By: Graham Webster
Proving that you don’t have to be a major big city newspaper known for investigative scoops to get dramatic results, a probe by the Marine Corps Times apparently triggered the recall of more than 5,000 ballistic vests issued to Marines despite tests indicating they might be flawed.
Many of the vests were issued to Marines in Iraq. The reporter on the story told E&P today that officials tried to “steer” him away from the story.
“Faced with the imminent publication of this story, the result of an eight-month investigation by Marine Corps Times, the Marine Corps on May 4 issued a Corpswide message recalling 5,277 Interceptor vests from 11 lots that failed government ballistic performance tests ? slightly more than half the total vests issued to Marines from questionable lots,” Christian Lowe, a Times staff writer, wrote in the weekly.
He told E&P Monday, “We received information from a source that something was going on, and they suggested that we FOIA the information.” After some tough decisions about what command to query and how to word the Freedom of Information Act requests, Lowe sent them in last fall. In early April, Lowe received about 800 pages of documents, including copies of memos recommending against the approval of some 19,000 vests which were ultimately accepted by the Corps.
The documents also included copies of waivers signed by the Marine manager responsible for distributing the vests, Lt. Col. Gabriel Patricio, which allowed the Corps to buy the body armor despite recommendations.
Though some Marine officials refused to be interviewed, Lowe said on the whole the Corps was cooperative. “I gotta give it to the folks up at headquarters, public affairs for the Marine Corps,” Lowe said. “They helped us get the interviews we needed.”
Before the story ran in the edition of the paper that Lowe said is distributed to subscribers today and tomorrow, the Times went through many rounds of editing to vet wording and other issues. “I wanted to make sure just about as many ears could hear what I was turning up,” Lowe said. “I wanted it, as the military calls it, ‘red-teamed.'”
Some officials tried to influence Lowe’s interpretation of the documents at the last minute, he said. “On late Friday they called me trying to steer me away from the story,” Lowe told E&P. “I was just like, ‘Look guys, I give you six weeks to go over this stuff with me, and what I’ve got is what I’ve got.'”
About 10,000 of the 19,000 vests from questionable lots have been issued to Marines in the field. Officials told the Times it is uncertain whether the recalled vests will be easily trackable, since serial numbers are hand-written and may have worn off since the body armor was issued between February and August of 2004.
The paper has not yet been able to identify specific Marines who might be wearing the vests, but it will stay on the story, Lowe said. “We do have one of our employees probably in Iraq now?and they should be there through the week, and we’re going to try and get reactions through them,” he said.
Meantime, Lowe is already receiving calls from some people involved in the body armor industry saying they may have more information.