My Bulletproof Vest and the Illusion of Perfect Protection


Everything arrives in one large package. I tear off the tape and peel open the panels of the box to reveal four plastic bags. In one bag is the PRESS patch, in another the ceramic rifle plates, in another a matte-black tactical helmet, and, in the last, my new bulletproof vest. I hold it up and immediately feel disappointed.

Clips and straps hang from the side, making the vest bulky—like something a Navy SEAL might wear. I thought I had ordered something concealable. I wanted something I could wear under clothing without anyone knowing; I would look confident, experienced. I pull open the velcro pouches in the front and back of the vest, slide the ceramic plates into them, making the vest nearly twice as effective, and pull the rig over my head. I buckle the clasps, cinch tight the rib bands.

I walk into the bathroom and stop at the mirror. I see that the vest fits. I also see fear in my eyes. I am heading overseas to a war zone on a reporting trip. Elettra, my girlfriend at the time (this was back in 2017, we got married in 2018) understands the trip is important, but she’s worried about my safety. I put the vest and helmet into a closet. I don’t want her to see them. I show her no fear.

Kenneth R. Rosen is the author of Bulletproof Vest, coming on April 16 from Bloomsbury. Buy on Amazon. A portion of the book’s proceeds will be donated to RISC, a nonprofit that provides emergency medical training to freelance conflict journalists.
Courtesy of Bloomsbury Academic

I call Nick, the overexcited and reassuring representative at who sold me the gear, to ask him why this thing is so bulky. Did they send the wrong one? He calls my helmet and vest my PPE—“You didn’t order that PPE?” I didn’t like the phrase personal protective equipment. It calls to mind hard hats and latex surgical gloves—material to guard against inanimate objects and near-invisible pathogens. My gear was to protect me from other humans, ones with guns, so I continue calling it my bulletproof gear.

Nick checks the order. Actually, he says, there is something that might have gotten messed up on his end. Do I want a replacement? I tell him I don’t have time. My trip to Iraq is in a few days. He says he is sorry. He wishes me good luck. “And don’t forget,” Nick says. “Nothing’s bulletproof. The thing’s only bullet resistant.” This does nothing to abate my anxiety.

I play down the anxiety to Elettra later, when she asks if I’m all packed. In her previous life as an aid worker, she traveled to conflict zones. She asks if I really need the custom gas mask with prescription lenses. I tell her yes, better safe than sorry, even if I look ridiculous carrying it around with me when no one else is. I could always be safer. I could put distance between myself and the bullets. I could stay away from the places in this world that require vaccinations for exotic diseases. I could choose not to go. I could stay home.

We go over my emergency contact plan, and I give her the passcode to view my personal GPS tracking device.

“Also, have you seen my Chapstick?” I ask.

“No, sorry.”

“Can I have yours?”

“Don’t touch mine.”

“But, my lips are …”

“You had your own and you misplaced it. I’ll get you another before you leave.” She wheels away, then stops. “And I love you.”

When I land in northern Iraq, I keep the vest close to me, but I barely use it. I also have a new Chapstick. It will inevitably be lost before I finish reporting on the final days of the Islamic State, but it becomes something of a talisman for me.

When I return home to Brooklyn, the cab pulls away and I look up at our second-floor apartment window, excited to see Elettra after what has felt like an eternity. She is frying peanut butter pancakes, my favorite, when I step through the door. It’s coming home I enjoy most, that first embrace after hours or days apart. In those moments, unprotected by any gear, I was bulletproof.

Now, nearly four years later, we are stuck at home together in a house in Massachusetts: my father, Elettra, and our infant son. The coronavirus pandemic stretches its viral spike peplomers across the world and keeps us, like almost everyone else, inside. We take temperatures and startle at every cough. We hear each other through the walls, the slightest of sounds. Nothing is private. The walls are flimsy, and yet they protect against the outside world and its sudden, invisible threats. I see my loved ones in high definition, as for the very first time.


The things I carried overseas: pills to fight bacterial infections, pills to contain diarrhea, pills to combat nerve agents. Chapstick, naturally. I also carried sweatpants and peanut butter Cliff bars, things of comfort and security. And my bullet-resistant vest.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired