The U.S. Army has striven valiantly to respond to the needs of individual soldiers in the middle of two wars. The Army acquired tens of thousands of Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) and MRAP-All Terrain vehicles. It is adding a double V underbody to the Stryker wheeled vehicles to provide additional protection against IEDs in Afghanistan. The Army created a special organization, the Rapid Equipping Force, to meet urgent operational needs from the field for soldier clothing and individual equipment. It stood up yet another new entity, the Rapid Fielding Initiative, to ensure that units deploying to the combat zones had all their essential equipment.
One of the major sources of injury when soldiers are riding in vehicles struck by IEDs or rocket propelled grenades is burns resulting from fuel fires. A similar risk exists for the passengers and crew of helicopters that crash land due to hostile fire or engine failure. The military, in general, and the Joint IED Defeat Organization, in particular, have been very successful in reducing the number of successful IED attacks and in preventing catastrophic losses from attacks that do occur. However, survivors of successful attacks can suffer a number of traumatic injuries, including severe burns.
The Army has a means readily at hand to reduce both the likelihood and severity of burns. In fact, it is a solution that it provides to its vehicle and aircraft crews. What it needs to do is offer that same protection to the soldiers riding in those same vehicles and helicopters.
The solution is the Fire Resistant Environmental Ensemble (FREE). This is a set of 16 items of clothing that provides layered protection against fires while simultaneously addressing the need of the warfighter for highly-effective protection against the elements under combat conditions. Soldiers can mix and match different combinations of the 16 items depending on the weather, threat level and mission.
The Army wisely approached the private sector, the textile and clothing industry, with the request to provide rapidly a solution to the danger posed by fuel fires. FREE demonstrates that even something as simple as the clothing soldiers wear is now a high-tech item. The various clothing items employ advanced, fire resistant textile technologies which have been incorporated into basic clothing such as undershirts and briefs that must be comfortable in the extremes of conditions as well as a range of outerwear that also has to protect the soldiers in cold and wet weather.
The question is why does the Army provide FREE only to some of its warfighters? Yes, FREE items cost somewhat more than non-fire resistant clothing. But if it is worth spending the extra money to protect vehicle and helicopter crews why is it not worth just as much to protect those who ride inside? Moreover, the value of reducing the incidence and severity of burns due to fuel fires seems almost incalculable.
The Army has one of the world’s best hospitals for treating burn injuries, the Brooks Army Medical Center. Almost tragically, the Army has had to get good at treating burns in part because it has become better at saving the lives of warfighters riding in vehicles and helicopters. It seems a good idea, even a low cost solution, to provide all its warfighters with FREE.
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