YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Some might consider it a miracle that Harper Morrissey is alive.
Harper is only 4 months old, and it’s what happened more than a year before she was born that might seem out of the ordinary.
On Aug. 9, 2012, Harper’s father, Sgt. Joe Morrissey, was on a route-security mission in Zharay District, Afghanistan, when he was struck by enemy fire.
The rounds “felt like a sucker punch,” as they hit his body armor and knocked the wind out of him, said Morrissey, 26, of Port Charlotte, Fla.
But thanks to the ceramic plate inside his flak vest, Morrissey not only survived being shot, he was uninjured and able to return fire at the enemy.
The plate — with a hole big enough to fit your thumb in — stopped the 7.62 mm round.
And while some would call it miraculous, the researchers at the Project Executive Officer Soldier program say it’s just another day at the office. The PEO Soldier researchers have heard these stories thousands of times. In fact, there’s an entire division of the program that collects battle-damaged Kevlar helmets, ceramic plates, and other pieces of protective equipment to make sure it lives up to Army standards.
Since 2007, PEO Soldier has collected more than 25,000 pieces of equipment, and research shows that not one single helmet, not one single plate has failed. Ever.
“That doesn’t mean that we protected every soldier,” said James Zheng, PEO Soldier project manager and soldier protection and individual equipment chief scientist. “For example, an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at close range — you can’t protect against that. But small-arms fire, for example, it protected the soldier every time.”
Zheng’s team — including five personnel collecting gear in Afghanistan — estimate that they have received only about a quarter of the battle-damaged helmets and plates worn by U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We don’t get everything,” Zheng said but added: “Even with 25 percent, we can still learn a huge amount.”
Until recently PEO-Soldier focused mostly on collecting and examining the gear, but now that there’s a large amount of data the researchers are analyzing it with a view toward developing better protective equipment, he said.
The battle-damaged gear is turned in by units or medical examiners. The researchers record the name of the person who was wearing it, the type of attack it was exposed to and where and when it happened. They also collect soldiers’ medical records, Zheng said.
Helmets and plates are photographed, and some are X-rayed or placed in a CT scanner. The researchers examine each item to determine whether it was struck by a bullet or a bomb.
“We look at any remaining projectiles (embedded in the gear) and analyze them to find out where they hit and the damage they caused,” Zheng said.
Much of the information gathered from the research — such as the likelihood that a particular area on a soldier’s body might be susceptible to a gunshot in combat — is classified, PEO Soldier spokesman Doug Graham said.
However, Zheng said, analysts are looking at such things as the percentage of soldiers injured or killed in attacks where a helmet is struck by a bullet.
“By this analysis we find that much of the (gear) defeated threats that it wasn’t designed to defeat,” Zheng said.
For example, Kevlar helmets are designed to stop only the sort of 9 mm rounds typically fired by handguns and fragmentation from explosions. However, in many cases helmets stopped 7.62 mm rounds fired by AK-47 rifles from a distance, he said.
The battle-damaged equipment is often covered in the blood of the soldiers who were wearing it.
“We see blood all the time,” said Zheng, whose staff treat bloody items as biohazards.
It’s a sobering thought that some of the soldiers who wore the gear into combat never made it home, he said.
However, those whose lives were saved by the equipment are often grateful.
After the 2012 battle in Afghanistan, Morrissey turned in his damaged plate, which was sent to the PEO Soldier researchers for analysis.
A month after the battle, he returned home to get married. A little more than a year later, his daughter Harper was born.
“Since I got back, my wife and I have had a baby and we are trying for another,” he said. “None of that would have happened without that plate.”
When possible, PEO-Soldier returns items to troops as souvenirs.
Morrissey was given his plate — mounted on a plaque — during a ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Va., in September 2013. It now sits on top of his dresser at home.