As we briefly mentioned in part 6 of our series on ballistic helmets and head injuries in wartime, the Army will sometimes present a soldier with the specific piece of gear that saved his or her life at a ceremony honoring the soldier’s service. Program Executive Office Soldier (PEO Soldier) is the Army agency charged with developing, procuring and supplying soldiers with equipment, and they hold these ceremonies as part of their "Personal Protective Equipment Returns" program. Today, we’re going to look at some of these stories of soldiers whose lives were saved by the helmets on their head.
Staff Sergeant Thalamus Lewis at his helmet ceremony organized by PEO Soldier. Photo Credit: PEO Soldier
Staff Sergeant Thalamus Lewis was not sure that his new Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) was any good. His previous helmet had worked just fine, and he was not sure that the new protective gear he had been issued was better than the gear he had been using for years. Like many of us, he didn’t see a need to fix what wasn’t broken, especially since he was on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan.
"Being a soldier, there's a lot of stuff we complain about. This gear was one of my main things when we deployed,” said Sgt. Lewis, years after that ACH saved his life in combat. “I don't have to complain about it no more, I'm a walking testament.”
It is not clear what helmet Sgt. Lewis had been using prior to the ACH, but we do know about how the ACH was an improvement on the helmets that preceded it. Constructed with the latest, most advanced Kevlar fiber, it is several pounds lighter than the PASGT and provides greater protection against enemy fire and shrapnel.
Sgt. Lewis and his men were searching for hidden explosives in October 2012, when they came under fire from Afghan insurgents. During the attack bullet hit Lewis in the helmet, right above his right ear. The blow knocked him unconscious, but thanks to his helmet he survived the mission. Four years after that day, the Army presented Sgt. Lewis with the helmet he wore on that day in a ceremony at Fort Belvoir. Recalling that fateful day after receiving the helmet, Sgt. Lewis remembered his skepticism of the ACH, certainly ironic in retrospect. As he put it, "Once they told me [I] took a round to the ACH, I was like, 'I want to see it. So when I finally saw it, and looked at it, I was like, 'OK, ... hmm, it actually works.'"
Staff Sergeant Ryan Frye holds his mounted ACH. Photo Credit: Debi Dawson, PEO Soldier.
Staff Sergeant Ryan Frye was reunited with the ACH that saved his life at a PEO Soldier ceremony in Camp Hovey, South Korea, two years after the firefight that took his friend’s life. In April 2012 Sgt. Frye was clearing a route with two other soldiers in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, when five enemy fighters opened fire with automatic weapons, instantly killing Spc. Antonio 'Tony' C. Burnside. During the firefight Sgt. Frye’s ACH was hit with a 7.62mm bullet from a distance of less than 100 meters.
“I went deaf instantly and couldn't hear anything. Laying in the prone, I could feel that my helmet was frayed and couldn't reach up under my helmet,” said Sgt. Frye. The deafness subsided, and other than abrasions there was no other damage. Thanks to the protection of his ballistic helmet, what would have been a fatal shot is now just a painful memory.
Sgt. Frye’s daughter was born just days after his injury, and he credits his family and his fellow soldiers with helping him recover emotionally from his injury and the death of Spc. Burnside. He also gives the ACH full credit for saving his life. When PEO Soldier tried to issue him a different model of ballistic helmet, he insisted on receiving another ACH. And if a soldier complains about the weight and hassle of wearing his helmet, Sgt. Frye is ready to set him straight. "When one of my Soldiers complains about the weight of wearing this helmet and says, 'Come on, we are just training,' I tell them my story, and that I was glad I was wearing mine. Then I walk away, and I have made my point."
Staff Sergeant Frankie Hernandez poses with his ACH. Photo Credit: U.S. Army
Staff Sergeant Frankie Hernandez also owes his life to his ACH. While on his third deployment to Afghanistan in May 2012, he and his company of engineers were out building roads for use by Army infantry units. It was near the end of the day, and Sgt. Hernandez and his team got out of their vehicles to consult over how to continue building the road in the swampy area they had just come across. Outside his bulldozer, Sgt. Hernandez saw sparks bounce off the bulldozer’s side and then suddenly felt something impact his head.
"I was kind of numb. I didn't know what had happened. So I told the captain to my right, I told him, 'I think I got hit.'" said Hernandez at his helmet return ceremony in Orangeburg, New York. He had in fact been hit on the top left side of his ACH, and he took cover behind the bulldozer while the infantry cleared the area of insurgents. While he was not sure who had fired on him or what became of them, it was clear that he would have been in a much worse situation without his tactical helmet.
Luckily, the bullet hit the helmet in such a way that it provided no immediate or long-term damage to his health. After the infantry cleared the area, he went right back to work building that road. When he returned to base, he was cleared by the doctors and had no effects other than some swelling.