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Information on Army and Marine Corps Ground Combat Helmet Pads

GAO-09-768R: Published: Jul 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2009.

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Combat soldiers operate in diverse environments and face injury threats that place demands on the protective equipment systems they use to provide consistent protection throughout a range of temperatures and threat magnitudes. Protective helmets are one of those systems. In addition to protecting against ballistic threats, Army and Marine Corps ground combat helmets are now designed to absorb energy in order to reduce head injury risk from blunt impacts; previous combat helmets, such as the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops helmet in use until 2002, were not designed to provide any tested levels of blunt impact protection. The currently used Army Advanced Combat Helmet and Marine Corps Light Weight Helmet are outfitted with a pad suspension system to protect against these threats. These pad suspension systems have been found to offer superior blunt impact protection over the older sling suspension systems. The Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009 directed GAO to review ground combat helmet pads. In response, this report focuses on two objectives: (1) Who currently provides the pads used in Army and Marine Corps ground combat helmets, and how were they chosen? and (2) What efforts and research have been undertaken by the Army and Marine Corps to improve helmet pad performance and helmet technology? In addition, we have included information on servicemembers' use of helmet pads that are not approved.

Both the Army and the Marine Corps currently use pads that are manufactured by Team Wendy, a company based in Cleveland, Ohio, and are supplied through National Industries for the Blind, an organization that packages and supplies helmet pads to the Army and Marines through the AbilityOne program. These pads were selected based on the results of prior Army testing, as well as value. Helmet systems, including helmet pads, have undergone a variety of tests, including tests to judge their relative protection in comparison with the sling suspension system and tests to judge comfort and ease of use. The Army and Marine Corps are actively seeking new options to improve helmet technology. In 2007, in an effort to spur industry to design a more effective pad system, the Army issued a request for information seeking an off-the-shelf technology solution that could increase blunt impact protection over the current performance standard. The current testing standard for blunt impact protection requires that a helmet dropped at a speed of 10 feet per second be able to diminish the force to which the wearer's head accelerates to under 150 g.2 According to Army officials, the request for information called for the same degree of protection at a drop speed of 14.1 feet per second, with the ultimate objective of increasing this drop speed to 17.3 feet per second. To date, no manufacturer has submitted a pad system that passes the testing at 14.1 feet per second, but the Army believes that this call for an improved technological solution will motivate industry to develop better performing pads. Additionally, the services are looking for new alternatives for protecting against blunt impact injury. This effort includes outreach to other countries and sports organizations, and research into the causes of traumatic brain injury.

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