The Pentagon is pushing back hard against allegations soldiers' lives have been lost in Iraq because they were not issued adequate body armor.
"There is nothing more important to the Marine Corps than protecting Marines," Maj. Gen. William Cato told reporters after a closed briefing on the issue for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Pentagon has been under heavy political fire in the wake of recent reports concerning a secret study that found that up to 80 percent of Marines who died in Iraq from upper body wounds could have survived if they had body armor to protect their sides and shoulders. The study prompted outrage from Democrats on Capitol Hill, including from Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who attributed the problem to the Bush administration's "incompetence."
"To say incompetence I think is probably not accurate," Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson told ABC News. "However, we have continued to evolve and the evolving of that is an effort that takes an enormous amount of testing, engineering, design to make sure that the soldiers can get what they need."
Sorenson said the Army is constantly improving the body armor for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says all of its troops in Iraq have already been issued new shoulder protection. The Army is now placing orders for side armor and says every soldier in Iraq will have it by the end of the year, and many will have it much sooner than that.
The Marines -- who have a much smaller force in Iraq than the Army -- have been able to move more quickly, already equipping 9,200 of their troops with new side armor protection. By the end of April, every Marine will have new side armor.
But whether individual Marines and soldiers actually want to use the new armor is another question. Marine Sgt. Jared McNerney came to Capitol Hill to demonstrate the new armor but did not wear the shoulder protection. Asked why, he explained the added is armor hot, heavy and makes it hard to move.
"I'm in the infantry," McNerney said. "Most of the time I'm climbing over walls, jumping through windows, kicking down doors, I need the most mobility with most protection I can get which was the setup I had right here. If I put those [shoulder protectors] on, I can barely extend my arms over my head. I can't climb a six-foot wall, hop over it, hop a fence, jump through a three-foot window. There's a lot of stuff I have to do with my arms, that's the reason I choose not to wear my shoulder pads."