Saturday, June 27, 2009


War-torn equipment helps provide better safety for Canadian soldiers

By David Pugliese, Ottawa Citizen

June 26, 2009

Canadian soldier of the NATO-led coalition take a rest after six hours foot patrol in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, as seen in a file photo.

Canadian soldier of the NATO-led coalition take a rest after six hours foot patrol in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, as seen in a file photo.

Photograph by: Stefano Rellandini, Reuters

The battered equipment of Canadian troops killed in combat is providing clues for a team of defence scientists to improve gear and to save the lives of soldiers.

Staff from Defence Research and Development Canada have had such a program in place since the fall of 2006 and expanding it to include examinations of the equipment of those wounded in action is a possibility.

"The bottom line is we're trying to ensure that the equipment did what it was supposed to do and to see if there is anything that could reasonably be done to modify the equipment or add additional equipment that could help mitigate further injuries of that nature," said Maj. Stephen Boyne, head of the soldier systems integration group at DRDC.

The process builds on the work from the coroner's office in Toronto where autopsies are conducted on Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. At the end of that examination, a soldier's personal protective equipment, such as helmet and bulletproof vest as well as other items of clothing, is sent to DRDC facilities where a team begins to look for clues. Each piece of gear is examined.

"They'll try to relate that damage back to the autopsy findings so (what they're) looking at was the equipment involved in mitigating any injuries, what was the threat (and), if there were fragments recovered, what were they within?" explained Boyne.

Fragments recovered from the equipment are sent for further analysis.

Staff from DRDC Toronto and the Canadian Forces Environmental Medicine Establishment, DRDC Valcartier, Que., and, at times, DRDC Suffield, Alta., are all involved in the effort. Staff from the military's various equipment offices are also part of the team.

The tests have already resulted in a number of modifications. For example, shoulder protectors on fragmentation vests have been lengthened and extended to cover more of the upper arm, Boyne said.

"We've added throat protection to protect the front of the neck and we're in the process of developing a protector for the rear of the neck," he added.

Although such improvements may have been considered before, the equipment analysis allows the military to decide priorities for what extra protection should be developed, Boyne noted.

A similar analysis is done on Canadian vehicles damaged or destroyed in Afghanistan. A technical officer does an on-site assessment and when the vehicle is returned to Canada, a team examines it in more detail.

"They use the findings combined with injury reports and autopsy reports to determine what modifications, if any, need to be made to the vehicles to provide better protection to the troops," Boyne said.

Boyne said expanding the program to include the wounded and even uninjured would be useful, though the extent of such an expansion is unclear. Because medical records are considered confidential, privacy flags have been raised.

At the same time, the team has to make sure that it doesn't make changes to equipment that might somehow inadvertently alter its life-saving capabilities, Boyne explained.

"(You want to) make sure that in trying to make something better for an injury that you saw, you aren't actually making it worse for a bunch of injuries that didn't happen because of the way the equipment is currently configured," he added.

The United States military also has a program to examine the bodies of those killed in action as it searches for ways to improve gear. Besides autopsies by military pathologists, a CT scan to create a profile of the injuries of the deceased also is done. So far, approximately 3,000 bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been examined.

Boyne said Canada does not use CT scans in its process. The coroner's office in Toronto does not yet have a CT scanner but a DRDC official also said that the information gathered through the various Canadian examinations is enough that CT scans are not needed.

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