Body armor shopping with embedded journalists

Body armor shopping with embedded journalists
Cali Bagby and Dan Morrison embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, for KVAL News.

EUGENE, Ore. - Let’s say, for whatever reason, you want to be an embed in Afghanistan, and you located a unit that will have you.

Now the fun starts.

At this point, Department of Defense will send you multiple forms to complete.

Well, actually, DoD will send you multiple forms to complete - if you have an Afghan visa in your passport.

And if you have a roundtrip ticket from wherever you are to Kabul and back home.

If you don’t have a passport, that will set you back several weeks and $75.

When you do get your passport, send it in with all the requisite documentation, and about two weeks and $275 dollars later your passport will have a nifty Afghan visa stamped on one of its blue pages.

Then you will have to email proof of that visa to DoD.

The flight to Kabul will set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,500 roundtrip.  I really doubt you’ll be able to fly standby.

You also must be up on all your shots, of course.

There are things in Afghanistan that will kill you beside roadside bombs.

My visit to a tropical medicine specialist cost $85, and the subsequent prescriptions ran $150. But at least I don’t have to worry about malaria and a few other nasties.

In the stacks of paperwork that DoD sends, it clearly states you must bring your own helmet and body armor. Otherwise you ain’t getting in.

But you’re not exactly going shopping at the mall once you get to Afghanistan, so the truth is you need to bring enough gear to take care of yourself for as long as you plan to be over there.

I asked my Lt. Colonel contact to send me an itemized list of gear I should bring.

He complied.

It was impressive.

But back to the helmet and body armor.

Here’s an interesting thing about helmets and body armor: They stop bullets.

Well, most of the time they stop bullets, or at least slow them down significantly.

Which is a good thing if you are a soldier in the line of fire (or a journalist in the line of fire reporting on soldiers in the line of fire).

Unfortunately, helmets and body armor also work for bad guys, like bank robbers. Which is exactly why no vendor is going to sell you the helmet and the body armor - at least, not without a lot of persuasion on your part.

'Persuasion' means sending a facsimile of a whole stack of documents to a vendor to prove that in fact you are a bonafide journalist on his/her way to be embedded with a Marine Corps infantry unit in Helmand province, and can I please buy some protective gear, which is required? Done deal.

Now, the helmet is no big deal, just buy the best helmet you can find. It’ll cost you about $350 but is worth it.

The body armor is a bit trickier.

Body armor comes in a wide variety of styles. But the body armor actually consists of two separate parts, the vest itself and the bullet-stopping plates that are inserted into the vest.

Just about anybody in the world will sell you a vest; heck, you can find them on eBay, and you can get them for as cheap as $50.

It’s the plates that are not for civilians.

As far as the vest, I put it in the same category as the helmet. It is not an item I want to scrimp on. With a little research I discovered Eagle Industries manufactures the vest worn by Marines, so I bought mine for $638.

For what it’s worth, its technical name is Scalable Plate Carrier. They come in various styles and colors. You want either Coyote Brown, Sand or Khaki. You are, after all, going to be walking around in a desert, not a jungle.

But the Coyote Brown and the Sand colored vests are mostly back ordered, so you’ll probably end up with a khaki vest, and I must say my khaki vest looks more green than khaki.

One reason the Eagle vest is so expensive is that it is covered with loops used in the MOLLE system, which is a fancy name for a way of hanging all kinds of cool stuff on your vest while you wear it.

The other, more serious reason for the cost is the Eagle Scalable Plate Carrier has a quick release system that allows a medic to pull a cord which immediately causes your vest to come apart, allowing that medic to treat a wound before you bleed out.

And that I am definitely will to pay top dollar for.

The plates come in various strengths. Some will stop a .38 slug, but it is rather doubtful a Taliban fighter is going to be packing a Saturday Night Special.

More likely he will be packing an AK-47.

For that you want Level IV ceramic plates. One in front, one in the rear of your vest.

And they ain’t cheap either. I found a set for $200 each, which is actually a hell of a good price, because most vendors I found online wanted at least $400 each and some as much as $800 each.

COMING THURSDAY: You’ve got your helmet and you’ve got your body armor. Technically, that is all you are required to bring to embed as a reporter with the Marines in Afghanistan. But you’d look like the world’s biggest fool if you showed up in a T-Shirt, flip-flops and Bermuda shorts wearing body armor and a Kevlar helmet.

Dan Morrison and Cali Bagby are embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as multimedia journalists for KVAL News.

Morrison teaches photojournalism and multimedia reporting at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore.

Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.