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Face of Defense: NCO Works to Improve Soldiers' Gear

By Renita Foster
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT MONMOUTH, N.J., Aug. 3, 2009 – Army Sgt. 1st Class Debra Tanacea was eager to begin her first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She had been wearing the Army uniform for 16 years, she said, and felt more than ready to accept the challenge of serving in a hostile environment. But after learning the requirements of one particular project, she wasn't sure it was a mission she could accomplish.

Her job was to collect personal protective equipment, or PPE, damaged by improvised explosive devices for forensic testing so that it could be improved. But it was the method that she would have to use, and the soldiers and units she would have to retrieve the equipment from, that overwhelmed her, she said.

Tenacea was, at the time, a member of the Field Assistance in Science and Technology team, sponsored by the Army’s Research Development and Engineering Command.

"The unit consists mostly of civilians who are engineers, computer scientists, analysts and researchers,” she explained. “And to get the kind of items the laboratory needed for testing would obviously have to come directly from the combat arms units.

“I knew this would require nothing short of tremendous understanding and compassion, because you're talking about soldiers whose PPE had become unserviceable after an enemy confrontation, resulting in personal injury," she said.

As a servicemember, she had come to understand the importance soldiers attach to personal field gear. It literally is an extension of themselves -- as much a part of them as their skin.

"It's also important to understand soldiers know they are personally and financially accountable for all gear they are issued; therefore, they look out for each other," Tanacea said.

For example, if soldiers are wounded and must be medically evacuated from an area, their battle buddies secure their equipment and make sure it gets back to base camp, where it is either held for the servicemember or destroyed, she said.

“That decision is based on the gear's condition and serviceability,” Tenacea said. “All soldiers live with their equipment 24/7."

Requesting personal gear that had been damaged and soiled by explosives and firefights from a unit's wounded was a tall order -- one that Tanacea said she knew would have to be handled delicately.

Relying on her experience as a soldier, Tanacea visited several company commanders and first sergeants to explain the need to collect damaged PPE, and how her doing so would increase survival rates for soldiers assigned to hostile areas.

"As distasteful as it might have initially seemed, units we contacted came to understand our efforts were for their benefit, and they became comfortable with turning over damaged equipment to us," Tanacea said. "At times, it could be devastating for the unit as well as for us, but they realized that their cooperation, for the sake of research and development, was to their benefit, and they recognized the project's value and worth for better future equipment."

Tanacea's persistent collection quest resulted in 20 PPE items of various types. Carefully boxed, they then were shipped for forensic analysis. Testing provided crucial information -- such as how the pieces were damaged -- which in turn led to adjustments in how PPE could provide better defense.

Tanacea has deployed three more times in four years since that first mission, and she has witnessed firsthand significant improvements in PPE, such as improved neck shields and better shoulder and side protection in the body armor, as well as improvements to the new advanced combat helmet.

"I know that what I did was key to the scientists and engineers being able to make the redesigns and improvements to the PPE we have today," Tanacea said. "As painful as it was at the time, I felt I had to do it. I got depressed and upset occasionally, as it was very emotionally consuming, but I had to work through that because I knew this project would have a direct, immediate impact on whether a soldier lived or died.

"And I'd do it again, because I was helping the soldiers out there who are risking their lives every day,” she continued. “I never knew I'd be so fortunate to have a mission that would make such a profound contribution to the Army."

(Renita Foster works in the Fort Monmouth, N.J., public affairs office.)

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