Watch your head: US Army recalls 125k+ prison-made combat helmets

ACH helmet ©
Over 125,000 faulty helmets produced by prison labor have been recalled by the US military amid concerns that their quality problems could potentially endanger lives of American servicemen. No charges have been filed against the manufacturer.

Defective combat helmets have cost the US Army and Marines nearly $19.1 million dollars, revealed a Justice Department Inspector General report released Wednesday. According to the report, the Army recalled 126,052 helmets in total.

The IG report maintains that “some” of the supplied helmets had deformities and were manufactured with a number of violations, such as use of improper materials, degraded armor and expired paint. Serial numbers of the helmets were also altered or tampered with, the report said.

Military acceptance procedures were grossly violated as well, the reports said. The Defense Contract Management Agency provided untrained inspectors that reportedly submitted false reports without conducting tests, the report said.

“At least in one instance an inspector certified the lots as being inspected over a fax machine,” it read.

On the other hand, the manufacturer reportedly provided specially preselected helmets for inspection to make sure they would pass the tests.

LMCH Kevlar bonded together. ©

The story goes back to 2006, when the US Department of Defense was picking contractors to produce newly introduced Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH) for the US Army and the slightly different Lightweight Helmet (LWH), for the US Marine Corps.

An estimated $30 million contract to produce the ACH was granted to four suppliers, one of them the Ohio-based ArmorSource, which also won a separate multimillion-dollar contract to produce the LWH for the Marines.

ArmorSource then delegated the production of both helmets to its subcontractor, the US government-owned Federal Prison Industries (FPI), then and now operating under the trade name UNICOR. The helmets in question were produced at the Beaumont high-security federal male prison in Texas.

As of May 2009, ArmourSource had the contract closed, having delivered 99,000 out of the 102,000 helmets ordered. Of that number, 55,000 were put in storage and 44,000 were delivered to troops – including those on combat duty in Afghanistan.

A year later, the Army had enough evidence that “some” of the helmets were manufactured using “unauthorized materials and practices,” The Washington Post reported, adding that armor made of improper materials could “reduce protection” of personnel on the battlefield.

ACH torn and altered ballistic material. ©

In May 2010, the US Army had to recall all 44,000 helmets in use by US Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel.

The Marines did so even earlier, by simply rejecting in full the initial batch of 23,000 helmets and banning all further deliveries of the LWH. In July 2013, the USMC placed the first order for the new Enhanced Combat Helmet, planning to use the LWH for training and noncombat purposes only.

The Justice Department opened a federal investigation into ArmorSource, which “did not develop any information” indicating that any US personnel died or injured because of the faulty helmets.

In March 2016, ArmorSource agreed to pay $3 million to settle the charges under the False Claims Act. Of that amount, $450,000 was paid out to Melessa Ponzio and Sharon Clubb, former FPI employees who filed a lawsuit against the company in 2010.

The two whistleblowers, who used to work as plastics supervisors at FPI, reported that their objections about the way helmets were made had been ignored.

So far, no charges have been pressed against either ArmorSource or the FPI prison plant in Texas that actually produced the faulty helmets.

The Justice Department has a legal right not to provide an explanation for absence of charges, said DOJ spokesman Peter Carr, according to the Post. Paul Garcia, the chief contracting officer at ArmorSource, said the issue was “old” and refused to elaborate.

While factory in Beaumont prison exists no more, ArmorSource remains a manufacturer of US military equipment – winning another contract in May to make 10,000 helmets for the Marine Corps.