Back in my day, virtually all the equipment and weapons of both the Army and the Marines were identical. Our Battle Dress Uniforms were almost indistinguishable. We both used the M16. We both used ALICE gear to carry loads, and we both used helmets and flak jackets known as Personal Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT), though no one called them that. There were just “kevlars” and “flak jackets.”
Since the late ’90s and the turn of the century, we’ve seen a divergence between the services on most of these fronts. The services both have separate and distinct working uniforms, boots, weapons (to some extent) and load bearing equipment.
Even the helmets worn by Soldiers and Marines are different. The old Kevlar helmet has been replaced in the Army by the ACH or Advanced Combat Helmet. This is a somewhat lighter helmet that has a somewhat different profile to enable troops to hear better and to use night vision devices and radio headsets.
The Marines, on the other hand, have opted for the Light Weight Helmet, which retains the profile of the old Kevlar, but uses improved materials to provide the same ballistic protection at a lighter weight.
One of the unseen differences between the two helmets is the suspension. The ACH uses a series of pads to fit the helmet to the wearer. The LWH uses a web suspension system much like the old Kevlar helmet. And therein lies a bit of controversy.
It is no secret that Traumatic Brain Injury may well be the “signature” wound of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The concussion from IEDs has caused untold numbers of concussions and worse among our troops. And some folks think the web suspension of the Marines LWH isn’t up to the job of protecting against that.
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.
We aren’t convinced that the padded helmets are a great advance in preventing TBI. We are convinced, however, that the padded suspension system is far more comfortable for wear. On that basis alone, the Marines should adopt it.
That doesn’t mean the ACH isn’t without problems of its own. ACHs made by two manufacturers have been shown to have quality control problems and have been recalled.