Fort Leavenworth Soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division learned quickly in Iraq that their body armor provided lifesaving protection if they were shot from the front or rear. But they were vulnerable from the side to roadside bombs used to attack convoys.
Then a surgeon in the 82nd got the idea of putting a layer of flexible Kevlar armor on the side of the body armor and another piece to cover a soldier's shoulder. He took the idea to a team of parachute riggers, who made 40 sets in two days.
The armor saved the life of a soldier who was hit in the side by shrapnel from a bomb, and the soldiers who tested the new body armor liked it so much they refused to return it. The division immediately ordered 6,000 sets from a company in the United States.
This and other hard lessons that soldiers learn in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are quickly spread Armywide by a Fort Leavenworth organization, the Center for Army Lessons Learned.
The heart of the operation is a sophisticated Web site, call.army.mil, most of which is restricted to military personnel and others with a "need to know," wherever they may be in the world.
"It gets more than three million hits a year," said Col. Larry Saul, who has headed the center for about 10 months after commanding the 10th Mountain Division's artillery brigade.
CALL, founded in 1984, has a staff of about 120, ranging from military historians at its Fort Leavenworth office to soldiers embedded with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The center's focus is on enemy tactics, techniques and procedures that soldiers encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're seeing a smart, adaptive enemy that is trying to exploit technology and the lessons he's learned," Saul said. "We've got to be faster and smarter."
When troops in Iraq report a new enemy tactic, for example, that information is immediately made available to other units in Iraq and, through CALL, to units that may be preparing to deploy overseas or that are training at one of the combat training centers at Fort Polk, La.; Fort Irwin, Calif.; or Hohenfels, Germany.
"A year ago the enemy was using remote-control model toys and electronic garage-door openers to detonate improvised explosive devices," said Saul, who otherwise declined to discuss specifics. "We learned they were doing that and developed measures to defeat it."
The center also helps identify commercial products that can be fielded quickly to replace more cumbersome or less effective military gear or to perform a function that wasn't previously identified.
"In Afghanistan, soldiers operate at high altitude and carry heavy loads," Saul said. "Soldiers today carry about the same weight as soldiers of Caesar's time, one-third of their body weight or more." Tenth Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan quickly identified a commercial product to help them carry heavy loads -- the John Deere Gator, a six-wheel utility vehicle similar to the all-terrain vehicles popular with hunters, ranchers and others.
Its military version, painted Army green, carries loads of 1,000 pounds or more over all types of terrain at speeds up to 17 mph. It can be delivered by the Army's twin-rotor Chinook helicopters or by sling under a Black Hawk helicopter and allows soldiers to carry more supplies and equipment after being dropped off in the mountains.
"This is part of the rapid fielding initiative, designed to get products from industry into use quickly," Saul said. Other examples include CamelBak water pouches to replace Army canteens; commercial boots; and hand-held GPS devices.
"Going to war today is much more sophisticated than when we went to Vietnam 35 years ago," said Saul. "I got basically a week's worth of training at Fort Lewis, Wash. I was a sergeant with two years in the Army. I qualified with an M-16 and was shown how to react to an ambush, and that was about it."