Musician wants to save soldiers from headaches

by Jordan Green

Three years into the war in Iraq, with ferocious mid-term elections and an open-ended brawl of a presidential contest due in the next two years, one point of consensus that seems to prevail from left to right and in between is that the soldiers deployed in combat should be treated with respect. So why is it so hard to get them the armor they need to stay alive?

That’s a question Jimi Bell, a Greensboro musician and Army veteran, has been asking himself a lot lately. Bell, an imposing dude who plays in a band called MotorFinger and wears his jet-black hair long on top and cropped short on the sides in a style that suggests Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, might seem an unlikely champion of active-duty US soldiers.

He served in the peacetime Army between the US deployment to Grenada and the Persian Gulf conflict of 1991. Last summer, he said, he and a buddy who is a Navy veteran were moved by news reports of soldiers in Iraq scavenging scrap metal to add armor to their Humvees. He wanted to do something, and with the Humvee problems getting resolved, he started researching a Texas organization called Operation Helmet that advocates for improving the safety of helmets for combat soldiers. Being a musician, Bell decided to put together a compilation CD to raise money to buy helmet upgrade kits consisting of shock absorber pads and redesigned strap systems.

‘“I’ve e-mailed every senator, congressman, the president, the vice president, the mayor,’” he says. ‘“All of them send a form letter back. It’s not like I’m complaining about the gas prices or traffic on the highway around my house. This is a serious issue: it’s about people’s lives.’”

He’s even e-mailed a former mayor of Greensboro.

‘“Speak out on the cause,’” Bell says. ‘“I’m not trying to get into your wallet. I don’t want Jim Melvin’s hundred dollars; it would make a lot more difference for him to speak out.’”

Bell has two helmets in the dining room of the house on Huffine Mill Road behind the K-Mart distribution center where he stays with his grandmother. The helmets share the same durable heft, but the standard-issue helmet used by the Marine Corps bears a somewhat inflexible circular strap system. The new model, adopted by the Army, Special Operations and the Navy Seabees, sports an assemblage of resilient pads attached by Velcro. A special back strap over the nape of the neck keeps the helmet from jerking forward when a soldier is hit, Bell says.

‘“There are so many stories that Oregon Aero and Operation Helmet have received that soldiers will kick in a door and an [improvised explosive device] will go off,’” he says. ‘“The soldier who doesn’t have the upgrade kit, the blast will blow the helmet back and expose his head to injury. The soldier with the upgrade kit will be fine.’”

To be sure, the claims by Bell and others that the Marine Corps is trying to cut costs at the expense of soldiers’ lives is controversial.

Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania who invited Operation Helmet founder Bob Meaders to testify before the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee on June 15, gave the activists a generally sympathetic hearing, but acknowledged that there are conflict-of-interest allegations floating around the group.

‘“[The Marines] also expressed their concerns that there was an inappropriate relationship between Operation Helmet and the primary provider of the padded system for combat helmets,’” Weldon said in his introductory remarks. ‘“In fact, a senior Marine Corps official accused Operation Helmet of ‘abetting war profiteering.’ This same official indicates that the padded system, being requested by Marines in Iraq for their helmet ‘does not work.””

Weldon went on to say that elected officials are receiving 40 to 50 complaints a day from deployed Marines about their helmets.

‘“How can so many warfighters be wrong?’” he asked. ‘“The padded system being requested is used by the Army and Special Operations Command. The Marine Corps’ own testing indicates that their helmet provides about half the blast impact protection of the Army-SOCOM helmet. The Marine Corps says its helmet meets the Marine Corps requirement, but if it only provides half the blast impact protection of the Army-SOCOM helmet we need to understand why this is acceptable to Marine Corps leadership.’”

Bell estimates he’s probably sent out 7-8,000 e-mails promoting his CD compilation benefit project and the cause of upgrading the troops’ helmets. And while donors and celebrities willing to lend their name to the cause have been in short supply, musicians wanting to contribute their talents have not.

First, the Kory Brunson Band contributed ‘“We Know You’re Out There.’” Then two Arkansas National Guardsmen, Spc. Nick Brown and Sgt. JR Schultz, who bill themselves as Iraq Unplugged owing to the rough quality of their acoustic field recordings made in Baghdad, leant their song ‘“We Hate Terrorists.’” Since Bell started soliciting songs in late March he estimates he’s received 50 to 60 recordings in the mail. He plans to send the songs to a company in Ohio to be mastered and mass-produced.

The songs tend to resonate with a certain patriotic, duty-bound sensibility. Iraq Unplugged’s ‘“We Hate Terrorists,’” one of the more irreverent songs in the collection, imagines capturing Osama bin Laden, taking him to a bar in New York frequented by cops and firefighters, and playing a game of ‘“smear the queer with the turban.’” But Bell considers the CD, entitled A Tribute to Heroes, an apolitical project.

‘“I got so many songs that are obviously liberal,’” he says of the entries. ‘“I didn’t want to hear songs about ‘we hate Bush, we’re against the war, bring the troops home.’ I don’t want it to be a political statement for or against the war. I don’t want it to be a black eye on the president. I just want the guys to have the best there is. It’s that cut and dry.’”

While he believes that should be a sentiment that unites conservatives and liberals, he also takes issue with the ‘“support the troops, bring them home’” equation.

‘“You can’t support the troops without supporting what they’re doing,’” he says. ‘“They’re doing good [work]. I get letters from these guys’….’”

As if on cue, Bell’s grandmother, Bea Adams steps in the room and drops a priority mail parcel and a brown envelope with hand lettering on his lap, saying, ‘“Speaking of letters’….’” Her grandson looks slightly irritated as he momentarily loses his train of thought.

White haired and spry, Adams quips: ‘“I’m the unnecessary evil around here. Or maybe I’m the necessary evil.’”

Bell says he’s in this for the long haul. He’ll keep pushing this campaign until Operation Helmet buys an upgrade kit for every soldier who wants one, or until Congress forces the Marines to provide them. It’s a gesture he finds more meaningful than putting together care packages to the troops.

‘“The two things that last are music and their safety,’” he says. ‘“It was a pretty open and shut case of captain obvious for me. Music and safety go hand in hand. You’d be really surprised how many soldiers are writing and recording songs over in Iraq.’”

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