Life-saving Protective Gear Returned to Two Fort Carson Soldiers

Sgt. Aaron Herbst, left, and Sgt. Christopher Thompson. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Sgt. Aaron Herbst, left, and Sgt. Christopher Thompson. (Photo: U.S. Army)

FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Two Soldiers who nearly lost their lives in Afghanistan, one due to a close call with an 82mm round, and one due to a sizable IED explosion, were recently reunited with the body armor credited with saving their lives.

Sgt. Aaron Herbst and Sgt. Christopher Thompson are both now stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. During two separate ceremonies at the installation, Program Executive Office, also known as PEO, Soldier, returned to them the protective gear that kept them alive.

On Oct. 15, Master Sgt. Corey Ingram, senior enlisted adviser for Product Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, part of PEO Soldier, returned to Herbst the Enhanced Side Ballistic Insert that saved his life in theater.

Herbst experienced his brush with death, May 18, 2011, in Afghanistan. It was then when an 82mm anti-tank round barely missed him and slammed into a mud brick building roughly 10 feet away from where he stood.

At the time, Herbst was serving as the platoon radio operator, and the blast threw him to the ground and hit him with red hot fragments that ripped into his upper left arm, lower left leg, and right knee. Though he was wounded, the hard ballistic inserts of his body armor stopped several other lethal fragments and saved his life.

"I was standing next to the door of a grape-drying hut when the round hit the corner of the building," said Herbst. "I was wounded and had to low crawl under enemy fire to get to cover. I didn't know it at the time, but I had suffered mild traumatic brain injury, so the rest of the firefight was pretty much a blur. It was over in about 10 minutes, and I was taken for medical care."

It took Herbst some time to contact his parents, who were at the time living in Eagle Mountain, Utah, because the injury had affected his memory and he had found it difficult to recall phone numbers. Working through friends, and friends of friends, he was able to get the word to his parents within four days.

Herbst said he returned to the fight after four weeks of recovery. He said, "[I] didn't want to abandon anyone in my platoon."

The NCO said the plate will serve as "hard evidence" of the history he has lived through, history he survived, thanks to a body armor plate that allowed him to return to his family.

"Getting the plate back is great," he said. "It is going to hang on my wall."

The following day, on Oct. 16, Ingram returned an Advanced Combat Helmet to Thompson.

Thompson had been wearing that helmet, Oct. 18, 2011, in Afghanistan. He had been driving in a mounted convoy during a clearing operation in the eastern part of the nation. During that operation, his vehicle triggered an improvised explosive device containing several hundred pounds of explosive.

"It was around noon, and we were clearing a route in eastern Afghanistan, in an up-armored vehicle," Thompson said. "We had passed through the area earlier, but on the return, we hit the IED."

The explosion from that IED caused extensive damage to his route-clearing vehicle, Thompson said.

"The front rollers and the RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) cage were blown off," he said. "Even the engine block was cracked. The center console of the vehicle blew out and cut my leg. I suffered mild traumatic brain injury, but I knew what happened, because this was my second IED on the same deployment."

Thompson said he remembers, after being hurt, calling his wife from the hospital to let her know what happened.

"She suspected something because I didn't call at my usual time," Thompson continued. "I told her that that I was fine, but that she might get notified that I would be injured. She started crying."

Thompson said he recognizes that it was the helmet that kept him alive, so that he might return home again to be with his family.

"This helmet has sentimental value for me because it reminds me of my brothers in arms whom I deployed with and with whom I became a family," he said. "It is also a constant reminder to always wear your protective gear. This stuff that has been issued to you — it can save your life. I feel lucky because I made it and I think of the others who gave everything. I want to thank PEO Soldier for all they have done to provide us with equipment that has helped keep us safe."

Product Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, or PM SPIE, oversees development of helmets, body armor, uniforms, parachutes, and other clothing and protective equipment. PM SPIE is located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and is part of Program Executive Office Soldier.

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