 'thank you very much' for everything you guys do; without you I wouldn't be here. It's been a little over a year since the incident happened, and in the last year I was able to come home from that deployment, I married my fiancée -- probably the happiest day of my life -- and shortly thereafter, I found we have a baby on the way."

If Morrissey is a believer now in the protective armor he wears downrange, he wasn't always so. Like many Soldiers who wear the heavy protective gear, he said he sometimes had doubts if it was worth the burden of carrying that much weight on his shoulders.

"Before I actually had put this equipment to the test, on a personal level, I didn't have faith in it because of stories I'd heard -- that it won't stop a 7.62, that it won't save you from anything," Morrissey said. "There's always rumors going on. Most people in the Army are going to tell you they don't like wearing the body armor because it is heavy and uncomfortable. Whatever their excuse is, they don't want to wear it."

Now, he said, he's a believer.

"After putting it to the test, regardless of the weight, regardless of the comfort, you can't beat having your life saved," he said. "Regardless of how heavy it is, or how uncomfortable it is -- the equipment works."

Morrissey's s wife, Nikki, said the plate allowed her to have her husband -- and says the plate will be displayed prominently in their home.

"It's going to get hung up somewhere where it's very visible," she said.

A tiny four-by-four grid of dots. A tiny representation of the Mandelbrot Set. An oscillator from the Game of Life. A twisty thing. A snowflake.