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Last year, Les Brownlee, the Army’s top guy and one of my very fine captains way back when, stated that all troops in Iraq would have the latest individual body armor (IBA) by Christmas. Three months after this declaration to Congress, there were still soldiers in Iraq without the lifesaving vests – some of whom might have suffered death or wounds as a result.

How could Secretary Brownlee make such a bad call?

Easy.

For starters, the Pentagon’s top brass always focus on big-ticket toys like the irrelevant F-22 fighter, the crash-and-burn Osprey helicopter, the redundant Joint Strike Fighter and the dubious Stryker combat vehicle.

These 18-karat klinkers might be ideal weapons to fight a now-extinct Soviet bear, but they aren’t worth a bucket of spit in our present long-term struggle against terrorism.

The price tag for just these four wonder weapons runs about half a trillion dollars – great for war racketeers, political slush funds and other pork, and the general officers’ big-buck, military-industrial-congressional-complex-sponsored post-military careers, but not so good for the GI Joes and Jills operating in the killing zones without the right stuff.

The other reason for the vest shortfall is standard senior brass stupidity. Two years before our troops waded into Iraq, those who planned the campaign and their top logisticians set the IBA production rate at a number based on vests for the “dismounted fighting soldier” and “combat vehicle crewman” – a mere 1,600 units per month. By jump-off time, the production requirement shot up to 19,000 sets per month – too little, too late – to provide all divisional- and separate regimental-level combat units with IBA.

The flawed conventional-war thinking must have been that the Pentagon’s $400 billion-a-year “shock ‘n’ awe” machine would so flatten Saddam’s $1 billion-a-year ragtag army that the guerrilla war predicted by many military analysts wouldn’t happen. Because the tens of thousands of supporters providing the beans, bullets, medicine and maintenance wouldn’t be in harm’s way under this scenario, they wouldn’t need the new 16-pound vest that protects against fragmentation splinters and up to a .30-caliber armor-piecing rifle round.

The Army’s leadership owes a one-on-one apology to the families of the dead and the hundreds of support and service troops awarded Purple Hearts as a result of this criminal negligence. Not to mention the reimbursement that should be offered to everyone who purchased a vest for a serving loved one.

Last week, Maj. Gary Tallman, the Pentagon’s point man on IBA, told me, “The Army has allocated $420 million and assigned top priority to ensuring that every soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq or who will be heading that way has one of the new vests.”

The good news is that Tallman appears to be telling the truth. A platoon of sources in Iraq confirms this isn’t another Pentagon fairy tale – it’s happening. Soldiers from newly deployed units say they were issued the $1,500 vest before leaving the USA or in Kuwait just prior to heading for the badlands of Iraq.

Seven production lines, from Costa Mesa, Calif., to Pittsfield, Mass., are busy churning out 25,000 IBA sets – the vest and accompanying ballistic plates – per month. A year after the war started, production is finally meeting demand. Talk about ready, fire, aim on the part of the planners.

My guess is that the Pentagon brass pushed the pedal to the metal on IBA production because Congress, moms, pops and the media have been on their tails since this shameful shortfall came to light.

But many soldiers say that there’s now a musical-vests shell game in play. For example, when the 21st Infantry out of Hawaii replaced the Europe-based 173rd Airborne, the battle-seasoned paratroopers were ordered to give the newbies their body armor. An Airborne sergeant said: “Once we get back to Italy, we’ll again become the NATO fire brigade. What happens if we jump into a fight somewhere around the world and we don’t have our vests?”

Tallman says such elite ready-force units that stay on airstrip alert at places like Fort Bragg, N.C., and Vicenza, Italy, are the next priority and will be properly outfitted before moving out.

Let’s hope so. For sure I’ll be watching with my whistle at high port.

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