By Army Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
FORT HOOD, Texas, November 16, 2015 — Three years ago, a man with a gunshot wound to the head walked into a hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, clutching a helmet as if his life depended on it -- because, as it turns out, his life did depend on it.
Army 1st Lt. Jeffrey R. Meek and the advanced combat helmet that saved his life were reunited in a presentation at the Mission Command Training Center here Nov. 13.
Meek is the assistant operations officer assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, but three years ago, he was a fire support officer with the division’s 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.
The young, fresh-faced lieutenant, the son of an Ordnance Corps soldier from the Vietnam era, Meek was thrilled to be a soldier and excited about everything he got to experience.
“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be a soldier,” said the Wilmette, Illinois, native.
He graduated from St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy, earned a four-year ROTC scholarship to the University of North Dakota, and was commissioned in 2011. He reported to his first duty assignment, where he got the news he had seemingly been preparing for his whole life.
“I got to 1-9 Cav. in July of 2012 and was told to go the central issue facility and draw equipment,” he said. “So I got my equipment, packed my bags and went to [the Joint Readiness Training Center] to train on this security force advise-and-assist team mission.”
Spending a month at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana and hearing of the very real possibility of deployment, Meek said, he remained excited.
“I joined the military knowing that I could deploy, and I wanted to deploy,” he said. “I saw that as what the Army does. As an active-duty soldier, the only purpose you have in life is to go far away to another country to fight wars for the defense of this country. That’s what I totally anticipated doing, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Upon his arrival in Afghanistan, Meek said, the situation got real fairly quickly. On his 25th birthday, he and his team went on his first mission outside the security perimeter and took incoming indirect fire. He said he knew quickly that this was going to be an eventful deployment.
Shot in the Head
A few months later, while setting up a blocking position on a bridge in Tagab, his team was caught up in a complex ambush. While lying in the prone with two Taliban military-age males in his sights, Meek said, his head was jolted back as if he had whiplash.
“‘What was that? My head just moved. Did I just get hit?’ was kind of what I was thinking,” he said.
Upon getting his wits about him enough to realize he needed to assess his condition, he said, he pushed back from his position, crawled to the nearby gun truck and began evaluating himself. He said his commander told him to go get checked out by the doctor, so he moved further to the rear of the formation where the doctor conducted a concussion evaluation.
A 7.62 mm round had entered his helmet, skimmed the inside of the helmet and exited out the back. Meek got shot in the head, but suffered only a superficial hematoma and a concussion, he said.
He said he’ll never forget the look on the medic’s face when the helicopter arrived to evacuate him.
“He was sitting on the other side of the Black Hawk the whole time,” Meek said, “and here I am with this helmet that’s got this bullet wound in the helmet, and I’m wearing it, because it was my helmet. I didn’t have another helmet. I wore that one on the bird. He just had this look on his face like, ‘Holy crap.’ I was like, ‘I’m the walking dead here right now.”’
The reaction he elicited during his reception at the hospital at Bagram was not much different.
“I remember going into the hospital,” he said. “The entire staff was waiting at the door as I walked into the door at Bagram, because all they get is, ‘GSW to the head,’ on a little printout, and that’s all they see, so they don’t know whether to expect a guy on a gurney, incapacitated. And here I come walking in, and I’m just clutching onto this helmet, because I wouldn’t be walking around if it weren’t for this helmet. It was just very surreal.”
After a night in the hospital in Bagram, he was transferred to the traumatic brain injury clinic, where he worked to regain all of his cognitive function and return to duty and complete the deployment with his team. He had his helmet in his possession for two or three days after the incident, but then it was taken away.
The personal protective equipment that the Army issues to its soldiers undergoes extensive testing to ensure that America’s warriors are outfitted with the best equipment, said Army Col. Dean M. Hoffman IV, Program Executive Office Soldier program manager of soldier protection and individual equipment.
“Until I took this job, I had no idea what went in to making this equipment, and it’s been eye-opening,” Hoffman said. “Every helmet is tested probably 67 times. We take each lot that comes off the production line. We keep some, and we put them in extreme cold, hot and constantly every year, we’re pulling them off the shelf and retesting them to make sure they’re the best and brightest.”
The engineers, testers and staff at PEO Soldier analyze the equipment that has been engaged in battle to gain knowledge and insight into emerging enemy technologies and vulnerabilities in equipment. These test help to determine what works, what doesn’t and where improvements and modifications can be made.
“After detailed analysis, we return it back to the soldier, and that’s what we’re doing here today,” Hoffman said. “It’s an honor. It’s really been great that we get to take the equipment and present that back to the soldier.”
With his helmet back in hand, Meek said he’s still taking in how it feels to also be reunited with that day two years ago in Afghanistan. Although he was physically able to walk away after getting shot in the head, he was not totally unscathed.
“Nothing was noticeable while I was in Afghanistan, I don’t think,” Meek said. “When I got back, there was a lot noticeable. It was definitely apparent that I left a piece of me on that bridge on that day when I got shot. Entirely psychological as it may be, it still did affect me pretty greatly since then, and still does today to a small degree. I just developed resiliency tactics to overcome this, and really continued service in the Army and leading soldiers helps me through it an immense degree.”
Meek has spent the past two years since the incident looking forward, so the presentation of the helmet brought the incident back to the forefront of his mind.
“It’s been so long [since I’ve seen it] and this is such a big event, I don’t think it’s fully processed yet,” Meek said. “This will help me bring closure to this incident.”