In 2010, 259 service members serving in war zones were injured in the genital area. That accounted for almost 13 percent of all hospital admissions from combat that year—a record since the Defense Dept. began counting in 2001. To reduce those numbers, the Pentagon wants to equip soldiers with ballistic briefs that can diminish the damage from improvised explosive devices buried in the ground, the cause of most such injuries. “When you have a 21- or 22-year-old soldier … come in and say, ‘I’m telling my buddies to go to the sperm bank before they go downrange,’ that’s heartbreaking,” says Lieutenant Colonel Frank Lozano, who heads up the U.S. Army’s purchasing of protective gear.
There’s just one hitch: The most effective combat underwear is made of silk, but the military hasn’t found a domestic supplier of it and risks running afoul of a World War II-era law requiring the Defense Dept. to purchase food and uniforms made with domestic raw materials. Congress adopted the measure, known as the Berry Amendment, in 1941 to build up U.S. manufacturing and guarantee the country wouldn’t run out of wartime supplies. Soldiers and Marines battle-tested silk briefs from a British supplier last year under a one-time exemption that military procurement officials sometimes allow for orders placed from a war zone. Because of the restrictions, the Army is now testing underwear containing American-made synthetics such as DuPont’s (DD) Kevlar, burning and shooting at the fabrics to see how they hold up under combat conditions.
Ballistic briefs aren’t bulletproof. They’re intended to keep bomb fragments, dirt, and debris from tearing into flesh and causing infections. The material has to be tough but breathable, which makes tightly woven silk—used in armor long before Kevlar came along—a good choice. Both silk and Kevlar fabrics are more comfortable than the common alternative, says Lozano: “It’s hard to walk around in a mountainous environment for four or five hours while wearing a cup.”
The Army hopes to find a garment that will protect not just the groin but the upper thigh. “If I can give [an injured soldier] six inches of thigh bone,” then there’s a better chance of having prosthetics attached, says Lozano. “That would mean the difference between spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair and being able to run the Army Ten-Miler.”
Genital injuries were less of a problem in Iraq because troops did more patrolling in armored trucks. In the rural farmlands of Afghanistan, soldiers “are walking the beat like cops,” says Paul Swiergosz, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization. Metal detectors do a poor job of locating the insurgents’ primitive bombs, often made with processed fertilizer and plastic jugs and buried underground.
Silk is thought to be the best at keeping out debris because it doesn’t stretch like synthetic fabrics do. Last year, the Defense Dept. bought about 165,000 pairs of silk briefs and about 45,000 bulletproof groin protectors for $19 million from Cooneen Watts & Stone, based in Northern Ireland. The Army will press for a long-term exception to the Berry law if tests show the silk skivvies work better than U.S.-made alternatives.
That would be a loss for Secure Planet in Arlington, Va.; ArmorWorks in Chandler, Ariz.; and Crye Precision in Brooklyn—three American companies that have already rolled out the nonsilk synthetic products being tested by the military. “Allowing foreign countries to outfit U.S. service men and women around the world flies in the face of national security and threatens U.S. jobs,” says Scott Elmore, spokesman for the American Apparel & Footwear Assn., a lobbying group in suburban Washington.
Even with the U.S. set to bring most troops home from Afghanistan in 2014, the Army plans to buy 750,000 pairs of ballistic briefs and 250,000 groin protectors over the next five years. Says Lieutenant Colonel Lozano: “This will be an enduring requirement.”