A safe investment
28 May 2007

McHENRY, IL – Dennis Smith has good reason for launching the McHenry County arm of Operation Helmet, a project to ensure that Marines are equipped with proper helmets.

His granddaughter’s husband is serving his second term in Iraq and still does not have the proper helmet protection, Smith said.

“Almost every day I wake up saying, ‘Gee, I hope he’s OK today,’ ” Smith said.

Operation Helmet takes donations to buy upgrade kits for helmets to protect soldiers from traumatic brain injury.

Since starting in November, McHenry Operation Helmet has raised about $3,000 in donations. Each new helmet upgrade kit costs $77.

Smith is the former executive director of the Mental Health Board and serves as the treasurer for the McHenry County Behavior Health Foundation.

Head injury is a subject that is very close to Smith’s heart. When Smith’s daughter was 15, she sustained serious head injuries in a car accident.

“I became aware over the next several years how inadequate the resources were for people with head injuries,” Smith said. “Head injuries require a really specific approach to rehabilitation and many times people with head injuries end up in the mental-health system because they exhibit symptoms that are similar to mental illnesses. ... And because they are misdiagnosed, they receive the wrong treatment.”

Bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder are just a few examples of misdiagnosing brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injury has begun to characterize the current war in Iraq “much the way illness from Agent Orange typified the Vietnam War,” said Warren Lux, a neurophysiologist at the Walter Reed Hospital.

Sixty percent of soldiers treated for head injuries at Walter Reed Hospital have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Most cases of traumatic brain injury are caused by improvised explosive devices. Mild symptoms include sensitivity to light and sound, sleep disturbance and headaches. More severe symptoms are mood swings, depression, anxiety, emotional outbursts and impulsiveness.

Ironically, advancements in technology and medicine have made it so that more military patients can be adequately treated. Therefore, people who would not have recovered in earlier wars are surviving –  in turn, leaving more soldiers injured, Smith said.

Smith also has run into snags along the way when it comes to fitting Marines with the helmet inserts. For example, Smith’s grandson said he would not use the inserts unless his entire fire team was fitted with them as well, saying that  he didn’t want to have better protection than his friends. The problem is, now they need to figure out the type of helmet and the size for everyone, but the Marines will not disclose that information for security reasons.         

Operation Helmet is not just a local project. Bob Meaders of Texas started Operation Helmet in 2004 because he, like Smith, has a connection to a person  serving in Iraq.

The Marines are in the process of upgrading their helmets to include the inserts, but the helmet upgrade kits that are being provided right now are not being used by most soldiers because of discomfort, Meaders said.

“They are uncomfortable ...,” he said. “A helmet is only effective when you wear it.”

As of today, Operation Helmet has sent 36,177 helmet upgrades because of donations, according to its Web site.        

“[Our troops] deserve better,” Smith said. “These young men are putting their lives on the line and giving their most.

“They deserve our best equipment and it’s taking a long time to get it there.”

To donate or for information, call (815) 455-2828 or go to www.operation-helmet.org.

How to help

To donate to Operation Helmet or for information call (815) 455-2828 or go to www.operation-helmet.org.