Shawn Walsh has worked at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground for three decades, as part of a team that conducts research on new and improved battlefield technology and equipment for soldiers, including helmets and body armor, but Wednesday was the first time he has met a soldier whose life was saved by a piece of gear developed by his laboratory.
"I've worked here for 30 years," said Walsh, the agile manufacturing technology team leader at ARL. "I've never had a chance to talk to a soldier who's actually worn the equipment and gone through what he's gone through."
The soldier Walsh referred to is Staff Sgt. Thalamus Lewis, 38, who is based at Ft. Stewart, Ga.
The 19-year Army veteran and native of Georgiana, Ala., was wearing an Advanced Combat Helmet, designed and tested at Army Research Laboratory and the Aberdeen Test Center at APG, when an enemy round struck him in the head during an Oct. 4, 2012 firefight in eastern Afghanistan.
Lewis and his family, Capt. Alexander Dillon, Lewis' platoon leader during the firefight, and Dillon's wife, Kimberly, were escorted through the ARL and ATC Wednesday morning, so Lewis could see where the helmet that saved his life had been designed.
He also had an opportunity to give feedback about what can be improved about the Army's current standard combat helmet.
"Actually coming here and getting a tour behind the scenes is amazing," Lewis said.
The soldier, who has been deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, was a combat engineer with the member of the 41st Engineer Company, based in Ft. Riley, Kan., in 2012.
He was a squad leader, in charge of one of two squads in the nearly 40-member platoon. He and his fellow soldiers were moving on foot through a small town in Afghanistan's Wardak Province, searching for explosive devices along both sides of the road.
"We were checking culverts for any type of explosives, including IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices)," said Dillon, 42, who was a lieutenant at the time.
The Globe, Ariz., native has spent six years in the Army.
Dillon's platoon was on its way out of the town when the soldiers were attacked. He said the gunfire came from "some type of automatic" weapons.
"There were lots of rounds flying," he said.
Lewis said he was knocked to the middle of the road when a round hit the right side of his head. The helmet absorbed the shock of the hit, and he was able to get to cover outside a nearby building.
The soldiers retuned fire and were able to get out of the town and back to their base. Lewis was checked by a medic, but he recalls feeling little pain, neither then nor nearly four years later.
"I'm privileged that I was invited up here to give them feedback," he said of the researchers.
Walsh took the group on a guided tour of the Army Research Laboratory's testing facilities, where workers are developing a new type of combat helmet. He said it will give soldiers "35 percent greater protection," as well as being lighter and more comfortable.
"Seeing someone who's actually benefited from [current] technology makes me feel really good," Lionel Vargas-Gonzalez, a materials engineer, told Lewis.
Walsh held up a roll of gold aramid fiber, which is used to make Kevlar-brand body armor and helmets used by police and the military, and is a key material used to make the Advanced Combat Helmet.
He then displayed a roll of white fiber, called ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, used in the development of the next-generation helmet. Walsh called the lightweight material "a breakthrough fiber."
Vargas-Gonzalez said ARL staffers are working on helmets and armor that absorb the force of a round and cause it to break apart on impact to prevent a "bump" on the inside, which can injure the head or internal organs.
He noted he and his colleagues want a helmet which can absorb an impact and redirect the energy to the soldier's upper body, which is better suited to handle the force of that impact rather than the head.
"We're trying to find ways to make the material work in a different manner, so you get levels of performance you've never seen before," Vargas-Gonzalez told Lewis.
The group saw other ARL initiatives, such as robots that can be programmed to protect and treat injured soldiers when their comrades are still in combat, as well as an effort between the Army and the National Football League to create helmets that provide better protection both to football players and to troops.
Walsh stressed the need for young people, such as Lewis' teenage younger brother who was with the tour group, to get interested in math and science so they can help create gear to protect the next generation of soldiers.
On the test range
The group then moved to the Aberdeen Test Center. They saw a demonstration of the testing range, where rounds of varying calibers are fired at prototype protective gear.
The testers use laser scans and computer models to analyze the "striking velocity" of a round when it hits the helmet and the damage it causes, according to Bob Kaiser, a test officer who led the group through the range.
"There's hundred of thousands of data points," Kaiser said of the information generated.
Army Col. Kevin Ellison, the ARL's military deputy, told Lewis' parents the work being done there allows parents "to see their son and daughter come back home from combat."
"See you on the high ground, and God bless," Ellison told Lewis.