Excerpt: Shattered Minds

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The following is an excerpt from Shattered Minds: How the Pentagon Fails our Troops With Faulty Helmets (Potomac Books, 2019) by Robert Bauman and Dina Rasor.

From Chapter 9: Cost More Important Than the Tools?

In the realm of helmet-impact research, 300 g’s is considered an impact to the head that is fatal. To simplify the higher the g’s, the more severe the impact on the head. In 1971 the Helmet Impact Criteria, developed by the Army, specified that peak head acceleration should not exceed 400 g’s at 17.1 feet per second. This standard was used in the Army’s aviator helmet at the time. Later research in 1980 at the Fort Rucker U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL) disclosed that peak head acceleration far less than 400 g’s produced concussive injuries to the head, leaving the Army aircrew members incapacitated following a crash. Improvements were eventually made to aviator helmets to reduce velocity forces, but by the late 1990s, with the development of the Special Forces’ MICH, peak head impact was established at 150 g’s. Specifications for the Army’s ACH continued using the level of 150 g’s as the standard—that is until the fall of 2005.

In the fall of 2005, Natick inexplicably reduced the peak head impact requirement for the ACHto 300 g’s even though it was known to be fatal to the soldier. It came as a shock to Oregon Aero’s Mike Dennis. He thought it was a typographical error and that Natick had made a mistake. Why would Natick arbitrarily reduce protection of a soldier’s head at a time when TBI was on the rise? The revised specification change was crafted in subtle and vague language stating that the average number of hits could exceed 150 g’s and no single hit could exceed 300 g’s. However, if a soldier was hit once at 300 g’s, it would kill him. Mike’s theory was that Natick’s motivation was to make pads cheaper but that effort couldn’t meet the 150 g level.

In January 2006, already in a strained relationship with Natick’s Schultheiss over Oregon Aero’s rejection as the primary vendor to the ACHfor its padded suspension system, Mike Dennis requested a meeting with Schultheiss to address his concerns over the reduced impact standard, given that there was helmet technology that could perform significantly lower than 300 g’s.

On February 8, 2006, it was a clear, cold winter morning, in Natick, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. The chief operating officer for Oregon Aero, Tony Erickson, accompanied by a contingent of other Oregon Aero officials including a technical representative versed in foam engineering, walked into a drab meeting room at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center. Waiting in the meeting room was George Schultheiss along with one of his assistants and a civilian contractor representing the Marine Corps named Michael Cordega.

The meeting started out with some tension over Operation Helmet and Doc Bob. Cordega told the group that he believed Operation Helmet was Oregon Aero’s “boy” that controlled Doc Bob’s activities and that Doc Bob actually worked for Oregon Aero. Schultheiss and his assistants indicated their agreement. Erickson responded that Operation Helmet was not part of Oregon Aero but was just a customer, that Doc Bob didn’t work for the company. Cordega and the others said they were glad Erickson had cleared that up.

However, Erickson had a specific and uncomfortable question for Cordega. Why did the Marine Corps’s new LWH require much less protection than the Army’s ach? Erickson explained that the LWH, with its padless suspension system, amounted to a 36 percent reduction in protection that would likely allow head injuries almost twice as severe as the ACH allowed. Cordega could only answer that it was the decision of the Marine Corps.

Continuing along the same lines, Erickson asked Schultheiss why Natick had reduced protection of the ACH by raising the impact threshold from 150 g’s to 300 g’s, clearly moving backward in technology. Incredibly, Schultheiss claimed that no other pad manufacturer could compete at the 150 g’s level and that he did not want to sole-source the pads but wanted to expand competition. By lowering the standard, he believed more companies could compete. Erickson was very upset with Schultheiss’s push to favor competition at the expense of head protection for the soldier. It was especially egregious during wartime, when IED blasts with the resultant incidents of TBI were dramatically increasing.

Erickson wasn’t experienced dealing with military decision makers. He naively thought there would be a logical, reasonable explanation for the standard being raised to 300 g’s—that it was simply a mistake, an error, that would be fixed right away, or that Schultheiss had found a cheaper product that worked better—not an explanation that made no common sense. Erickson was hoping for a plausible explanation. He had gotten wind that Schultheiss was hunting for a replacement pad but was very suspicious of changing the spec to be allowed to make that purchase.

Then inexplicably Schultheiss praised Oregon Aero pads. He claimed that he was proud of its pads and that Oregon Aero rose to the occasion by meeting all the deliveries on time in support of the war effort. He called the Oregon Aero pads the “Cadillac of pads.” Then Schultheiss dropped the other shoe, that Oregon Aero pads were too expensive for the Army. He claimed that they were fine for the Special Forces but said the Army was not going to spend as much money on the average troops. He explained that the military had invested a lot of money in Special Forces soldiers, who take better care of the equipment and, frankly, are smarter. On the other hand, Schultheiss told the group that the regular soldiers did not take care of their equipment and less was invested in them, so the Army was not going to spend as much money on them.

Erickson recalls that Schultheiss said, “The Army doesn’t feel they are worth it,” not that “he” didn’t feel they were worth it. The Army wouldn’t spend the extra money on the regular soldier.

Erickson found Schultheiss’s statement incredible: “He is an official representative of the Army in a position responsible for this piece of protective equipment. How could he make a statement like that?” He was unprepared for such an explanation, one that he would never have anticipated. Erickson asked Schultheiss if “the Army was not willing to spend an extra twenty dollars to protect the regular soldier?” He was outraged that the Army did not think its soldiers were worth it and wished he had a tape recorder. He recalls thinking at the time that “if the mothers and fathers of the soldiers could hear him saying that they would lynch him at a tree outside.”

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