by Lee Bowman
Scripps Howard News Service
December 10, 2004
Kevlar helmets, body armor fitted with ceramic panels and field upgrades to personal and vehicle armor have all worked to better protect against bullet and shrapnel wounds. Such equipment plus battlefield and rear-area medical care have contributed to a survival rate of more than 90 percent for U.S. troops wounded in battle.
As recently as the 1991 Persian Gulf War, nearly one in four wounded in combat died.
"This is unprecedented. People who lose not just one but two or three extremities are people who have just not survived in the past," said Dr. Atal Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. His analysis of military medicine's experience over the past three years appeared Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In Kuwait on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a group of National Guardsmen upset about the continued lack of armor on vehicles that no amount of armor can completely protect any vehicle from being blown up.
Still, the Pentagon is aggressively shopping for better equipment and personal protection against the roadside bombs and mortars that continue to shatter arms and legs in the region.
One solution may come from an effort between Florida university researchers and a Jacksonville-based armor-manufacturing company.
"Dozens and dozens of soldiers are alive or unharmed today thanks to the ceramic small-arms protective insert plates that we manufacture for the military," said Robert Mecredy, president of Armor Holdings Aerospace and Defense Group. "But there is more that can be done to protect beyond the core torso area that is covered by these plates."
The project at Florida State University in Tallahassee is already producing prototype pieces of the armor. The gear must be strong enough to ward off bullets and shrapnel, yet light and flexible enough that soldiers in the field can actually wear it.
"The reality is, you can't protect everything," said James Thagard, a visiting assistant professor at FSU's engineering school who is taking part in the effort. "There are always areas of a soldier's body that will be exposed, but this is a good place to start. Right now, there are no requirements for extremity protection."
The researchers are working with two types of materials - new composites of fabric and plastics bound in multiple layers, and polymers toughened with carbon nanotubes to improve fabric strength.
Thagard said that early ballistics tests show the plastic-fabric layers exceed new performance requirements for bulletproof vests. Armor Holdings will soon begin making enough pieces of the gear to be distributed to military training facilities, where soldiers will wear it to verify that it can be worn comfortably and safely in combat situations.
"We know that this recipe is good, and just hope it can be utilized quickly to help save more soldiers," Thagard said.
E-mail Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)shns.com