A New Flak Jacket for Soldiers Delivers Instant First Aid

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Matthew A. Long, right, designed a self-aiding attachment to be placed between a Marine and the small arms protective insert plates. Long’s idea for the device began after brainstorming ways to save Marines’ lives with hopes to minimize the time between injury and treatment. Sgt. William Hester/U.S. Marine Corps

The quicker a soldier wounded on the battlefield can get medical attention, the better his or her chances of survival. Unit medics or field doctors can administer first-line treatment in the field or en route to the closest hospital, but conflict zones are volatile and immediate medical assistance isn't always possible.

That could soon change. An invention by a Marine mechanic can deliver instant first aid—even when bullets are flying. Corporal Matthew Long of the 3rd Maintenance Battalion has designed a modified flak jacket that includes packages filled with life-saving drugs such as blood clotters and painkillers. Each package sits behind the flak jacket's ceramic armor plates. When pierced by a bullet, the packages break open and, aided by the force and trajectory of the bullet, release their contents into the wound to help stem bleeding, prevent shock and lessen pain.

Ninety percent of deaths on the battlefield occur before wounded troops reach a medical facility, according to a 2013 study of more than 4,500 combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Long's idea, if implemented, could save many of them. The study found that uncontrolled bleeding was the leading cause of death among soldiers, and the clotting agents in Long's jacket could help stanch blood loss almost immediately after a soldier is wounded.

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"The idea is commendable in its intent," says Christopher Couldrick, who teaches defense systems engineering at Cranfield University in the U.K. "But feasibility is going to be a big challenge." Couldrick cites concerns around the "bluntness" of the technique: You can't control the amount of drugs released or how deeply they go into the body, because drug delivery is purely dependent upon where the bullet breaches the drug packages and then travels through the body.

Another danger is that soldiers could get an overdose of painkillers such as morphine, often used for gunshot injuries, if multiple packets are pierced. The packaging would also have to be biodegradable and sterile, because bits of it could enter the body and contaminate the wound.

Another concern, Couldrick says, is how much extra weight these packages would add to a soldier's flak jacket.

These will be tough problems to solve, but Long now has help—he was one of 17 winners of the inaugural Corps' Logistics Innovation Challenge, part of a larger push for innovation across the Department of Defense. That will give him what many inventors dream of—the opportunity to develop and test a prototype, so he still has a chance.

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