For a soldier, flash fire is an ever-present risk, especially when deployed into areas of conflict. Burns can arise when a vehicle takes fire or hits an improvised explosive device, with the explosion of a bomb or shell, or even when performing maintenance or conducting live fire training. Recent conflicts in the Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Nagorno Karabakh and others show that fires have become much more prevalent and lethal. The risk of severe burn wounds to deployed troops is growing. Unlike so many risks our troops face, there is a proven method for mitigating burn wounds — the use of flame-resistant uniforms.
Yet, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end, the Department of Defense is forgetting one of the hard lessons it learned over the last two decades: issuing troops fire-resistant uniforms. Flame-resistant uniforms can reduce body burn by 80 percent preventing debilitating and costly burn wounds. That can be the difference between life and death, between months-long hospitalizations and getting up and walking away, between life-altering disability and returning to service. Other fields have recognized this fact; flame-resistant clothing is mandatory for many in the oil and gas, electric, and other hazardous industries.
DoD last learned this lesson when it introduced flame-resistant uniforms for combat deployments in 2006. But now, for some reason, the demand for fire-resistant uniforms has dropped significantly despite the continuing need as demonstrated by recent conflicts. Fire-resistant uniforms are at risk of becoming an episodic lesson learned and relearned.
This is not an academic issue for me. I deployed four separate times to Iraq and watched the U.S. military rush to mitigate, after too great a human cost, risks to soldiers that were foreseen by other conflicts, including IEDs. I have visited burn units and saw first-hand the severity of these types of wounds and injuries, and my daughter works in a civilian burn center. Among the many types of injuries soldiers can face in the course of their service, burns are particularly severe. Burns leave victims vulnerable to life-threatening infection, organ failure, lifelong pain, disability and often permanent disfigurement, along with all the associated mental health issues. Burn treatment and care is so challenging that efforts should be taken to prevent the occurrence of burns all together.
We see the characteristics of casualties in more recent foreign conflicts, and these conflicts hold lessons for our own troops as we prepare for future conflicts. In these conflicts, the risk was not primarily IEDs, but rather much larger explosives with even greater burn risks for their targets and those around them: air strikes, missiles and artillery at scale, and in one case, included thermobaric weapons. The threat to the force is clear. To prepare for such future conflicts, the United States must prepare now to mitigate and manage burn risk. If not, it will be yet another crash program with all the contracting, production and distribution friction during a time of conflict for something that is foreseen now. Even now, in light of the government’s decreased demand signals, we already know of at least one producer that will be forced to cease production before the end of the year, which will cause nearly a year delay in re-starting production whenever a new demand signal arises. We need immediate action; otherwise, these delays will be measured in human costs.
DoD and Congress recognized the importance of military burns by establishing the Military Burn Research Program in 2011. Since then, nearly $100 million dollars was invested in the program. The U.S. Army also maintains an Institute of Surgical Research, which manages DoD’s only burn center and an on-call burn flight team that transports burn patients by air to the center.
Cost is always an issue. The current military flame-resistant material and uniform was created during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. A concerted effort should now be made to both lower the cost and enhance the performance of these uniforms. In the end, the relative cost of a flame-resistant uniform is small when compared to the physical, mental, and financial costs of severe burns. A common rule of thumb is that a burn victim must be hospitalized one day for every percent of body burned.
An immediate solution is to issue at least one flame-resistant uniform to all troops as part of their clothing issue. This would provide the impetus for industry and DoD to develop new technologies, building on the successes of the uniforms introduced in the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It would also drive the development of the necessary production facilities and capabilities, building and strengthening the supply chains that we will rely on in the future. Investment in flame-resistant uniforms is the best approach, because it is a proactive and proven prevention approach for a known problem, today, and for the future. The time to act is now.
Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon retired after 36 years of distinguished service in the U.S. Army, during which he commanded troops in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, including four separate deployments to Iraq. He is currently a senior counselor at The Cohen Group.
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