Giving Thanks to a Soldier

 
Written by ANDRES CHAVEZ & DIANA MARTINEZ   
Thursday, 23 November 2006
Regardless of Your Position On the War – Giving to Operation Helmet Can Save Lives

 
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There will be an empty place at Shannan Limon’s Thanksgiving dinner table this year. Shannan will celebrate the holiday with Sofia, her four-year-old little girl, and Dominic her two year- old toddler, but absent will be her husband, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Phillip Limon, he is in Al Asad, Iraq. He has been pulled from his unit to be on a military transition team training Iraqis. Sgt. Limon is living and working with the Iraqi Army going on patrols with them and training them as security forces.

“With the holidays and knowing he’s not going to be here, it’s hard. But at the same time,” said Shannan, “ We’re pretty lucky. With [his assignment] and the job he’s doing, he has regular access to phones. While he doesn’t talk much about what he is going through, we talk all the time and he gets to talk to the kids on the phone too. My little guy thinks his daddy lives in the phone. He sees anybody’s phone, especially a cell phone, and he says ‘Daddy.’ I think he thinks that’s what the phone is called, ‘Daddy,’” she said.

ImageSgt. Phillip Limon is serving in Al Asad Iraq currently living and working with the Iraqi Army he goes on patrol with them. Sgt. Limon's area of specialty is logistics. With roadside bombs being a constant threat, Sgt Limon is a strong supporter of Operation Helmet. At right his wife, Shannan shows the difference between two helmets with the helmet on the right having the shock absorbing pads.

 

COPING WITH KNOWING YOUR LOVED ONE IS IN HARMS WAY

The challenges for military spouses are tremendous with long separations, functioning as a single parent and most stressful, knowing your loved one is in harms way. “We are really in limbo right now, we really don’t know where he is going to go next. I always ask him, can’t you go to a non-deployable unit?  And he says, ‘there are no non-deployable units for my job right now’, so probably wherever he is, he’s probably going to end up going again.” Sgt. Limon has chosen the military as his career and he has 7 years remaining. His area of expertise is logistics, responsible for getting fuel or ammunition where it needs to go. “It’s rough the longer it goes on,” said Shannan, “It’s now been 11 months [since I last saw him]. The way I deal with it. I try not to think about how long it’s going to be. If you sit there in the first month and think I’m not going to see him for 11 months you can make yourself crazy. I have to think about it in smaller increments, I had to tell myself that I wouldn’t see him today or just this week.”

She said living on base at Twenty Nine Palms she is supported by other spouses in similar circumstances and her family members who live in Northern California.

MILITARY WIFE IS TAKING ACTION

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has been described as the “signature wound” of the Iraqi conflict.  Giving the troops helmets that better protect them against head injuries is one facet of a much larger issue about the war in Iraq. According to a January, 2006 paper written by economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, and which was excerpted on the Securing America website, “To date, 3213 people-20% of those injured in Iraq-have suffered head/brain injuries that require lifetime continual care at a cost of $600,000 to $5,000,000.”
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But Shannan isn’t just waiting for her husband, she has taken action to help her husband, and thousands of other Marines, army and air force personnel to come home safely. “We can send them cookies and baby wipes and deodorant but [we can do more] by working with Operation Helmet. We can actually protect them and I don’t think there is another opportunity where we can actually do something that can directly protect them,” she said. Shannan with just a few others in Southern California is a volunteer for Operation Helmet. “My husband first heard about it and said, why don’t you see what you can do with this?”

While there is a perception that our tax dollars are paying for all the supplies, equipment and protection that are needed for troops, for years, the Marines haven’t had benefit of the best kind of helmet protection. “People just don’t know,” said Limon. “The question I always get is why don’t they have these already.. and I can’t answer that.”

Of the 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq who are going to miss Thanksgiving at home, at least 27,500, including Sgt. Limon, can now put their hands on their helmets and give thanks to Shannan and other Operation Helmet volunteers who have helped generate awareness and have encouraged civilians to contribute dollars to purchase the pad inserts to make their helmets more affective, more comfortable and fitting more securely on their head. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the biggest cause of injury and death is not by getting shot but by roadside bombs and explosions, whether it’s RPGs (rocket propelled grenade,) IEDs (improvised explosive devices,) or some other kind of bomb. Even though, the new, lightweight helmets being issued to U.S. troops in Iraq are 30% more bullet and shrapnel resistant they offer very limited protection against bomb blast head injuries. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) has been described as the “signature wound” of the Iraqi conflict.

Giving the troops helmets that better protect them against head injuries is one facet of a much larger issue about the war in Iraq. According to a January, 2006 paper written by economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, and which was excerpted on the Securing America website, “To date, 3213 people- 20% of those injured in Iraq-have suffered head/brain injuries that require lifetime continual care at a cost of $600,000 to $5,000,000. The government will be required to commit resources through intensive care facilities, round-the-clock home or institutional care, rehabilitation and assisted living for these veterans.” The total cost over the life of the wounded veterans ranges from $14 billion to $35 billion, depending on what set of assumptions are made. Cutting down on the number of TBIs through more effective helmets once again proves the adage about an ounce of prevention.

OPERATION HELMET CORRECTS DESIGN DEFICIT

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Operation Helmet is an all volunteer civilian organization dedicated to correcting that design deficit by donating pads that absorbs the shock wave of the bomb blast, giving the soldier a greater chance of avoiding serious traumatic brain injury (TBI) or concussion. The soldier simply Velcros the pads inside the helmet, replacing the issued sling suspension system. As Limon, an Operation Helmet volunteer, explains, the pads offer additional advantages. “For one thing, it makes the helmet much more comfortable to wear. The previous sling suspension system tended to give the guys really bad headaches. They were a little sloppy on the head and moved around [like the familiar photos that we’ve seen where they’d run with a weapon in one hand and used the other hand to hold their helmet on.] They were not really secure. But with the helmet pads that they can pull out and reposition with Velcro they can give themselves more of a custom fit, it makes it fit more like a football helmet. It’s not tight, so it doesn’t give them a headache and when they run around, it’s not bobbling all over the place, it makes it more secure. The Operation Helmet pads are more protective with energy absorbing pads with a special material that can absorb the shock of a bomb blast even in a vehicle accident when they rollover and get thrown from a vehicle, the helmet stays secure and offers better protection,” said Limon.

OPERATION HELMET STARTED BY VIETNAM VET

The Houston Texas based Operation Helmet organization was started by a Vietnam Vet, Bob Meaders, MD, in 2003 when his Marine grandson requested helmet upgrade kits for his unit. Dr. Meaders quickly saw the need to supply as many kits as possible to troops in Iraq, so he set up a website and began his grassroots fundraising campaign. As people became aware of his organization, by word of mouth, through the Internet or from media coverage, Operation Helmet became a national organization. It is a 501c3 which means donations are tax deductible. The organization has no paid staff. “Everyone who works for Operation Helmet is a volunteer. Over 99% of what people contribute goes directly to buying the helmet kit and the manufacturer does not charge shipping, so everything that’s donated goes straight to buy the kit and giving them to the guys,” Limon said.

FAMILIES CAN REQUEST THE HELMET KITS

The soldiers, their family or friends can make requests for the upgrade kits. Operation Helmet solicits money and when it has enough to pay for an order, it purchases the kits straight from the factory, which delivers them to the soldier directly. The person making the contribution gives to the general fund or may specify an individual, fire team, squad, platoon or any unit to receive the pads. The pads cost from $70 to $100 per person, depending on the manufacturer and the branch of the service, but any amount is gladly accepted. “It doesn’t matter how much you can send. We have found that even the smallest donations have been tremendously helpful,” said Limon, “all the little bits, the $1.00 and $2.00 donations have added up together and they turn into substantial donations that have allowed the organization to purchase the helmet kits. You don’t have to donate the entire $75 (for a Marine helmet) $100.00 dollars (for an Army helmet,) even one dollar can really help us.”

REGARDLESS OF YOUR POSITION ON THE WAR, YOUR HELP IS NEEDED

Supporting the War in Iraq is not a factor in supporting Operation Helmet. “Operation Helmet is non partisan, we don’t have a position either way. Of course, we all have our own opinions but when we are working with Operation Helmet, that doesn’t come into it. We have people who are for the war supporting us and people who are not for the war supporting us,” Limon said. Cher, for example, is one public figure who strongly opposes the War but supports the work of Operation Helmet. Limon adds, “It’s a very American thing to do. These guys are over there and, regardless of how we feel if they should or should not be over there, they are there, so let’s see what we can do for them.”

There have been grateful responses from the front lines about the work of Operation Helmet. As this Marine sergeant posted on the Operation Helmet website:

“My vehicle was blown up by an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device). When it hit the truck I was thrown from the vehicle at 45 to 60 mph. I rolled a good 100 feet. Your BLSS kit system (the pads) for our Kevlar (helmets) saved my life and the other marines that I was able to help pull out of the burning truck.”

Or this description by a wife of a Marine wife following an I.E.D attack on a Humvee where only the gunner wore the padded helmet. “Everyone in that truck was knocked out and ended up with concussions except the Gunner. He was able to start pulling the others out of the truck to safety. Those pads may have just saved a few more lives, even though only one of them in the Humvee had them.”

Operation Helmet has sent 27,514 (as of 11/18/06) kits to Iraq and Afghanistan but that means that less than one in four soldiers have them. The larger question is why a private organization is filling a gap that should be filled by the U.S. Government. The pads have been around for at least three years yet it was only this year that they were officially tested and approved for purchase by the Marines. Limon said she understood the military’s reluctance, at first. “They already spend a lot of money on equipment and if they bought every new thing that came out, the guys would be taking out equipment every other month. But the longer that this went on, it seemed like they really didn’t want to hear it. They were so rigid that it actually kind of surprised me and it was a little bit frustrating. Especially now that they’ve done their testing and decided that this is the only system they should be using. It’s frustrating to me they could have been a little more open minded about it two years ago, this could have been taken care of already,” she said.

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Military wife, Shannan Limon with her two children Sofia and Dominic. Shannan is a main volunteer in Southern California for Operation Helmet.

There are problems with the new helmets being issued by the Marine Corp. The first problem is simply getting them to the troops. The supply line is very slow. Soldiers arrive in Iraq without the proper helmet and have to wait a long time before it gets there. Secondly, the new helmets being currently purchased by the Marines aren’t nearly as comfortable as the Operation Helmet pads. That’s a very important consideration when the helmet is worn 12 hours at a stretch and sometimes 24/7. “I guess they went for the cheapest ones they could find. (The pads in the new helmets are really hard; therefore they aren’t comfortable in the helmet. Just like the old helmets,) they are giving the guys headaches again. They take them off when they are out on patrol [because they are so tight and uncomfortable for them]. If the helmet is giving them a splitting headache and they can’t concentrate, they’ll take them off and it’s not going to do them any good if they’re not wearing it. They were tested out for impact absorption but they’re not comfortable at all,” Limon said.

During this holiday, Shannan Limon would like the public to know regardless of one’s position on the war, there is a way to help and give thanks to a soldier, “When you’re sitting having your Thanksgiving dinner, take some time to think about our guys that are over there, who haven’t seen their families in a while and who have volunteered to be there. This is something that can all do to help them out, to make them more comfortable and most importantly to make them safer and get them home to their families in one piece.”

All Contributions for Operation Helmet can be sent to 74 Greenview Street, Montgomery Texas, 77356-8456 and on line at operation-helmet.org The Defense Department maintains a list of organizations that support U.S. troops at americasupportsyou. mil

Last Updated ( Monday, 27 November 2006 )