Part I: Ringing Ears Hear No Evil: Marine SYSCOM’s Lightweight Approach to Head Injury

By Michael S. Woodson

Marine Corps Systems Commanding General William J. Catto could have supported Capt. Bob Meaders, MD, USN (Ret.), Operation Helmet founder, and told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces how Dr. Meaders’ helmet safety upgrade was but one illustration of the crucial need for Congress to boost funding for the strapped Marine Corps.

Instead, Maj. General Catto stated that the Marine Corps had the best head protection available for its Marines in the Lightweight Helmet (LWH), and had received no proof to the contrary. Gen. Catto emphasized the superior ballistics protection and coverage of the LWH while maintaining a no-evidence stance on improved protection against brain injury for LWH fitted with a pad suspension system manufactured by Oregon Aero.

Unlike the padded MICH helmet fielded for Special Operations forces or the Army’s padded Advanced Combat Helmet, the LWH has no shock absorbing padding as issued to Marines. It relies on what officials call a “stand-off” between the helmet shell and head which is believed to have a sufficient impact protection effect.

Cher, the singer and entertainer sat silently in support of Dr. Meaders at the June 15th hearing, having donated funds and her celebrity to highlight Operation Helmet’s mission. Her assistance might have undone some of the damage that one of Gen. Catto’s subordinates inflicted on Operation Helmet back in March 2006.

“You are not a shipmate ...” wrote Marine Corps Colonel Shawn Reinwald to the retired Navy doctor in a March 17, 2006 email. In that message, he accused the non-profit of “abetting war profiteers” for advocating that the USMC employ shock absorbing pad upgrades in the LWH issued to combat-deploying Marines.

Days earlier, on March 14, 2006, Col. Reinwald had emailed Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel, who had been considering dedicating proceeds from a month of football games to Operation Helmet at the prompting of Champ Henson, a concerned Marine parent. Col. Reinwald wrote to Tressel, “Operation Helmet is part of an aggressive and persistent marketing campaign associated with the company Oregon Aero geared towards boosting the sale of Oregon Aero's Ballistic Liner and Suspension System, or BLSS kit.”

In that email also, Col. Reinwald again accused Operation Helmet of “war profiteering” and said that the BLSS system “doesn’t work.” Tressel cancelled plans to donate game proceeds to Operation Helmet.

Operation Helmet’s mission statement, disclosures and supporting data are navigable at its website, here, for anyone to test the representations of Col. Reinwald versus the data and presentations of Dr. Bob Meaders. Dr. Meaders testified under oath at the Subcommittee hearing that neither he or Operation Helmet receive financial inducements of any kind to prefer any helmet upgrade manufacturer as a source for helmet upgrade kits.

In a January 2, 2006 letter to Capt. G.R. Cox, Acting Medical Officer of the Marine Corps, Dr. Meaders asserted that US Army Natick Soldier Center tests demonstrated that the ballistic protection of helmets actually increased with the BLSS, due to the pads' layered slow-crush and rapid-crush system acting as a ballistic shock absorber.

Dr. Meaders’ wrote that Natick’s finding contradicted an assertion made in a paper written by USMC civilian Infantry Combat Equipment Program Manager Daniel M. Fitzgerald, that to determine the effect of the pad suspension system on the anti-ballistics of the LWH would require side-by-side ballistics testing of the LWH with and without the BLSS.

However, one important OIF and OEF fact glossed over by Fitzgerald’s paper: casualties also occur from repetitive blast wave pressures acting as concussive forces, not just from crashes and falls. By emphasizing the latter, Col. Reinwald had previously minimized analogies to motorcycle or football helmet impacts, perhaps misdirecting the good Coach Tressel from the predominant insurgent weapon: the G-force-rich IED. Fitzgerald’s paper also minimizes and fails to analyze the non-ballistic collisions of OIF and OEF.

What collisions? He mentions helmeted heads hitting vehicle interiors. He neglects to consider flying gear, rifles, rocks, heated air, walls, wood, cargo, and other items becoming projectiles or fixed anvils transferring energy into the troops’ heads during blasts, crashes and running combat. Not only this, but casualties occur due to troops working on rooftops, doing war zone reconstruction, and jumping out of the way of danger. All these events involve potential injury due to concussive forces

Also, when IEDs explode, or ambushes commence, US troops have been trained to drive at high speeds using extreme, evasive tactical maneuvering to avoid death by RPG, ambush fire, or successive IED detonations. Then they turn to pursuit. High speed driving is one the most dangerous aspects of civilian police work, and it is no different for soldiers acting as occupying police. It is a collision-ripe environment, even when the impacts are at lower velocities and no projectiles penetrate the body.

Fitzgerald’s paper admitted the BLSS’s superior non-ballistic impact protection bringing G-forces down to 79 with the BLSS equipped MICH helmet, versus 157 G’s with the LWH (minus any padded system).

US troops at any given time may also be engaged in construction, raiding unsafe buildings, or subject to indoor booby traps. By analogy, civilian construction and mining work are among the most dangerous counterparts to what ground troops do in an occupied land. The hybrid military and civil affairs missions in Iraq put warriors in situations where combat and non-combat roles expose troops to the combined dangers of both work and warfare.

Fitzgerald is under Col. Reinwald’s command, who in turn answers to Maj. Gen. Catto. It’s deeply troubling that Fitzgerald’s April 14, 2006 compilation and analysis of the BLSS-equipped LWH and current LWH came a month after his boss, Col. Reinwald wrote the excoriating emails to Dr. Meaders and Coach Tressel. This fact infuses Fitzgerald’s paper with a potent cocktail of apparent bias, spiked with his boss’s blatant prejudice.

Fitzgerald’s paper cited speculation by three individuals that the BLSS could decrease the ballistic protection provided by the LWH due to the pads filling some of the stand-off space between the head and helmet shell. The paper was decidedly anti-BLSS and pro-LWH (which uses the sling suspension system only), cited informal surveys of Marines “participating” in Iraqi Freedom that criticized the alleged moisture and/or sand retention by the BLSS pads. (It is unclear if all the Marines in this initial evaluation were actually in theatre.)

One would have to ask, after seeing Reinwald’s emails, which Marines were surveyed about the BLSS system? What was their relationship to the Systems Command structure? And of course, the questions raised by MARSYSCOM officials, if valid, will be confirmed in subsequent testing and feedback. However, Operation Helmet claims to have positive feedback from combat troops in Iraq using the BLSS installed and maintained by the wearer per the instructions enclosed.

Dr. Meaders addressed Fitzgerald’s moisture claim in his letter to Capt. Cox: “The pads, coated with a semi-permeable membrane (think fish gills) demonstrated the ability to repel water, remain air-filled, and wick perspiration away from the wearer’s head with Cool-Max coating.” Meaders told DefenseWatch that routine cleaning of gear is presumed.

And Mark Meaders told DefenseWatch that during initial testing and evaluation of the BLSS, it was unclear whether the Marines using the BLSS were given instructions on how to properly employ them.

The stakes in this debate are high for Marines in combat. Their special operations counterparts have had the benefit of the padded MICH helmet profiled on the Operation Helmet website and tested favorably by the Services for both ballistic and non-ballistic impact protection.

According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns have produced higher rates of traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients than previous conflicts. Common sense recognizes that G-forces from IED blasts, close support munitions, crashes, and sequential collisions in Iraq and Afghanistan will injure troops’ brains without padded protection at a higher rate than those suffered by troops with the additional padded protection.

In his email to Coach Tressel, Col. Reinwald signed-off as “Director of Product Group 16” (PG16). Online, here is PG16’s Mission Statement: “PG16 develops, acquires, integrates, and manages the life cycle of combat equipment and support systems that maximize individual mobility, survivability, and sustainability necessary to accomplish the unit mission.”

The word “maximize” means “to increase to a maximum,” or “make the most of,” and Col. Reinwald’s duty as Director appears to be to maximize the “survivability” and “sustainability” of the individual Marine “to accomplish the unit mission” including “support systems,” such as protective attributes of their helmets.

Maj. Gen. Catto echoed this when in his opening statement to the House Subcommittee when he said that the Marine Corps Systems Command he leads does not stop at fielding the best force protection equipment, but monitors its effectiveness and implements ongoing improvements.

However, even as Maj. Gen. Catto says that the LWH is the best head protection the Marine Corps can give its Marines, the Corps has also commissioned the research and development of the Marine advanced combat head-borne system (MACHS), presumably because of a perceived need for improvement.

If this is true, why would Maj. Gen. Catto or Col. Reinwald surmise that no needed improvement is known to them? Why would they ignore the interim need for effective stopgap padding in the LWH to shield marines today? Are they afraid that effective measures with the current helmets might threaten an anticipated contract for a futuristic MACHS in a budget-thin Marine Corps? Finally, would the MACHS be padded?

Until such a helmet “system” is funded, Col. Reinwald’s blocking of Operation Helmet’s fundraising progress through his email to Tressel seems to run counter to his duty to Marines expressed by the mission statement guiding his billet. The question: why isn’t a rapid, interim shock protection fix for Marines part of the duty Col. Reinwald and Maj. Gen. Catto owe the Marines in combat now?

This DVBIC fact sheet discusses the range of TBI affecting the troops:

A blow or jolt to the head can result in a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which can disrupt the normal function of the brain. The severity of the injury may range from mild, a brief change in mental status or consciousness, to severe, an extended period of unconsciousness, prolonged amnesia after the injury, or a penetrating skull injury.

In light of the tragic events alleged about US Marines losing control and intentionally killing Iraqi civilians, including women and children, the effects of traumatic brain injuries on troop morale and behavior may become more important if the DVBIC is correct that:

The most common mood changes that people with brain injury experience are increased irritability, sad mood, lack of motivation and increased anxiety.

Now let such a person, who is used to being capable and in control, lose a comrade in an IED blast that permeates the unit with a pressure wave while wearing their LWHs. Then, give them weapons and put them back on the Iraqi street. What happens? A comparable situation involves NFL rules about “bell ringing” helmet clashes, and sitting out of the game for recovery before returning. There is no such rule for infantry at present, is there?

Is this new information for the Armed Services? Apparently not. Helmet shock-absorption issues hit military presses as early as November 2003 when the Army News Service reported on Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom casualties studied by DVBIC: “Among 105 casualties assessed between June and October, doctors discovered about two-thirds, or 67 percent, to have brain injuries, according to Dr. Laurie Ryan.”

Where were Maj. Gen. Catto and Col. Reinwald three years ago when the US Army began acting on DVBIC information about head injuries and planning padding for the ACH? It all comes down to the shock of G-forces transferring through the material world of the US marine or soldier, and secondarily into their skulls and brains through their helmets. It is an evil effect on the brain, but it seems that Maj. Gen. Catto and Col. Reinwald have not wanted to hear about it.

Asked what could explain the animosity evident in Col. Reinwald’s March emails, Mark Meaders said he could not understand it, especially since Dr. Meaders’ own grandson served in Fallujah, and his unit of Marines had requested helmet upgrade kits from Operation Helmet. Could that be why Col. Reinwald was so upset? A group of volunteers was showing him up?

Consider the content of Col. Reinwald’s letter to Coach Tressel when he describes the manufacture of the LWH: “The helmets are being fielded at a rate of 5000 per month and are manufactured by the leader in the industry, Gentex Corporation.” If Reinwald’s statements were accurate, the Marine Corps has a heavy commitment and budget investment in sending unpadded LW Helmets to its operational forces. Any changes would have highlighted the questionable decision to field helmets without anti-shock padding.

Col. Reinwald argued to Coach Tressel that the BLSS system did not work in the LWH, and that it “interfered” with the fielding and wearing of the LWH by Marines. However, would it not be just as accurate to say that professional fitting of helmet upgrade pads, by Gentex for example, if ordered by Maj. Gen. Catto, would have obviated any need for secondary shipping, and installation by individual Marines?

Operation Helmet told DefenseWatch that it has received no complaints about difficulty in wearing or fielding LWHs because of the upgrades they send out. Instead, the organization has received positive feedback from those among over two thousand Marines and Soldiers who have put the donor-funded padding kits to use. Mark Meaders said he handled one complaint, and it was because the wearer was fitted with a too-small helmet.

Col. Reinwald’s email to Coach Tressel also used terms one might expect to see on a company brochure: “Gentex is the world's largest supplier of aircrew and tank crew helmets and supplies its customers a variety of engineered fabrics from aluminized textiles to exotic composites for ballistic protection.” Did he compose that? Why not cut and paste the quote into Google? Here are the two sites that came up.

Assuming that Gentex profits from those contracts, how did the company escape Reinwald’s war-profiteering label itself? Or, why didn’t Mr. Fitzgerald quote the Operation Helmet website describing itself rather than characterizing it as an agent of Oregon Aero? Is it because the Product 16 Group is projecting its own expectations? Using misdirection, Reinwald’s summary of the LWH to Coach Tressel avoided the low-velocity impact protection issues raised by Dr. Meaders (and the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center) in favor of focusing on the ballistic protection aspect of helmets.

And yet, according to Dr. Meaders, there was never a question about the anti-ballistic quality of the LWH at Operation Helmet. The issue was whether a good helmet could be a great helmet, protecting the wearer from a wider range of casualty dangers beyond bullets into blast waves and secondary head-banging.

Most likely, those at MARCORSYSCOM do not face these dangers enough to empathize.

The extra taxpayer expenses required to deal with preventable brain injuries is a budget reality that can be estimated, but the moral cost to the Marine Corps of leaders willfully ignoring a better protective measure is incalculable.

(Coming Up, Part II: Analyses of Helmet Improvement Problems)

Michael S. Woodson, a Colorado writer and lawyer, is a Defense Watch Contributing Editor who specializes on domestic and international public affairs issues.