GIs, pass up that survival-gear sale at your own peril


NEWS item:

WASHINGTON -- Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon on Wednesday issued overdue regulations for reimbursing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for body armor and other gear they bought to protect themselves. The program, effective immediately, allows reimbursement for helmets, ballistic eye protection, hydration systems and tactical vests, including body armor inserts to protect areas such as the throat and groin.

I’m sure that electrifying flash of generosity has our warriors dancing in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul. Well, maybe not dancing but filled with a sense of well-being, which they no doubt discuss during quiet conversations with one another when they are not busy trying to stay alive.


Buying your own combat implements is not like running down to the 7-Eleven for a six-pack of Bud. Helmets, for instance, run as high as $545 on one military website, although a lightweight version, normally $375, is on sale for $335 if you act fast.

Body armor is even more costly, with a full-body blast suit going for about $9,000. But for those unable to afford serious protection, a set of dog tags can be purchased for a mere $10, to assure that otherwise disconnected human remains are properly identified. Silver chains are included.

You were probably under the impression that our men and women overseas were issued as much protection as possible in their effort to save the Middle East, and its oil, from exploitation and destruction by the forces of evil that President George Bush identified in his speech the other night.

But apparently that isn’t so. Even under the Pentagon’s new policy of generosity, the cost of each item intended to keep a soldier or Marine alive cannot exceed $1,100, and the items become government property once their use is no longer required. That is unless they’re, you know, destroyed or somehow no longer usable.

The directive follows a perk added two years ago when the House of Representatives approved a bill allowing free meals for hospitalized troops wounded in combat. It not only eliminated the $8.10 a day they were paying for their hospital food, but also doubled survivor benefits to $12,000, tax free, should they die.

All of this, of course, is an effort to stimulate enlistments by making the war in Iraq seem somehow safer, and perhaps even desirable. Weapons of various kinds and their ammunition are, as I understand it, free, as are the bombs and missiles we drop enthusiastically on whoever happens to be in the way.


One would assume that the $200 billion we’re spending on the war to democratize the people of Iraq, whether they want it or not, would include helmets and body armor, but the military doesn’t always think in logical terms when it gets down to the nitty-gritty. A modest example of this is the Great Pillow Incident of 1953.

For those in the MTV generation who may have not heard of it, there was a skirmish following the more popular Second World War in a place called Korea. Those were in the days before body armor but not before pillows. Having fought in the war, I returned more or less whole and was being mustered out at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego where, a few years earlier, I had suffered the indignation and humiliation of boot camp.

I recall quite clearly that after standing in line for a while, I reached the mustering-out clerk -- who, although he might have known nothing of war, kept careful track of the equipment. I could keep my uniform, he said, including my underwear, shoes and socks, but I had to return my pillow.

Our conversation went something like this:

“You were issued a ‘pillow, one, individual, bunk bed, each’ during your initial training period and it was never returned.”

“You’re telling me I can’t get out of this bloody outfit after fighting in a war because your records show I have one of your pillows?”

“That is correct.”

“You feel that I took this pillow as my own possession or possibly sold it on the street for a vast profit, thereby cheating the United States Marine Corps?”


“I am not authorized to issue you departure orders until all government material is returned to the agency from which it was removed.”

“The pillow.”

“The pillow.”

What I did was cross the parade field to the sleeping quarters of new recruits, grab a pillow from a cot and return it to the mustering-out clerk. It wasn’t exactly the right pillow, probably Model 2-dash-47 instead of Model 1A-dash-22, but he accepted it and I left whistling “Colonel Bogey’s March.”

I suppose the man whose pillow I stole had to steal another to get out of the Corps and that man had to steal another and so on probably to this very day.

It’s the way the military is, and the reluctant Pentagon generosity reflects a condition that one might think about before enlisting. You’d better be able to afford the gear before you sign the papers to go to war.

At least the body bags are free.

Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez