Reporting from San Diego -- Marines serving in Afghanistan from Camp Pendleton and other bases will soon receive specially designed underwear to provide protection against the improvised explosive devices that are the Taliban's favorite weapon.
The new underwear, which looks like the shorts worn by professional cyclists, will not stop bullets or shrapnel but is designed to prevent dirt and other debris from entering wounds to the genitals or femoral arteries and causing infection. Made of sturdy silk, the so-called "ballistic boxers" are treated with antimicrobial agents to prevent such infections.
U.S. troops, particularly Marines assigned to Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, have suffered an increase in wounds to the genitals and urinary tract from roadside bombs in the last 18 months.
Though troops wear helmets, heavy boots and protective vests with front-flaps over the genitals, there is little to stop the damage inflicted when a bomb explodes beneath a soldier or Marine on a walking patrol.
"It's almost as if [the Taliban] have developed these bombs to inflict the maximum damage," said Navy Cmdr. James L'Esperance, a urologist who has treated wounded Marines and soldiers.
The Marine Corps has placed an order for 25,000 pairs of the underwear at a cost of $2 million. The U.S. Army also plans to send the gear to its troops. The military is also studying the possibility of outfitting personnel with metal cup protectors.
A study conducted by doctors at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the U.S. military hospital where serious casualties are brought from Iraq and Afghanistan, found a significant increase in injuries to the genitals and urinary tract.
In 2009, 52 personnel were brought to the hospital with battlefield injuries to their genitals or urinary tract. In 2010, that figure was 142, including 21 who lost a testicle and eight who lost both testicles. The 142 represented 9% of the casualties brought to Landstuhl.
The military unit hit hardest by the Taliban's use of buried bombs has been the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, which suffered 24 deaths and more than 175 wounded during a recently completed seven-month deployment to the Sangin district of Helmand province. The battalion was replaced by the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, also from Camp Pendleton.
Marine brass expect the Taliban to mount a counteroffensive in Sangin in an attempt to win back control of "key terrain." Part of that operation is expected to be increased use of roadside bombs.
In a recent six-week stretch, nearly half the attacks with improvised explosive devices against U.S. troops in Afghanistan occurred in Helmand province where the Marines are assigned.
While the concept of specially designed protective underwear is new to U.S. troops, the British military has worn similar gear for several years.