Captain Nichola Goddard of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Shilo, Man., was a forward observation officer during a firefight with the Taliban roughly 24 kilometres west of Kandahar in May 2006. She had been standing in the turret of a LAV (light armoured vehicle), helping to target artillery, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit, unleashing a storm of lethal shrapnel; the piece that killed Goddard penetrated above her body armour.
Goddard’s armour and equipment were studied to determine whether the fatal injury could have been prevented. Shortly afterwards, a high protective collar was added to the armour, part of ongoing efforts by the Canadian Forces and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) to improve the chances of troops surviving whatever the enemy throws their way.
“Significant improvements in survivability technologies” have been made by analyzing the protective equipment of casualties, says Major Alexander Natale, one of 40 Canadian Forces biosciences officers whose duties include retrieving equipment from battlefields. The analysis involves interviewing the injured as well as witnesses; studying damaged body armour, vehicles and structures, and correlating the damage to injuries; and recommending improvements.
Such improvements have included adding upper arm and neck protection; improving vehicle armour; using new materials for buildings; and teaching new safety techniques, including having passengers lift their feet off vehicle floors and assuming the “warrior stance” (wide-bodied, with the chest, covered by ballistic plates, forward) to present the most protected profile to the enemy.
The analysis also shows how personal protective equipment needs to change to meet the circumstances troops find themselves in, says defence scientist Simon Ouellet of DRDC in Valcartier, Que. Troops now head into dangerous operations wearing a fragmentation vest with ballistic plates, ballistic eyewear and an anti-fragmentation helmet. The vest and helmet feature layered synthetic fabric that resists tension, allowing it to stretch to absorb the force of bullets or shrapnel. The vest has guards to protect the throat and nape of the neck, upper arm protection (called brassards) and pockets to accommodate the ballistic plates made of ceramic material and layers of synthetic fabric. The helmet’s outer shell is made from rigid synthetic fabric and sports a ballistic visor. It has a foam liner and suspension and retention system designed to keep it from falling off. In a blast, “it’s important the gear stays on,” says Ouellet.
Such high-tech body armour, minus some recent tweaks, saved the life of Master Corporal Mike Trauner in 2008. Trauner was on patrol west of Kandahar when the Taliban detonated a remotely controlled IED (improvised explosive device) right under his feet. The blast blew his body through the air, blast winds peppering him with shrapnel. “If I wasn’t wearing body armour, I definitely could have suffered internal damage, a damaged heart, collapsed lung,” he says.
Trauner’s legs were blown off below the knees. His left glove was melted and his left arm broken in three places, along with every bone in his left hand. “I went 360 probably a couple of times,” and was propelled six metres, he says. He landed on his right shoulder, blinded by thick dust and smoke. Bits of shrapnel were embedded in his helmet and eyewear, thighs and arms, but he had been thrown clear of the rain of the largest and deadliest projectiles. “You can see on the helmet where it hit, including things up to the size of a penny.” Were it not for the helmet, those penny-sized bits of shrapnel would have been driven into his head. The tiny bits of shrapnel in his eyewear would have blinded him.
Other than increasing the amount of the body covered, the Canadian Forces made few changes to its body armour during the Afghanistan combat mission. “Coverage is one thing, performance is another,” says Ouellet. The armour performed as it was meant to, protecting wearers from shrapnel and bullets. The vests aren’t intended particularly for blast protection; IEDs generate blast waves, but the greater need is for shrapnel protection, since most troops are some distance from the point of explosion, thanks in part to lessons learned from injury and equipment analysis about the safest spacing of members of a foot patrol.
Changes have been made to enhance vehicle safety, improvements Master Corporal Owen Kolasky credits for his survival and that of his crew when their LAV III drove over a buried IED in 2010. The resulting explosion blew a hole in the bottom of the 17-tonne vehicle and lifted it off the ground.
LAVs were not designed with IED and rocket attacks in mind, says Guy Bergeron, leader of DRDC’s vehicle protection systems group. The group has spent the last few years figuring out improvements to equipment the Canadian Forces uses. Correlating injuries with vehicle damage, the group designed new safety equipment and retrofitted vehicles with it, as well as recommending changes to work procedures and personnel training.
Kolasky was a LAV III crew commander, part of a provincial reconstruction team with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, on his second tour of Afghanistan. He and a gunner were standing in a midsection turret when the vehicle hit a buried IED, triggering a blast. “It could have been a shell or a mine, but it also had a lot of improvised explosives, such as fertilizer,” he says.
Detonation of a buried mine produces a blast wave that exerts intense pressure on the underside of the vehicle, blowing away the tires and suspension system, and deforming the structure, creating a vibration like that produced when you hit a bell with a hammer, says Bergeron. Kolasky recalls, “My entire body was shaking uncontrollably in a very violent fashion, banging into everything around me…. My entire body was being vibrated, almost like a tuning fork.”
Within five milliseconds of a blast, a vehicle’s floor deforms, moving upwards as much as 30 centimetres at 300 kilometres per second. The force is transferred from the floor through to passengers’ feet and seated bodies, breaking bones and causing neck and spinal injuries. The whole vehicle is thrown up a metre or more in the air at about 100 gs. This will be reduced “by a certain percentage” for occupants restrained and in seats, Bergeron notes. (A g is a measurement of acceleration and stands for gravity. At two gs, a person weighing 45 kilograms will feel as though he or she weighs 90.) The force will propel the feet of restrained and seated passengers to the ceiling, resulting in injuries to their feet, lower legs and back. It was enough to launch the gunner in Kolasky’s crew three metres out of the vehicle. The two passengers standing in the turrets in the back had “their lower extremities kicked towards the ceiling,” and they fell back inside the vehicle, recalls Kolasky.
When the vehicle lands in the crater created by the blast, without tires and suspension, it hits very hard, causing more injuries, says Bergeron. The whole flight takes about a second.
Some of the blast wave from a buried IED is absorbed by dirt and rocks in the ground and deflected by the undercarriage of the vehicle, so primary blast injury in unusual. “The wave front is travelling at many hundreds of metres per second,” says Bergeron, “so by the time the vehicle deforms,” even if a hole is blown in the floor, “the pressure in the environment is back to lower values…most of the time.” The fireball, although dramatic, flashes by so quickly that “it doesn’t even heat up the interior.” Injuries result from forces transferred through the vehicle’s structure and from acceleration of anything not restrained, including bodies and cargo, which smash around the interior like marbles in a can.
Everyone in the back of Kolasky’s LAV was injured, slammed into the vehicle’s frame and hit by flying objects. The driver, in body armour and buckled into a safety harness in the front, was the least affected. The explosion blew a hole in the floor of the vehicle near Kolasky’s feet, shattering the bones. It also warped the vehicle’s frame and ripped equipment from brackets, some of which pinned Kolasky, meaning that he wasn’t thrown clear. “The first thing was the initial weightlessness and immediate slowing down of all of your senses from the feeling that something absolutely terrible has gone wrong. I could just feel all of my muscles, everything, tensing all at once.” Although body armour protected Kolasky from shrapnel, his shoulder and spine were fractured. Kolasky, the gunner and two passengers were seriously injured and transported to the field hospital in Kandahar, then to Landstuhl, Germany, and back to Canada for treatment and rehabilitation.
Over the past six years, DRDC has added aluminum belly armour to LAVs that absorbs much of the blast pressure, reducing the deformation of the floor and the number and severity of injuries. Ballistic blankets made of two to three centimetres of synthetic high-performance fabric now cover interior walls, enough to stop “99 per cent of the fragments” from rocket-propelled grenades, says Bergeron. Standard box seats have been replaced with blast-resistant seats attached to the floor, such that the forces from the vehicle’s underbelly are not transferred to passengers. A footrest gets feet up off the floor, the extra distance reducing the severity of injuries.
As well, DRDC has suggested changes to the way cargo is stored. Heavier boxes, such as those carrying ammunition, are to be stored on the sponsons, the interior platforms over the wheel wells, behind tightly lashed ballistic blankets. “If you have an ammo box on the floor it will fly out in the vehicle at 300 kilometres per hour,” says Bergeron. “It is seriously dangerous.”
DRDC personnel also train troops in how to use protective gear. “[The soldiers] get a different voice from the chain of command that says, ‘Do this, like that.’ We explain why and give demonstrations,” Bergeron says. In Afghanistan, vehicles need to carry more ammo and water than they were designed to have on board. “We give them guidelines for which things go where to cause less damage” should there be a blast.
Many of these changes had not yet been made at the time of Kolasky’s first tour in Afghanistan in 2007, and he believes everyone in the vehicle hit in 2010 would be dead but for those retrofits. “It was what we call a catastrophic kill—the vehicle was completely unusable afterwards.” But its five occupants did not die. “I saw the pictures that were taken afterwards. It was the armour that had actually taken the majority of the blast,” says Kolasky. “It is my personal belief that additional [training and procedures] and armour allowed all of us to survive.”
But better armour was only one factor, he says. Tactics and training were also very important. “For me, one of the absolutely biggest improvements I’ve seen over my time in the military is [in] knowledge of the way soldiers do things, the way they react in different scenarios. The way we do business always needs to be taken into account.” There’s a fine balance, he says, between doing everything possible to protect yourself and, “okay, get the work done.”
The retrofitting and training have paid off, says Bergeron. Only one death was recorded in four serious blasts involving retrofitted LAVs.
Trauner’s and Kolasky’s grave injuries are healing, and rehabilitation is allowing them to get on with their lives. Both suffered concussions, and Trauner has subsequently become concerned that his was caused by the blast. No one knows the long-term effects on the brain of blast exposure. But a research team at DRDC Suffield in Alberta intends to find out. Its work just might lead to ways to prevent the cascade of effects that cause brain damage following blast injury. Learn more in Part III of this series, coming in the March/April issue.
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