No Danger to Troops From Chem Protective Suits
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 14, 2000 No service member was endangered by DoD issuing 120,000 chemical, biological protective suits in 1996, Defense Logistics Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Henry T. Glisson said Feb. 28.
"We would never issue any piece of equipment we even suspect is bad," DLA spokesman Dan McGinty said in a later interview. "This is the lives of young American men and women and we will not take a chance."
At question in a recent controversy are 173,000 battle-dress overgarments made in 1992 by Isratex, a New York-based company. Of these, 120,000 ultimately were issued to the Air Force and Army. Service members wear an ensemble outfit as protection against chemical and biological agents. Only the triple-layered overgarments are a concern, McGinty said, not the boots, gloves and hood worn with them.
The overgarments were made by Isratex in a West Virginia plant. DLA became concerned with the 18 lots Isratex made in 1992 after the Defense Criminal Investigative Service examined a company plant in Puerto Rico in 1994, found discrepancies in the cold-weather parkas made there, and notified DLA. The government started legal action against the company.
The agency in 1994 froze issues of the Isratex suits made in 1992 because of the potential the company had not lived up to its obligations. Glisson said standard procedures call for DLA inspectors to do random quality sampling at the plant and at agency test centers before accepting deliveries.
"In 1994, we had no reason to believe anything was wrong with those suits. They had passed our in-plant inspection," said Gerda Parr, another DLA spokesperson. "DCIS never asked us to look at the suits. We froze the buy just to be on the safe side."
Glisson told reporters Feb. 28 that the agency did not want to in any way "jeopardize service members by giving them a product, particularly in the chemical environment, which did not meet full specifications."
U.S. involvement in Bosnia in 1996 created an immediate surge requirement for protective ensembles, Glisson said.
"We went back to the '92 stock which we had held and not issued. We conducted a full range of testing on a sample lot. We found them to be fully operational and functional," he said. DLA issued 120,000 sets to the services for further distribution -- Glisson said he didn't know where those sets might be now or how many actually ended up in Bosnia.
DLA officials inspected 500 suits and found 17 "major" and 157 "minor" -- cosmetic -- defects, DLA officials said. Under normal circumstances, this would be enough to reject the entire buy. Such defects, however, don't necessarily make suits unserviceable, and the inspection indicated the overgarments would in fact perform their function.
Only a "critical" defect would make a suit unusable, DLA officials said, stressing they found none during the 1996 inspection. A production lot fails if inspectors find even a single "critical" defect -- any flaw that would allow chemical or biological agents to pass through to the wearer.
In this case, because of the urgent need, DLA inspectors made a judgment call. Because the suits were serviceable and would provide the desired protection, the 120,000 suits were issued to the services.
"These suits come in three layers," McGinty said. "The outer layer is tough fabric that you can run through woods and brush without ripping. The inner layer is a nylon-type material. The key to the suit is the middle layer that is impregnated with activated charcoal. This is the key to protecting service members."
"Minor" and "major" defects deal with the suit as a whole. Some pattern matches weren't right, there was some fraying along the seams, "but there was nothing that penetrated the suit, no holes that would be termed a 'critical' defect," McGinty said. The inspectors found nothing wrong that would have affected the suits' ability to resist chemical penetration, he emphasized.
After the testing in 1996, DLA stored the 500 sampled suits in open boxes in a warehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Jump to 1998. Inspectors of the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., tested the 1992 overgarments and passed them for continued use. DCIS asked Natick to re-examine the same 500 suits that had been tested in 1996. This time, Natick inspectors cited seven "critical" defects in them. Parr said the inspectors performed no chemical tests, just visual inspection.
"If you take a look at what those critical defects are, they are not holes, tears, those kinds of things," Glisson said at the news conference. "What they are is where threads have separated and have now opened up a little bit. It could be age. I don't know what it is. Out of the seven critical deficiencies that they noted, there was only one where the garment had had what we could call a hole in it, where the fabric had become separated and one that we would really be concerned about."
DLA still has 53,000 of the 1992 Isratex overgarments, McGinty said. "We have them segregated in our distribution depots in a way that they cannot even be accidentally issued," he said. The agency advised the services that any 1992 Isratex suits they still have are to be used for training only.
The military is not buying these overgarments any more. They are being replaced by the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology Overgarment. DLA started procuring the new suit in fiscal 1997 and has about 500,000 on hand. DoD still has 3.5 million of the battle-dress overgarment in stock.