February 7, 2008 – North Dakota manufacturer has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a suit alleging that it had repeatedly shortchanged the armor in up to 2.2 million helmets for the military, including helmets for the first troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Twelve days before the settlement with the Justice Department was announced, the company, Sioux Manufacturing of Fort Totten, was given a new contract of up to $74 million to make more armor for helmets to replace the old ones, which were made from the late 1980s to last year.
Sioux upgraded its looms in 2006, company executives say, and the government says it has started inspections at the plant.
The U.S. attorney for North Dakota, Drew Wrigley, called the accord “an appropriate resolution” because the Defense Department had said that 200 sample helmets passed ballistic tests and that it “has no information of injuries or deaths due to inadequate PASGT helmet protection.”
PASGT stands for the Personal Armor System for Ground Troops, which includes the helmet model being replaced.
At the core of the investigation was the contention by two former plant managers that Kevlar woven at Sioux failed to meet the government’s “critical” minimum standard of 35 by 35 threads a square inch, or 6.5 square centimeters.
When properly woven, Kevlar, a polymer thread made by DuPont, is stronger than steel, able to deflect shrapnel and some bullets.
Government regulations call for rejecting Kevlar below the 35-by- 35 standard.
The company “was underweaving,” Wrigley said. “That is undebatable.”
The factory’s own inspection records often showed weaves of 34 by 34 threads or as low as 32 by 34 and 33 by 34. Looms were “always set for 34 by 34, always,” said Jeff Kenner, who operated and repaired the looms and oversaw crews on all three shifts.
In a statement, the company president, Carl McKay, denied “any and all of the allegations originally brought to the attention of the Department of Justice by disgruntled ex-employees.”
Settling the case, United States v. Spirit Lake Tribe, filed in U.S. District Court in Fargo, McKay said, was “a prudent business decision” to avoid legal costs and “should not be construed as an admission of wrongdoing.”
The potential harm is difficult to judge. Helmet damage depends on the projectile. Whether a damaged helmet would hold up better with a tighter weave is hard to calculate, experts said.
“You must have a certain amount of protection, and you can’t go below that,” said Gwynedd Thomas, associate professor of ballistics and protective fabrics at Auburn University.
Although the difference between 34 and 35 threads a square inch seems modest, the cumulative loss in layers of fabric is significant, Thomas said. “Every time that you’re losing some mass, you’re losing some integrity,” she said.
The strength comes from crossed yarns, the points that disperse projectile impact. “The fewer crossovers, the less energy dissipation you’re going to have,” she added.
A 34-by-34 weave results in 5 percent fewer crossovers than 35- by-35, a difference Thomas called “quite a lot.”
“I’m surprised somebody is not pursuing that more vigorously from the government,” she added. Were she a soldier’s parent, she said, “I would want to give my son a better helmet.”
The $2 million settlement is far short of what the two former managers, Kenner and Tamra Elshaug, hoped for in 2006 when they filed a whistle-blower suit. The suit, for $159 million in damages, accused the company of defrauding the government and violating safety standards.
“I think they got away with it,” said Kenner, who worked at Sioux for 20 years and was the weaving supervisor.
“Sioux Manufacturing basically got a slap on the wrist,” he said.
“The Justice Department did a really good job, but the Department of Defense is really just downplaying this. They’re embarrassed and want it to go away and would not admit to anybody’s getting hurt or even killed.”
Kenner and Elshaug’s lawyer, Andrew Campanelli, challenged Defense Department contentions that it was unaware of injuries from defective helmets. “There are tons of injuries with shrapnel and bullets going through helmets,” he said. “My clients documented that American soldiers did not get the protection that the government paid for, that the taxpayers paid for.”