Groin armour 'would help British troops to survive'

Squaddies bartering with Americans for body plates
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The Independent Online

British soldiers are suffering catastrophic injuries not seen among their American comrades in Afghanistan because their armour does not cover the groin and neck.

The most senior surgeon in the British field hospital in Afghanistan, US Navy Captain Joseph Rappold, told The Independent: "We have seen a lot of groin and neck injuries in UK soldiers not otherwise seen in US soldiers and Marines because of this piece of equipment."

US Marines, who deployed this summer with British forces in Helmand, wear an additional groin guard hanging from the waist of their body armour, as well as a higher neck-piece. In the bloodiest summer to date in Helmand, a tour in which the number of soldiers killed and terribly injured rose dramatically, many have suffered leg amputations from the increasingly powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that litter the terrain. Captain Rappold said they often suffer life-changing groin wounds.

A veteran of five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said the casualties he was treating had some of the worst injuries he had ever seen. Insurgents, he explained, were now using more powerful explosives which have more devastating consequences.

The US-worn Kevlar groin plate "is not going to stop the upwards effect of a blast if they step on an IED or mine", but Captain Rappold said it offered invaluable protection against the roadside blasts. "What it helps with is protecting them from very catastrophic injuries to their genitalia," he said. "If the fragmentation hits you straight on the risk is significant to this area. We don't see the same degree in US casualties as we do in UK casualties."

Some British soldiers in Afghanistan, now constantly vulnerable to road-side bombs, have begun bartering with the Americans to get hold of the groin guards. Nurses at the hospital have even recommended they use cricket boxes. One senior nurse said that such injuries were a notable feature of the tour not seen on previous deployments.

The UK Army headquarters insisted yesterday that such lower body injuries result from the British conducting more foot patrols and having a higher number of engagements with the enemy, and not because of the lack of groin plates. A spokesman for Task Force Helmand said there had been no analysis or statistics to prove the higher rate of groin injuries, adding: "UK personal protection equipment offers the very best levels of protection. Personal protection is ultimately a balance between risk and maintaining manoeuvrability so that soldiers avoid contact with the enemy in the first place."

The British Army has made dramatic improvements to the body armour since the invasion of Iraq when soldiers, expecting gun shot wounds to be their most common cause of injury, wore lighter Kevlar enhanced combat body armour (ECBA) with small plates over the heart front and rear, first developed for Northern Ireland.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the introduction of the far heavier Osprey armour, which protects troops with large ceramic plates covering their torso front and back, and has modular neck and shoulder protection.

While infantry soldiers initially complained about the weight, it has saved the lives of troops. In Helmand, there have been stories of soldiers being shot with more than one round in the plate but able to continue in battle with no more than bruises.

The Ministry of Defence has now introduced an upgraded version of the Osprey, with 10,000 sets to reach Helmand shortly. It is lighter, has side plates and is closer-fitting. The ballistic plates are loaded from beneath because explosions could send them crashing into a soldier's chin. Zips have also been replaced with Velcro because they caused additional damaging fragmentation. But there is no groin guard.

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