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Women in combat wear armor designed for men. That’s finally changing in 2020.

The ban on women in combat was lifted Jan. 23, 2013 and was projected to open more than 230,000 jobs across all branches of the military. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Senior Airman Micaiah Anthony/Released)

For Air Force Maj. Julie Roloson, new body armor being fielded specifically for women is more than a matter of fit and weight. It could be life or death.

Roloson, 34, commands the 88th Security Forces Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and says the new vest, tailored to fit women and lighter than men’s versions, gives her a better chance to fight and shoot.

Fighting and shooting. Basic requirements for combat jobs, all of which the Pentagon opened to women five years ago. From helmets to accommodate a hair bun to maternity flight suits, gear designed for women is being developed and issued, changing the way the previously one-male-size-fits-all military outfits troops.

“So when you’re shooting the M-4, you need to have the butt of the weapon in a really pretty specific spot on your shoulder to ensure good stability,” Roloson said. “And that was always hard to do in the legacy system, but this new one had that extra cut out. The shooter’s cut as we kind of colloquially refer to it as, which just right off the bat made a huge bit of difference.”

The Air Force has the highest percentage of women service members at 21% of its active-duty force. The Navy is next at 20.2% followed by the Army at 15.4% and the Marine Corps at 9.1%, according to Pentagon figure. The services combine efforts at times to develop equipment, such as a new combat flight suit for women in the Army, Air Force and Navy, according to Army Lt. Col. Naim Lee, a project manager for Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment. It is scheduled to be delivered to aviators in Oct. 2021.

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Meanwhile, each of the services operates equipment and uniform programs specifically targeting its own troops.

The Marines’ have accommodated women, in part, by adding more sizes of its existing body armor vests instead of designing new equipment, said Emanuel Pacheco, a Marine Corps spokesman. Research determined that the redesign for women compromised protection.

“Our body armor is gender-neutral, and designed to better fit all of our Marines,” Pacheco said.

Two years ago, the Navy began a phased replacement of body armor for male and female sailors, said Lt. Cdr. Patricia Kreuzberger, a Navy spokeswoman. All new buys of body armor are gender-specific, she said.

The Army has several programs that aim to address the requirements of women soldiers. Among them:

Helmets: The Army has developed a new model that allows women soldiers to fit hair buns, according to Kyle Miller, an Army program manager.

Bomb suits: Women make up 3% of the soldiers in its Explosive Ordinance Disposal specialty, the units that saw extensive, dangerous duty in Iraq and Afghanistan dealing with roadside bombs. Bomb suits had not been designed for smaller men or women, according to Maj. Justin Bond, a program manager. The Army added an extra-small size that better fits and protects women.

Duty/nature calls: Urinating on combat missions is a fact of life and a matter of health. The Army, known for its love of jargon and abbreviations, began issuing the FUDD, Female Urinary Diversion Device, to deploying women soldiers in 2016, according to Lee. The funnel-and-tube system allows women to urinate standing up without extensive disrobing. On combat missions, women without the systems were subject to infections or intentionally drank less, leading to dehydration. Next year, the Army will conduct a survey on how to improve the device. The Air Force is also developing a device that will allow women pilots strapped by harnesses into cockpits to urinate on long combat missions.

“Bladder relief is a huge concern,” said Maj. Saily Rodriguez, who works on equipment for women in the Air Force. Women pilots have “tactically dehydrated” in order to fly missions, imperiling their health and safety.

Flight suits for women are another focus for the Air Force, Rodriguez said. G-suits, which have air pockets that inflate around the lower body to regulate blood flow during maneuvers that generate G-forces, are being modified to fit women who have narrower waists and larger hips than men, she said. Flight suits for women in their second trimester of pregnancy are also being developed.

For the women on security duty, like those whom Roloson commands, the new body armor has lightened the load they carry for hours at a time at checkpoints and in patrol vehicles. The old body armor jabbed her belt and holster into her body, a concern as the Air Force had seen a spike in skeletal and muscular injuries, Rodriguez said.

The new armor, Roloson said, “just let me move around much easier, which is important when you think of somebody working in a patrol all day long. They’re sitting and need to be able to get out and get in pretty quickly.”

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