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The Orange County Register June 15, 2006

Marines' families knocking heads with Corps brass for helmet pads

Marine families are following the lead of Bob Meaders, a former Navy doctor and the grandfather of Camp Pendleton Marine, who has launched a drive to add non-regulation pads to standard-issue helmets.

By Vik Jolly

John Maxie was riding in a Humvee in Iraq's Anbar province last week when two roadside bombs went off, searing him with blasts of intense heat and explosive force that felt like a 2-by-4 hit him on the head.

Maxie, 20, a Camp Pendleton-based Marine corporal, survived.

He and his parents believe they know what saved him from serious brain injury: a pad insert that he attached to his helmet before deployment in March.

"This pretty much validates the fact that the suspension kit is doing its job," said Maxie's father, Greg. "Our son was very lucky to be that close to a 'kill zone' of a blast and walk away with nothing but scratches and a hearing loss."

The Maxies are among many Marine families who are following the lead of Bob Meaders, a former Navy doctor and the grandfather of another Camp Pendleton Marine, who has launched a drive to add non-regulation pads to standard-issue helmets.

There's little scientific evidence on whether extra padding means better blast protection. But the Iraq war is yielding a higher percentage of brain injuries than any previous U.S. conflict, according to researchers. While some families take comfort in buying the pads themselves - and manufacturers are pushing the product in publications aimed at military audiences - the Marine Corps disputes the benefits.

Today, the issue gets its first airing on Capitol Hill when Meaders, expected to be joined by singer Cher, testifies before a congressional panel.

It's about time, says Meaders, who came out of retirement to launch Operation Helmet two years ago, aiming to get helmet liner kits sent to his grandson, Justin, and other Marines. To date, the group has shipped more than 8,000 helmet inserts to Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It just needs to be done to save lives," said Meaders in a telephone interview from Glen Rose, Texas, about 70 miles southwest of Dallas. "My dream of this would be at the end of the day for the military to say that it can be handled and you, Dr. Bob, can go back to playing golf again."

Cher's interest was sparked by a newspaper story. The panel also will hear from military officials, but that portion of the hearing is closed to the public.

The U.S. Army and the Marines once used similar helmets. Now, the Army has issued the Army Combat Helmet, costing $306 each and manufactured with the pads already incorporated for Iraq-bound soldiers.

The Marines are updating their helmets but without the pads.

The Marine Corps says its new headgear - the Light Weight Helmet, at $190 each - is effective and meets the demands of its fighters. It contends that a padded helmet lowers protection against bullets, a point that is disputed by pad manufacturers and families, who say the Corps does not provide evidence to support that claim.

"At this point in the fielding process of the LWH, any donation to 'Operation Helmet' is just going to interfere with the protection system being fielded to our deployed Marines," said Capt. Jeff Landis, a public affairs officer at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., in an e-mail response to the Register.

"Their consistent marketing campaign is creating doubt with some of our leadership who are not part of the development and acquisition process and not abreast of our latest helmet programs," Landis wrote. "The campaign is also reducing the confidence of the operating forces in the equipment being fielded to them - the equipment that is saving their lives and reducing the severity of their wounds."

If included in the process of manufacturing the helmet, the pad system would cost about $60, said Mike Dennis, founder, president and CEO of Oregon Aero, a Scappoose, Ore., company that sells the helmet liner kits.

"For significantly less than $100, we can add this lifesaving addition, but it's being fought at the highest levels," Dennis said.

The Marine Corps has not stopped anyone from retrofitting its older helmets but says the pad kits are not authorized or needed with its new helmets.

Still, some Marines find them useful.

"In my opinion, they offer more protection and are more comfortable," said Capt. Randy Walsh, commanding officer of the headquarters and support company of the 7th Marine Regiment, in an e-mail from Iraq forwarded by a public information officer at Camp Pendleton. Walsh got the pads last year.

Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., have found that about 30 percent of those admitted since the start of the fighting in Iraq were diagnosed with brain injury. Historically, the share of brain injuries in previous conflicts has been 16 percent to 18 percent.

Gale Strassberg's son Shane, 25, a Camp Pendleton-based Marine corporal, was deployed with John Maxie this year. It was his second tour in Iraq.

To date, her nonprofit group - Staten Island Project Homefront - has raised $35,000 and provided 291 pad inserts to Marines, 205 of them in her son's unit, AABN 3rd Track Charlie Company.

"I am not stopping fundraising until I get a cease and desist order," she said, adding that the Marine Corps should be ordering the pads. "Why are people like me and other people around the country doing this? You'd think we have an ATM in our back yard that we could just spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars here."

Strassberg, a Staten Island, N.Y., real estate broker, doesn't buy the Marine Corps' argument that its new helmet meets its specifications.

"I don't care what they say. Put (procurement officers) on the front lines and let them get hit by the IEDs and then ask what they say," she said, using the military acronym for improvised explosive devices, usually roadside bombs. "If the helmet insert saves one life, that's good enough. To me as a parent, my son is over there risking his life. I want to put my son in a rubber box."

Like the Maxies, Strassberg says she doesn't need more proof that the pads work.

Shannan Limon, formerly of San Clemente, sees the pads as a device that could help her Marine husband escape brain injuries in the war zone.

"The more I learned about it, I learned how important these kits are," said Shannan Limon, who went on a mission to raise $30,000 to retrofit about 300 helmets for those in her husband's company at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

Phillip Limon saw the pads as insurance. When Limon, a gunnery sergeant, went to Iraq for a second time last year, he took along the inserts, hoping they would blunt the impact of a bomb blast.

"The helmet stays on my head better," he said in an interview before deployment. "It fits like a football helmet, really nice and snug."

Harold Henson, a former Ohio State University fullback, knows something about helmets. He made sure his son Clayton has a helmet liner kit before he goes to Iraq next month. Clayton, 24, is a lance corporal based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Henson said he helped raise $20,000 for Operation Helmet.

The Marines "are saying we're interfering with what they do. How can I - a farmer - interfere with what the Marines do?" Henson asked.

LITTLE SCIENTIFIC BLAST DATA

The Marines say there have been no studies on the impact of blasts on head injury.

“There is currently no direct study linked to blast waves of IEDs with respect to head trauma and head injuries. There is no way of categorically analyzing any data in this subject area due to the varying degrees of IED lethality, size, percussion, blast distance, detonation, type, etc,” said Capt. Jeff Landis, a public affairs officer at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va., in e-mailed responses to questions. “The true fact is that this is an area that needs a lot more work to garner true effects and develop effective solutions.”

The manufacturer of the Marine’s new helmet, Gentex Corp. of Pennsylvania, which also makes Army helmets, said the Marines did not seek a padded helmet.

“If you take the Marine Corps helmet and put the pads in you get the best of both worlds,” said Richard Long, the company’s ground equipment product specialist. “And as far as (head) area coverage, Marine Corps (helmet) is better.”

He said as a field test, he had sent padded helmets to a handful of Marines, who responded they liked the comfort and fit.

Gentex did not do any independent blast testing on the helmets.

Because of concerns about the pads, the manufacturer is being asked to include a disclaimer about the liners with any new shipments of the Marine helmets.

“It will be done with any future orders, and the exact wording is not yet finalized,” said Long in an e-mail.

PADS MANUFACTURERS IN THE FRAY

Oregon Aero, based in Scappoose, Ore., says it has invested $7 million in research and development of its pad liner and suspension system since 1997.

That, officials say, is when their company was contacted by the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., to produce a better suspension system for an improved helmet under development for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, called the MICH helmet.

The Natick lab, as described by its Website, is “the Army’s one-stop soldier-support organization. Natick is responsible for researching, developing, fielding, and managing food, clothing, shelters, airdrop systems, and soldier support items.” Technical experts there could not be reached.

Oregon Aero developed its patented padding kit that was included in the MICH, which was one of the winners of the Army Material Command’s Greatest Inventions for 2002 award, company officials said.

The manufacturer of the new Army Combat Helmet – which evolved from the MICH – used 500,000 of Oregon Aero’s helmet pad kits and in a later run used a competitor’s pads, according to company officials.

Through continued research, Oregon Aero officials said they developed a similar suspension and padding system for the old and the new Marine Corps helmet. Inexplicably, they say, the Marines have shunned protection that would make the new helmet far better and safer for the troops.

“The old helmet has a high probability of serious injury in a bomb blast,” said Mike Dennis, founder, president and CEO of Oregon Aero. But with the inserts “in a survivable blast environment, there’s a low probability of head injury and that’s a significant change.”

Mike Buchen, CEO of Skydex Technologies Inc, in Centennial, Colo., a new entrant in the field of providing liners for helmets of all kinds, said Oregon Aero and his company are fighting the same fight.

“The battle is actually fighting the head injury in the concussion war,” he said. “The helmet pad is making these guys walk away, it’s (not) just about stopping the bullet anymore.”

Buchen said there is a grassroots belief among Marines that “the pads make a lot of sense.”

“And some of the pressure and grassroots movement on the Marines has been quite healthy,” he said. “They’re always looking for ways to protect the Marines and the helmet is no exception. If they can come to the same conclusion that the Army does, my experience with the Marines is that they work very quickly to correct the problem because there’s only 200,000 of them.”

A culture question

Scientific evidence is scarce, and some experts say there are too many unknown variables to measure which helmet protects troops better – the Army or the Marine version.

The Register attempted to reach Army technical experts who could speak to why the pads are used in Army helmets and how that decision was made but got no response.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said so long as the Marines’ new helmets met the Corps’ safety requirements, that’s what counts.

“They did not set their specification out of willful indifference to the welfare of their Marines,” he said. “The Marines have been running around wearing helmets for centuries now.”


Copyright 2006, The Orange County Register