By Sean Kimmons, Army News Service
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, MD.-- As the Army sergeant led a night mission into a hostile Iraq compound in March 2007, a barrage of gunfire rang out, striking his body armor and weapon and causing him to fall down.
About 10 feet away, an insurgent hidden in a room continued to shoot his AK-47 rifle, sending lethal rounds over the sergeant's head. Slightly disoriented after his night vision goggles had fallen off, the sergeant picked up his damaged M4 carbine and killed the shooter.
"It knocked me completely on the ground like a sledgehammer hit me in the chest," the Soldier said about being shot in his protective plate.
In the end, he received just a bruised chest and some shrapnel in his neck, he said. The small arms protective insert saved his life by stopping two 7.62 mm rounds, and the impact had thrust him to the ground, out of the way of further gunfire.
Last February, almost a decade later, the Soldier received the plate on a plaque following an analysis by Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, which works to improve equipment and capabilities for Soldiers.
"It was a crazy couple of minutes," he said, recalling the Iraq mission, which also earned him a Silver Star medal. "When the medics got down [to me], they basically told me, 'You're one lucky [guy].'"
The Soldier's name and unit and the location of the ceremony are being withheld at the request of U.S. Army Special Operations Command due to security concerns.
The NCO had held on to the damaged plate until just recently, when Col. Dean Hoffman, project manager of Soldier protection and individual equipment for PEO Soldier, heard about the incident and requested to have the plate looked at by his team.
"The fact that this was the original [small arms protective insert] and it stopped [AK-47 rounds] just shows you the kind of equipment we have out there, especially at that close of range," Hoffman said.
The Army has since rolled out two other types of plates and this year expects a full production of the new Soldier protection system's vital torso protection plates, which are even lighter, according to the colonel.
"We're making sure that we still stop existing threats but also do it with a much lighter plate," he said.
With each plate weighing about 2 to 5 pounds, the vital torso protection plates are up to 14 percent lighter than the current plates, according to PEO Soldier. Lighter plates are important, Hoffman said, since personal protective equipment tends to be the heaviest burden for a Soldier to carry into combat.
"It says a lot about the industry and the engineers and testers doing all they can to not only make sure that Soldiers have the best equipment when they go into harm's way, but are able to be faster … to execute their mission as quickly as possible," he said.
Even after being shot twice, the NCO said, his plate still held up, allowing him to continue that day's mission of clearing structures within the enemy stronghold.
Soon after his close call, one of his best friends in his unit was shot in the buttocks and head. Had his friend not been wearing his Kevlar helmet, the NCO said, the bullet likely would have killed him. Instead, the helmet deflected the path of the bullet, and he survived.
"The equipment that they're putting on Soldiers isn't just a bunch of fluff," he said. "The stuff actually works."
Despite the timing, Hoffman and his staff still wanted to present the plaque to the NCO during a low-key ceremony. Most people, the colonel said, would be deterred from staying in the Army after almost being killed -- but this Soldier is different.
"He didn't want any formal ceremony," Hoffman said. "He's truly a quiet professional, so it's an honor for us to be able to recognize him and provide him back a token that he can appreciate."
A damaged small arms protective insert is seen here mounted on a plaque, which was presented to a Soldier during a ceremony Friday almost a decade after he was shot twice while on a mission in Iraq. (Photo Credit: Ron Lee)