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‘This helmet works, and I’m a living testament to it’: Army to roll out new protective gear

Staff Sgt. Steven McQueen's damaged Enhanced Combat Helmet during a ceremony on Fort Belvoir, Va., March 3, 2019.

DEVON L. SUITS/DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 12, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. Steven McQueen’s was nearly killed when a pair of gunmen opened fire on a group of soldiers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade who were visiting Camp Maiwand in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province.

Dressed as policemen, one attacker was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and the other operated a PKM machine gun mounted in the rear of a pickup truck, taking aim at the soldiers as they entered a choke point on Sept. 3, McQueen said in an Army release last week.

“The plan was the fully automatic machine gun was going to open up on us and the AK was going to pick us off one by one,” said McQueen, who was assigned to the brigade’s Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment.

They managed to kill Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Bolyard, but McQueen’s life was saved by his Enhanced Combat Helmet, which stopped a round. Last week, at a ceremony meant to underscore the importance of protective gear amid a rollout of new and improved body armor, officials returned McQueen’s lifesaving headgear, now mounted to a plaque, at Fort Belvoir, Va.

“Before this incident, I thought the helmet was cumbersome, and it was overkill,” McQueen said. “I was sorely mistaken. This helmet works, and I’m a living testament to it.”

Later this month, the Army’s new Soldier Protection System will begin rolling out to conventional forces, starting with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. The system was designed to be lighter and more flexible than the current body armor, while offering at least the same level of protection.

McQueen was shot from about 20 feet away by a Russian 7.62x54mm round, which knocked him off his feet.

It was like letting “a horse kick you in the back of the head,” he recalled at the ceremony. “I was surprised that I was able to react as quickly as I did because I knew what had happened ... I knew I was shot.”

McQueen was able to help secure the team’s position during the attack, the Army said. Afterward, he was flown to Germany to be treated for a traumatic brain injury, but surgery wasn’t required.

Two days after he was shot, he posted to Facebook that he was in Germany and had suffered a minor brain bruise. A first CT scan had shown blood on his brain, but it had cleared up by then.

“Basically, the eight days that it took me to get to Fort Benning [from Germany], the brain bleed was healed,” he said last week. “Other than some physical therapy to correct some balance issues, that’s the only treatment I’ve had.”

The helmet he was wearing was originally developed by the Marine Corps to protect troops from rifle rounds. The Army began fielding it to soldiers five years ago.

The section of McQueen’s damaged headgear affixed to the plaque looks a bit like a stuffed animal torn open, with white cottony material spilling over the hard green shell. The fact that it did what it was designed to do validates the work that officials do when fielding such equipment, Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, head of the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, said at the ceremony.

“I want our equipment to make our soldiers invincible,” Potts said in the Army statement. “We’re going to do our best to provide you the equipment that you need to go out there and fight and return.”

Compared to McQueen’s older helmet, the Army’s new version within SPS — the Integrated Head Protection System — “has shown a 100 percent improvement against a blunt force impact,” said Lt. Col. Ginger Whitehead, project manager for Soldier Protective Equipment. That means it dissipates energy from a strike even more effectively.

The new helmet can also integrate a visor or a mandible protection device to guard a soldier’s face. It’s boltless design eliminates the need for pre-drilled holes that weaken the ballistic material and make it easier for soldiers to mount accessories.

The new system’s rollout to conventional troops follows criticism that the gear currently used by soldiers hampers their performance in certain circumstances.

The Army’s current protective gear has been described as unsuitable for some terrain, such as Afghan mountains and Iraqi deserts, with much of the criticism centered on weight.

The Center for a New American Security in September found that troops now carry about 100 pounds of equipment, including 27 pounds of personal protective gear, an increase of 20 pounds since World War II.

A major feature of the SPS is that it can be tailored to suit different roles or environments by adding or removing components as required. The Army hopes it will help provide both the protection and the flexibility that soldiers need to carry out their missions.

In addition to the helmet, the new SPS features a modular scalable vest based on the Improved Outer Tactical Vest, which debuted in 2008. The new design is intended to better distribute the load and reduce stress on a soldier’s upper body.

“This vest is lighter and cooler, has a greater range of motion, and a better fit,” said 1st Lt. Dawn Ward, a platoon leader with 663rd Ordnance Company whose troops evaluated the system at Fort Carson, Colo., as quoted in a 2017 Army release. “It is a huge improvement.”

The new system is made up of four tiers — soft armor, soft armor with plates, a vest with ballistic plates, a ballistic combat shirt with built-in neck, shoulder and pelvic protection, and a belt that allows them to move much of what they now carry on their bests to their hips, the release said.

The combat shirt will be delivered to the 3rd BCT this summer, the Army Times reported. At a later date, the brigade will also get new sets of protective glasses with lenses that transition from light shade to dark or the opposite for both day and low-light use, the newspaper reported. The tint shift takes less than a second, an Army website said.

While a version of the system has been issued to the Security Force Assistance Brigades — specialized units designed to train and advise foreign forces — McQueen was not among the group issued that gear when he came under attack.

His helmet is only the latest item to be returned since the attack. In January, he posted on Facebook about getting back his original camouflage helmet cover.

“I have more thoughts and feelings than I can comprehend,” he wrote on Jan. 14. “As I put this old bullet struck cover on another helmet I realize how the Army really does roll along.”

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @pwwellman

 

The new Soldier Protection System, or SPS, at Fort Belvoir, Va, March 4, 2019. The SPS includes a modular scalable vest, a ballistic combat shirt and a ballistic combat belt, along with an Integrated Head Protection System.
DEVON L. SUITS/DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

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