FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. — Sgt. 1st Class Debra Tanacea was eager to begin her first deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After all, she had been wearing the Army uniform for 16 years and felt more than ready to accept the challenge of serving in a hostile environment. But after learning the requirements of one particular project that could only be described as formidable, she wasn’t sure it was a mission she could accomplish.

Not that it wasn’t a worthwhile objective: collecting personal protective equipment, or PPE, damaged by improvised explosive devices for forensic testing so that it could be improved. But it was the method that she would have to use, and the Soldiers and units she would have to retrieve the equipment from, that overwhelmed Tanacea.

“I was a member of the Field Assistance in Science and Technology team sponsored by the Research Development and Engineering Command, which is my major subordinate command,” explained Tanacea.

“The unit consists mostly of civilians who are engineers, computer scientists, analysts, and researchers. And to get the kind of items the laboratory needed for testing would obviously have to come directly from the combat arms units. I knew this would require nothing short of tremendous understanding and compassion because you’re talking about Soldiers whose PPE had become unserviceable after an enemy confrontation resulting in personal injury.”

Although serving her country was a desire Tanacea has harbored since her high school graduation, she opted to become a state employee instead. But as more years passed, the more she dreaded being in the same job with no options for advancement or travel.

At 32 years of age, however, joining the Army seemed an unreachable goal. “My husband, Mick, is a veteran and he encouraged me to fulfill my long-forgotten dream of serving in the military,” said Tanacea. “I was ecstatic when I found out it wasn’t too late.”

Choosing military intelligence because it offered upward mobility and the opportunity to live and work in other countries, Tanacea quickly immersed herself in her duties. Her MI experience gave her the opportunities to work in various countries such as Korea, Germany, Bosnia, and Saudi Arabia.

“The benefits weren’t bad either,” added Tanacea, who found herself enjoying job security as well as personal and professional awards.

And while wearing a uniform along with marriage and three children had presented countless challenges, Tanacea felt inundated at times with a mission dealing directly with life and death.

As a servicemember, she understood too well the importance Soldiers attach to personal field gear. It is literally an extension of themselves, as much a part of them as their skin. Their dependence on it for protection is exceeded only by religious faith for many.

“It’s also important to understand Soldiers know they are personally and financially accountable for all gear they are issued. Therefore, they look out for each other,” said Tanacea. “For example, if a Soldier is wounded and must be medically evacuated from an area, their battle buddies secure the wounded Soldier’s equipment and make sure it gets back to base camp where it is either held for the servicemember or destroyed. That decision is based on the gear’s condition and serviceability. All Soldiers live with their equipment 24/7.”

But requesting personal gear that had been damaged and soiled by IEDs and firefights from a unit’s wounded is a tall order. One that Tanacea knew would have to be handled delicately.

Relying on the experience she had gained as a Soldier, Tanacea visited several company commanders and first sergeants to explain the need to collect damaged PPE and how her doing so would increase survival rates for Soldiers assigned to hostile areas.

“As distasteful as it might have initially seemed, units we contacted came to understand our efforts were for their benefit and they became comfortable with turning over damaged equipment to us,” said Tanacea. “At times it could be devastating for the unit as well as for us, but they realized that their cooperation, for the sake of research and development, was to their benefit and they recognized the project’s value and worth for better future equipment.”

Tanacea’s persistent collection quest resulted in 20 PPE items of various types. Carefully boxed, they were then shipped for forensic analysis. Testing provided crucial information, such as how the pieces were damaged, which in turn led to adjustments in how PPE could provide better defense.

Tanacea has deployed three more times in four years since that first mission, which has given her the opportunity to witness firsthand significant improvements in PPE such as improved neck shields along with better shoulder and side protection in the body armor, as well as improvements to the new advanced combat helmet.

“I know that what I did was key to the scientists and engineers being able to make the redesigns and improvements to the PPE we have today,” said Tanacea proudly.

“As painful as it was at the time, I felt I had to do it. I got depressed and upset occasionally as it was very emotionally consuming, but I had to work through that because I knew this project would have a direct immediate impact on whether a Soldier lived or died,” she said

“And I’d do it again because I was helping the Soldiers out there who are risking their lives every day. I never knew I’d be so fortunate to have a mission that would make such a profound contribution to the Army.”

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