Marines can choose extra helmet padding
By John Hoellwarth
Marine Corps Times Staff writer

Think your helmet needs more padding? By the end of this month, each Marine will have the option of choosing pads over the existing sling suspension system in his helmet, according to Marine Corps System Command officials.

The new choice comes as the Pentagon studies which system offers better protection against blunt-force and blast injuries, which make up two of the three areas of helmet protection. Right now, only the sling system is available in the Corps' lightweight helmet.

"How many Marines want [pads]? We don't know," said Dan Fitzgerald, SysCom's program manager for infantry combat equipment. "But the commandant is giving them the option."

In early 2004, the Corps went to the sling system when it introduced the lightweight helmet. Still, the pad system, which is widely used by the Army, remains in the Corps' supply system.

The planned announcement comes as lawmakers have questioned the Corps' use of the sling system and whether it adequately protects its troops.

During a June 15 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee's Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., grilled Maj. Gen. William Catto, then-commanding general of SysCom, about why the Corps' sling system wasn't more like the Army's pads.

The issue was driven in large part by "Operation Helmet," a Web-based organization that sends free pads to deployed troops who request them. Dr. Robert Meaders, a former Navy flight surgeon who runs, began soliciting private contributions for the helmet drive in 2004 to supply pad systems for his grandson's Marine unit before its deployment to Iraq.

The sling system issued to more than 130,000 Marines does not offer the same impact protection as the shock-absorbing pad system, according to Meaders.

Meaders said he has received more than 19,000 requests for pads and that his organization has raised more than $1.2 million in contributions from the public, as well as Hollywood personalities such as Cher, who attended the June 15 hearing and "sat down and wrote us a generous check," Meaders said.

In a June 27 letter to Weldon and the subcommittee, Marine Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee wrote that the Corps' sling suspension system "has performed extremely well in ballistic testing. However, the areas of blunt force and blast effects are of growing concern."

The differences are:

• Ballistic protection is the helmet's ability to stop projectiles.

• Blast protection involves withstanding the 360-degree force of an explosion.

• Blunt-force trauma is the helmet's ability to absorb and disperse concussive shock waves.

Preliminary results from a University of Virginia study commissioned by the Marine Corps in March suggest that there is no significant difference in the ballistic protection offered by helmets with slings or pads, Fitzgerald said. The unresolved issue is with blast and blunt-force impact.

"I have directed that this study be expedited and that follow-on studies immediately be initiated to address blast and blunt-force performance," Hagee wrote to Congress.

Measuring blast protection will continue to be tricky work until laboratory technology advances, because it is nearly impossible to calculate the effects of a blast's 360-degree force on a helmet, Fitzerald said. The Defense Department has initiated its own blast protection study and no results are expected soon, he said.

Analyzing blunt-force trauma is like measuring the ability of shock waves to penetrate the helmet and rattle a Marine's brain. Fitzgerald said "we will concede" that padded helmets, in general, offer more protection from shock waves, but the pads come with trade-offs in comfort that make choosing one or the other a matter of preference.

For instance, he said the well-ventilated sling system offers more relief in the 120-degree heat of an Iraqi summer than the seven-piece pad system that snugly surrounds its wearer's head.

In his letter to Congress, Hagee said he has directed that funds be made available to commanders who want to purchase the padded suspension system for their Marines. But the MarAdmin drafted by SysCom, which is expected to be approved by Hagee in the coming weeks, promises to give the pads-vs.-sling choice to each Marine.

Fitzgerald said thousands of padded suspension systems will be sent to East Coast supply facilities first because the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II Marine Expeditionary Force is the Corps' lead unit in Iraq. They are expected to arrive at the supply facilities by the end of August. He said the Corps' other supply facilities will begin receiving the pads once East Coast shelves are stocked.

In the meantime, Fitzgerald said, Operation Helmet no longer needs to concern itself with the pro-bono protection of Marines' heads once the MarAdmin is approved.

"We don't need any more outside help," he said.

Fitzgerald said the message will include information on the pros and cons of each system to help Marines make an informed choice. SysCom has also updated its Web site,, to include information papers written on each suspension system.