Two longtime employees of North Dakota defense contractor Sioux Manufacturing discovered that the required density of the Kevlar material woven into the netting of combat helmets was being shorted. After bringing their discovery to the attention of management, their boss, rather than cleaning up the illegal practice, accused them of having an adulterous affair. Both employees were fired, leading to a lawsuit and a court judgment in their favor that eventually brought the company’s bad-faith practices to light. Around the same time, a separate whistleblower, a retired Navy doctor, was pulled into a bizarre struggle with Army and Marine bureaucracies when he discovered from his Marine grandson that the protective webbing inside the military helmets was inadequate. Why was the military so resistant to upgrading the most essential piece of gear to protect soldiers from traumatic brain injury?
Interweaving these two whistleblower stories, Robert H. Bauman and Dina Rasor explain why the military, despite news coverage and congressional hearings on the faulty helmet, continued to do the indefensible. They also suggest how the public, the press, and military institutions can remedy the problem to give U.S. troops effective helmets when serving to protect their country.
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About the Author
Robert H. Bauman is a former investigator for the Naval Investigative Service and Defense Criminal Investigative Service. He co-founded the Bauman and Rasor Group with Dina Rasor. He is the coauthor with Rasor of Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War.
Dina Rasor is an investigator, journalist, and author. She founded the Project on Military Procurement (now called the Project on Government Oversight) to serve as a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog over military and related government spending. She has also worked with whistleblowers on fraud suits and authored a column on government solutions. She is the author of The Pentagon Underground and Pentagon Solutions: How to Actually Get Control of Defense Spending.
Read an Excerpt
I was serving in Iraq as a civilian bomb disposal contractor. On May 3rd, 2006 my convoy was hit by an IED. The bomb went off next to my truck injuring myself and one of my security team members and unfortunately killing our driver. I sustained injuries to my face requiring facial reconstruction, multiple shrapnel wounds, and tendon loss in my right arm. My doctors were extremely surprised that I had not sustained any brain damage. I was wearing a helmet outfitted with this [Oregon Aero pad] kit. I just wanted to write a quick note saying "thank you." On behalf of myself, my family, and my friends: Thank You!!! Please keep up the good work.
— Email to Dr. Robert Meaders, Operation Helmet
Justin Meaders knew from a young age that he wanted to spend his life in the military, and he aspired to be a marine. His role model was his grandfather, Dr. Robert Meaders, known to everyone as Doc Bob. He was a career Navy doctor. Justin started high school at one of the lowest-performing schools in Houston. He did poorly in that school environment, barely making passing grades. To pass all a student had to do was show up. Justin found there were more parole officers in the hallway than teachers. He wanted something more structured and with more discipline.
His grandfather suggested the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas. It was the only military academy (high school) he was familiar with, and it had a good reputation. The academy contributed many enlisted men to the Marine Corps, much like West Point and the Naval Academy produce officers for the Army and the Navy, respectively. Justin liked the discipline and the sense of order the school offered, so he enrolled. He did very well, and his grades dramatically improved. During his senior year, school officials told him he would make a wonderful marine, and they really wanted to have him in the corps. It was Justin's dream come true.
In August 2003 at age nineteen, Justin enlisted in the Marines. Boyish looking, soft-spoken, with a low-key demeanor, Justin did not seem to fit the persona of a tough marine who would delight in large and noisy demolitions. After attending infantry combat training at Camp Pendleton, California, he chose Combat Engineer School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He wanted to use his hands and knew that combat engineers have a wide variety of jobs other than simply running a machine gun. They conduct demolition missions and handle construction assignments such as building survivability positions and bridges. After completing the engineering school, he was assigned to the Seventh Engineer Support Battalion based at Camp Pendleton.
In June 2004, right after Justin was settled with his new unit, they were ordered to prepare for deployment to Iraq. "We started doing predeployment build-ups and did a Joint Task Force Six counter drug operation with the Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers along the border of Mexico," Justin recalled. "That's where I found out about foam pad upgrades for the PASGT helmet."
Justin's first experience with wearing the PASGT combat helmet occurred while he was in U. S. Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, California. "It was horrible, especially the leather band liner," he recalled. "It slipped around my head, was sweaty, and would stick to my head, especially if I had to paint my face up. Also, it would wobble around on my head and whenever I had NVGs [night vision goggles] mounted on the helmet, it would slip down on the front of my head because of the extra weight."
Under the broiling desert sun of summer along the border with Mexico, Justin and his unit were working hard during a counter drug operation. "We were building something, survivability positions, simple, rough things like that," he explained, "and I noticed an Army sergeant, first class, wearing a PASGT helmet that seemed to be secured to his head, while working, unlike everyone else's helmet." Curious, Justin approached the Army sergeant and asked him about his helmet and how it stayed on his head so well.
The sergeant, just back from Iraq, gathered the troops around and told them, "Look at my helmet. It's got an upgrade to it, and if you're smart you'll get one for yourself. It might save your life, like mine." The sergeant asked Justin, "Would you like to try it on?" "Sure," Justin replied. He put on the helmet, which, unlike his own PASGT, had impact-protecting pads and a four-point suspension system. It felt secure and very comfortable on his head, especially with the better four-point retention system instead of a single chinstrap. He was so impressed that he asked where the sergeant had found it. "I bought it online from a company called Oregon Aero," the sergeant revealed to Justin. Justin decided, right then, that he had to get a pad kit for his helmet before deploying to Iraq.
The initial appeal of the pads was solely for comfort and stability. At that time comfort was a priority for a new marine. Justin was not aware of TBI and the safety benefits of the pads. These young marines felt immortal and didn't talk about being injured or killed.
Shortly after his return to Camp Pendleton, Justin used a friend's computer to email Oregon Aero and inquire about ordering pad kits for his whole unit, hoping for a discount. After three or four tries, he didn't receive a response and couldn't figure out why. Undeterred but running out of time, Justin called his grandfather to discuss the pads and look into a way of contacting the company and ordering them at a fair price. The Oregon Aero BLSS (ballistic liner and suspension system) kit contained seven highly engineered foam pads as well as a four-point restraint system and nape pad, providing stability, along with blast and impact protection, just what the Marines needed.
A native Texan Dr. Robert Meaders has always been a man of action, one who went to great lengths and sacrifice to help those in need. A retired Navy flight surgeon who, among many distinguished assignments in an adventurous twenty-one-year career, had jumped from planes on search-and-rescue missions, picked up astronauts after splash down, run a provincial hospital in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam during the war there, and provided medical training in the Ethiopia highlands to Ethiopian doctors while overcoming intermittent assaults from local bandits. In Vietnam he witnessed firsthand the cost of war, having to conduct facial reconstructions for soldiers who had suffered significant facial and head injuries. He also treated brain injuries and witnessed their devastating effects.
Unfortunately his adventurous career with the Navy came with a physical cost. During a training exercise to rehearse rescue missions while stationed in Guam, Doc Bob made a parachute jump from an altitude of about five hundred feet when his parachute lines fouled, causing him to hit the ground at thirty miles an hour. He broke three vertebrae in his back and ended up with lifelong back problems. He was medically retired from the military in 1979 because his bad back made him wheelchair bound. Yet it was against his nature to settle for a life in a wheelchair.
Determined not to remain in a wheelchair, Doc Bob took a year off, immersed himself in intensive physical therapy, and slowly recovered the ability to walk. Not content with "retirement," he joined the International Eye Foundation in Bethesda, Maryland, and was sent to live and work with primitive tribes in Africa tending to their particular health problems. During a six-year period, his work took him to many parts of Africa while he acted as a consultant to the World Health Organization for its prevention of blindness program.
After Doc Bob returned from Africa, he entered private practice in Mesa, Arizona, as a retinal specialist. Still not ready to be constricted to a comfortable office, he flew his plane to the periphery of Indian reservations, where he helped institute a clinic to treat the local citizens in Casa Grande and especially the Yuma Indians, who were suffering a very high incidence of diabetic retinopathy. However, his practice of medicine finally came to an end in 1994, when he suffered a ruptured intestine, exacerbated by the many parasitic diseases he had contracted during his work in Africa.
Doc Bob now lives in Montgomery, Texas, in a gated community of landscaped homes surrounded by two private golf courses about fifty miles north of Houston. He remains nonetheless an unpretentious man, who likes to explain that he was born in 1934, "on the kitchen table of [his] house" in Glen Rose, Texas, a small town about sixty miles southwest of Dallas/Ft. Worth, "delivered by an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor who happened to be passing by."
With his grandson's request for helmet pads in hand, Doc Bob decided to thoroughly research the use of the padding before he bought them. "I spoke to Navy explosive research doctors I knew who were doing blast research and asked them what they knew about helmet pads. They told me they buy that stuff from Oregon Aero and stick it in their helmets to do blast studies," he recalled.
However, Doc Bob is not one to rely on one person's opinion. He wanted more verification. He contacted international companies specializing in blast protection research in France, Israel, Netherlands, and Canada, and they all confirmed the use of Oregon Aero foam pads for impact effect and testing. He found studies from a Canadian group conducting blast research and head protection on the internet. These studies were done in conjunction with a U.S. Navy panel set up to examine head injuries. Their general opinion was that shock waves did create a threat for brain injuries, and Oregon Aero was the only pad maker whose product was recommended to prevent or mitigate this type of injury.
Aris Makris, a scientist with the Ottawa, Canada, research group for Allen-Vanguard, Med-Eng Systems, specialized in blast protection and injury research. His research was primarily of use in mine removal efforts (called "demining") worldwide. He conducted a study revealing what he called the "scoop effect" of the PASGT helmet, which with only the sling (padless) suspension system, can enhance a blast wave impacting the head because of the "air gap" created by a standoff, the separation between the helmet shell and the head. This impact can lead to head concussive trauma. According to Makris, "foam pads can take care of this issue and will generally be a positive development in filling the air gap between the head and shell." However, Makris warned that "the foam, if too solid/stiff can serve to better transfer the [blast] wave into the head."
Searching the internet Doc Bob found a November 2000 article published by the U.S. Army's Natick Soldier's Center (Natick) claiming that a soldier could survive a shot to the head wearing the newly designed Modular Integrated Communications Helmet (MICH), used by Special Forces, and "get back into the fight" because of "the innovative seven-pad suspension system." Impressed with the possibilities of marines using helmet pads, he called George Schultheiss, the helmet manager at Natick. Schultheiss praised Oregon Aero pads, saying they were the best available pads and the Army was using them as the padded suspension system in its new Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH).
Schultheiss explained that at first only the Army's Special Forces Command used Oregon Aero pads, but the Army was now buying them by the hundreds of thousands to provide the ACH to its regular soldiers. However, Schultheiss pointed out that the Marine Corps had not approved a padded suspension system for its new LWHs, soon to be fielded to its troops. The LWH was being issued with the old leather headband suspension system, the same suspension system used as far back as World War II and more recently in the PASGT helmet. Schultheiss assured Doc Bob that the padded Oregon Aero BLSS system was a worthwhile buy for his grandson.
It didn't make any sense to Doc Bob that the Marine Corps would make the effort and spend the money to develop a new helmet and ignore the protective value of a padded suspension system for its troops. The PASGT helmet was engineered to protect against ballistics and provided only fair protection from blunt-force impact, blast forces, and fragment impacts from IEDs. It depended on an old 1935-era headband, or sling, suspension system to "float" the helmet over the head, maintaining helmet and head separation. And now, Doc Bob thought, the Marines were still going to use the old headband system in their new LWH and that would not protect their troops any better than the old PASGT against nonballistic or blast impact. He believed that a shock-absorbing pad suspension system would be far superior, as the Army's MICH had proved, in providing standoff protection from blunt-force impact and blast-wave overpressure and fragments.
Maybe the Marine Corps would supply Oregon Aero pads to Justin and his unit to retrofit their PASGTs, Doc Bob naively thought. He believed that the corps would embrace his request, as it would add a level of protection the helmet lacked. He contacted officials of the Marine Corps Combat Equipment Team in Quantico, Virginia, and asked them. Their answer angered him. They would not retrofit PASGT helmets with pads due to what they claimed were budget limitations. A Marine Corps official said, "BLSS kits are not authorized or needed in the new LWH. We have not prohibited the use of BLSS kits to retrofit old helmets but do not see the need to buy these kits as we are meeting our needs with the new helmet."
The Marine Corps is a parochial bureaucratic institution, so its response was not a surprise. Public bureaucracies, especially hardened military bureaucracies, operate within a set of predetermined rules, standards, policies, and decisions based on past experiences and the current politics within the bureaucracy. They rarely act contrary to their rules or policies, especially in response to what they consider an outside intrusion.
Almost thirty years earlier, the Marine Corps PASGT helmet bureaucracy had decided that its helmet would not include a padded suspension system. Its new LWH was likely based on the same material and same suspension system as the PASGT's. The design addressed weight and ballistic impact but apparently not comfort, stability, or nonballistic impact. On the other hand, the Army had based the design of its ACH on the MICH, which addressed nonballistic impact, comfort, and stability and included the padded suspension system. The Marine Corps's decision regarding what type of helmet marines would wear in combat was approved at the highest level of leadership and funded with taxpayer's dollars. However, standards were established and would not be changed by present-day reality or outside interference.
Doc Bob thought of writing his congressman but felt it would not solve the problem. Undeterred and driven by his desire to protect his grandson and his fellow marines, he decided to act directly. If he wanted Justin to have Oregon Aero pads, he was going to have to pay for it and send the pads directly to him. He also thought that the only fair thing to do was to buy the pads for any soldier or marine who requested them.
Completely convinced that Oregon Aero's product was first rate as protective equipment for his grandson's helmet, Doc Bob called the company. Buying them out of his own pocket at $118 per kit, Doc Bob ordered a dozen pad kits, the same pad kit used in the MICH by Special Forces, and sent them to Justin and enough for his rifle team. After wearing the helmets with the pads installed for a few days of training, an excited Justin called his grandfather. "Opa, these are wonderful," he said, "but we feel like we can't wear these unless we can get them for our whole company." Doc Bob swallowed hard and said, "Well, how many of those do we have to come up with?" "A hundred," Justin hesitantly replied.
Doc Bob funded the initial $11,000 for Justin's company, but he soon realized much more needed to be done. Determined to solve the helmet problem for other marines, in addition to Justin's company, he decided to raise money for the helmet pads and retention systems by walking the neighborhood and explaining to his neighbors how important the pad kits would be to the marines in combat. His neighbors gladly contributed money, and he was able to raise enough money to buy not only the kits that Justin and the rest of his company needed before they deployed to Iraq but also enough to ensure a steady stream of them should it become necessary.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shattered Minds"
Copyright © 2019 Robert H. Bauman and Dina Rasor.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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