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Body armor is flying off US shelves as Americans rush to donate supplies to Ukraine and equip volunteer fighters and journalists

Jamie Roth   

Body armor is flying off US shelves as Americans rush to donate supplies to Ukraine and equip volunteer fighters and journalists
  • Body armor retailers from New York to Maine to Iowa say demand is through the roof.
  • Ukrainian institutions, volunteer fighters, and journalists rushed to buy body armor since Russia's Feb 24 attack on Ukraine.

Andrew Bennett is a union carpenter from Bayonne, New Jersey, who's taking time off to join the fight in Ukraine. Bennett, 45, has never served in the military or in law enforcement, and he has no direct ties to Ukraine, but says he was inspired by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's retort to western leaders: "I don't need a ride. I need ammunition."

In his suitcase: tourniquets, suture and hemostat kits, which he'll donate to the war effort, and two plates of body armor, which he'll wear himself.

Before his flight, Bennett tried on the plates, sliding them into the front and back pockets of an adjustable vest. The rig, designed to fend off large caliber bullets from high-powered military assault rifles, weighed about ten pounds and cost him a little over $800. More than that, the purchase made him realize the enormity of what potentially lay ahead. "This is life and death," he said. "It was a step closer to the reality of what I haven't been allowing myself to confront."

Bennett bought his plates from 221B Tactical, which has a stockroom in a midtown Manhattan highrise, a few blocks east of Penn Station, that's stacked floor to ceiling with ballistic gear.

The retailer's co-owner, Brad Pedell, says the demand spiked within days of the first military strikes on Feb 24. "Big time," he told Insider, adding "it's increased lead time. You're having to wait."

Just a few weeks ago, Pedell said orders for ballistic helmets might take three to four days to arrive. Now, the wait can be two to four weeks because manufacturers are swamped . One of Pedell's sources told him he'd sold out of helmets and couldn't offer them anymore. Pedell was shocked. "That wasn't a thought a month ago," he said.

To fill the gaps in his inventory, Pedell has had to find new manufacturers. "In the last month, it's changed my daily routine," he said. He's tapping old relationships and making new ones, all across the country. "You have to be well-connected."

Body armor retailers from New York to Maine to Iowa are saying the same thing: demand is through the roof and they're racing to keep up. Manufacturers are even adding workers and, in some cases, machinery.

"It's just a matter of pumping it out," said Rob Hausman, CEO of Legacy Safety and Security in Davenport, Iowa, a company that manufactures, assembles and sells defensive gear. His sales are up "about 500 percent in the past month," and Hausman says he's tripled his staff to meet demand.

For other retailers, supply chains already strained by the pandemic have become more so. "It's put a lot of stress on the market with raw material," said Eric Stanton, owner of Armor Empire in Saco, Maine.

Stanton sells armor and his business is connected to a global company that manufactures protective gear and textiles. "There's limited supply and costs have gone up due to the shortages," he said.

'Everyone is trying to get it'

Those looking for body armor⁠—a group that includes Ukrainian institutions in the US, volunteer fighters, journalists, and humanitarian workers⁠—are increasingly stressed by the wait times

31-year old Bogdan Oleksyshyn of New Jersey is originally from Ternopil, a small city in western Ukraine. He bought protective gear to send to family and friends back home. "They need the equipment to not be basically naked on the battlefield," he said.

Oleksyshyn, a software engineer, had no experience shopping for body armor. "Out of my context," he said. But he threw himself into the work and spent $35,000 dollars of his own money on 40 armor plates, 20 vests, and 20 helmets. He found the gear at the start of the conflict, but he's had to search harder and wider in recent days. "Everyone is looking and everything is out of stock," Oleksyshyn said.

He can't bring himself to contemplate what will happen if retailers fail to replenish supplies. "I think we're not asking this question," he said. "It's not an option. It's basically human life."

Pedell says customers like Oleksyshyn will be left scrambling for the foreseeable future. "Shortage?" he said, thinking about how to characterize the availability of body armor. "Not yet, but soon."

Oleksyshyn is pooling money to finance another shipment, and while armor delays are an issue, so is exporting. Oleksyshyn can't send the body armor directly to Ukraine because he doesn't have an export license. Instead, he donates the armor to the Ukrainian American Coordinating Council, based in San Francisco, which got an export license from the U.S. Department of Commerce as soon as the bombing began. The 60-year old organization traditionally concerns itself largely with cultural affairs, but now has an armor donation button right on its home page.

UACC Secretary, 29-year old Mick Safron, says getting and shipping the armor hasn't been an easy process. "Prices have started to grow. Everyone [is] trying to get it," he explained. UACC doesn't purchase the gear outright, it solicits in-kind donations and sends those to Poland and then on to Ukraine. "We've been able to move more than 3,000 plates and more than 1,500 helmets," he said. Donations have come from "police departments, security companies, and regular people who want to help."

There are two main types of armor plates: a heavy version made of steel and a more popular, lighter variation composed of layers of dense, tightly compressed ceramic and high-strength plastic.

Before the war, retailers like Pedell, Hausman, and Stanton saw demand for protective gear spike after the police-killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed. Pedell has found that buying picks up "during these times when people anticipate volatility." During quieter periods, his typical customers are people who work in security and law enforcement and those considered "preppers," patrons who anticipate disaster and stock up on gear in preparation. Now, he's selling to people heading for the front lines.

Pedell spent most of his career in the fashion industry. After a police officer he knew suggested he design a mesh vest to make the ballistics plate more comfortable on a hot day, they decided to open a tactical gear business together.

On a recent morning, Pedell's phone rang. A Canadian Army veteran was calling from Prince Edward Island. He was readying to join the fight in Ukraine and wondered if Pedell could sell him body armor plates. "Beautiful country and people," he told Pedell. "What's going on just isn't right."

"Good for you," Pedell said. "When are you leaving?"


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