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Protective underwear cutting IED-related wounds

Dec. 10, 2012 - 04:10PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2012 - 04:10PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — Fortified underwear is in high demand among troops in Afghanistan where any step on the battlefield can trigger a buried bomb that can blow off legs, destroy genitals and tear into their abdomens.

The Pentagon is rushing more heavy silk underwear, along with protective cups and strapped-on outergear, to ensure that soldiers and Marines in the field have six pairs of the equipment. The need is acute because insurgents continue to plant more than 1,000 bombs per month and troops on foot lack the protection of armored vehicles. The underwear has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in wounds to troops' genitals, key arteries and abdomens, according to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's lead officer in the fight against makeshift bombs and a member of the U.S. Senate blame Pakistan for failing to impede the flow of explosives into Afghanistan. Sen. Bob Casey, who chairs a Foreign Relations panel on the region, has scheduled a hearing Thursday to discuss limiting the flow of ammonium nitrate, fertilizer made in Pakistan that is converted into homemade explosives.

"The main impediment is the Pakistani government," Casey, D-Pa., said in an interview. "They're not doing enough to slow down the flow of ammonium nitrate."

The result is that 71 percent of the more than 12,000 bombs planted in Afghanistan through October of this year were built with ammonium nitrate manufactured in Pakistan, according to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Organization (JIEDDO)

As troops will continue to step on them, casualties mount. In October, there were more than 100 IED attacks that killed or wounded U.S. troops. Overall, IEDs account for nearly six of every 10 casualties.

"It is the weapon of choice and the key casualty producer," said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, head of the JIEDDO.

Better surveillance by drones and spy aircraft and thousands of hand-held mine detectors that have been rushed to the front lines have helped troops find more bombs before they explode. Bomb-sniffing dogs have helped, as have camera-carrying robots that can be tossed into suspected minefields to look for booby traps, Barbero said. More than 3,000 additional robots are being sent to Afghanistan.

Troops on foot now find 80 percent of IEDs before they detonate, a three-percentage-point increase from last year.

Only better underwear stands between troops and the 20 percent of the bombs that remain undetected.

JIEDDO has helped field 200,000 sets of wearable armor. That includes heavy silk underwear, laced with anti-microbial material that limits the amount of fine particles of dirt and debris that can penetrate skin after an explosion. That grit can cause deadly infections. Heavier protective gear can be strapped on over uniforms in areas where troops expect to find bombs.

Barbero, who is scheduled to testify before Casey's subcommittee, said that unless Pakistan does more, U.S. troops will be forced to play defense against IEDs. Pakistan's military and civilian leaders promise to prevent bomb-making materials from reaching Afghanistan, yet little gets done, he said.

"We're ready to do more with them and frankly, they can do more on this issue," Barbero said. "It is frustrating."

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