WASHINGTON — Marine commanders told Congress on Thursday that they need further research on whether upgrading their helmets would benefit their troops, even though the Army has already added a padded lining to soldiers’ headgear based on its studies.

That position drew frustrated gasps from members of the House Armed Services Committee, who held a special hearing to investigate the services’ protective equipment and why more than 6,000 Marines had requested Army-style helmet inserts from a private charity over the past 2½ years.

“We have two sets of troops on the same ground fighting the same enemy with significantly different head protection,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., chairman of the committee’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee. “You have to understand the confusion that we have here. If there’s a different system that some troops want, we want them to have it.”

Currently soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are equipped with the Advanced Combat Helmet, a smaller and lighter version of the traditional Army Kevlar helmet. Marines are outfitted with the Marine Corps Lightweight Helmet.

The main difference between the two is the size — the lightweight helmet covers about 15 percent more of the head — and the internal structure. The ACH has impact-resistant padding lining the inner shell, while the lightweight leaves empty space between the head and helmet.

Operation Helmet, a nonprofit based in Texas, has sent out more than 8,700 padding insert kits to mostly Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan who’ve requested the padding, which offers extra blast protection.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army’s director of force development, said his service shifted to the padded helmets — similar to the style worn by NFL players — based on Army research that shows it provides greater protection against head trauma.

But Maj. Gen. William Catto, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, told Congress that the Marines have not yet compiled the same concussion research, and their main concern is still the helmet’s ability to stop ballistic rounds. In that area, the lightweight helmet provides more protection than the ACH, because of its size.

He said an August 2005 report by the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory showing superior performance by the ACH for impact protection doesn’t answer the question of whether the ACH meets the Marines standards for ballistic protection. If future studies show it is superior for both ballistic and crash injuries, he said the Marines could begin using that style.

“But right now we just don’t know the facts,” Catto said.

Committee members responded that the Marines before now should have at least fully researched the ACH specifications and the padding, which costs less than $100.

“I am stunned that our military doesn’t have the foresight to see the need for an insert like this,” said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. “It stuns me that the Department of Defense hasn’t taken the opportunity to improve the helmets they have out there. There’s a clear choice here: We either protect the lives of our soldiers or we don’t send them.”

Speakes said he was unaware if the helmet testing data had been made available to the Marines. Catto said his staff had seen no data weighing the ballistic and concussion advantages of internal padding.

Meanwhile, the founder of Operation Helmet, former Navy corpsman Bob Meaders, told the committee that his group’s research with their supply company, Oregon Aero, found that adding his charity’s protective inserts to the lightweight helmet can reduce the impact of a blast on a Marines’ head by nearly 60 percent.

He added that he’d be happy to share the medical information his group has gathered with any of the services.

“I would love for them to take this over, so I could quit and go play some golf,” Meaders said. “But if we can save even one life, that’s why we do it.”

Operation Helmet has raised about $800,000 to buy inserts for troops currently serving overseas. Their largest donor, singer-actress Cher, attended the hearing and met with congressmen beforehand to discuss the helmet issues.

Army plans call for all troops to have the ACH by September 2007. Catto said the ACH is approved for use by certain Marines, like reconnaissance patrols and parachute missions, because of the need for higher crash protection.

Weldon told Catto he wants to see the Marines’ study on the helmets finished well before its scheduled September completion.

Bid for better helmets gets boost from Cher

WASHINGTON — Cher: Sexy ’60s and ’70s hitmaker, ’80s Oscar winner … and leading proponent of full concussion protection in military headgear?

The singer-actress has become an unexpected and prominent spokesperson for Operation Helmet, a charity providing free padded inserts to military headgear.

In the past year, she has donated more than $130,000 to the effort and surprised its founders with several unsolicited calls to C-SPAN lauding the groups’ efforts to help troops, speaking about the importance of giving troops the best protection possible.

On Thursday, she sat quietly in the gallery of the House Armed Services Committee, declining to testify out of concern it would overshadow the charity’s efforts.

But she did bring with her a host of entertainment and mainstream news crews — reporters from the newsmagazine “Extra!” don’t regularly attend the military equipment hearings — as well as a team of U.S. Capitol Police and some curious Washington tourists.

Committee members applauded her good intentions and the publicity that comes with it.

“It does help draw attention to this critical issue,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. “I would imagine if we were having a hearing on this issue without the presence of a celebrity we would not have the number of photographers that are with us today.”

During the event several members referenced Cher’s late husband Sonny Bono, who sat on the armed services committee during his political career, and his work to provide troops with state-of-the-art equipment.

None made jokes about her infamous 1991 video for “If I Could Turn Back Time,” where she joined sailors aboard the battleship USS Missouri wearing … well, not much.

Operation Helmet founder Bob Meaders said his group wasn’t searching for a celebrity spokesperson, but they consider themselves lucky that Cher has decided to get involved in their work.

“She says to us, ‘It’s not about me’ … but she’s a great PR person for us,” he said. “So many people say to us they would have donated sooner if they had known about us, and because of her now they do.”

— Leo Shane

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now