Sgt. William Hartmann is one of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines who as a gunner has been responsible for providing security to supply convoys from Humvees or tanks. It's a dangerous job, but Hartmann says it's even more perilous because of his equipment -- specifically, the narrow nylon strap that gunners are supposed to sit on.
"Basically your legs start cramping up and you lose sensation overall," he said. "A lot of us gunners end up standing up to prevent that from happening, and unfortunately that's how you get killed as a gunner."
Gunners who stand are more vulnerable to gunfire, Hartmann said. During accidents, explosions, and when the Humvee rolls over, gunners are too often ejected because the gunner strap has no restraint.
It can be deadly. Gunners have complained about this to the Pentagon, military publications, and other media to little or no avail. It's not the first time Pentagon commanders have taken heat for not providing the best equipment for soldiers here.
There was the question of insufficient vehicle armor. Meeting with troops in Kuwait in December 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked by Tennessee National Guard Spc. Thomas Wilson, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?"
A Pentagon study leaked to the media in January concluded that as many as 80 percent of the Marines killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body might have had a better chance of survival with extra body armor to protect their shoulders and sides. Such armor has been available since 2003.
And now … gunners' seats?
For what it says are privacy concerns, the U.S. military shares little information about how troops are killed or injured, but anecdotal evidence abounds. A March 2005 Pentagon fatality memo described how after a "preventable" accident, "the gunner of the second vehicle was ejected from the turret and sustained fatal injuries."
"I'm here to serve my country, and I'll do everything it takes to do just that," Hartmann said. "But I don't want to come home to my three children and my wife because of an accident and an event that could have been easily avoided if I had just had better gear."
Help From Home
So Hartmann turned to Kyle Greenwood, his friend in Texas.
Greenwood lives on a horse farm with his wife and two young boys, and is something of a handyman. Hartmann thought he might be able to come up with a comfortable saddle for the tank that would also strap gunners in to prevent them from being ejected and killed.
"There were accidents," Greenwood said, "that gunners were being thrown out, and he said, 'Find some way to tie me into this.'"
Said Hartmann: "In all the years that I've known Kyle Greenwood, what I know about Kyle is he's the type of guy that can get things done."
Greenwood sat down and began sketching a new gunner's seat for his friend. It had a wider leather seat, like a saddle, and a strap to secure Hartmann into his vehicle.
He called it the "Cooper Sling" to honor his late father-in-law, Pat Cooper, a military man like Hartmann, who says the Cooper Sling is a lifesaver.
"The only way you can sit that low in a profile and not be in sheer agony is being in a seat like the Cooper Sling," Hartmann said.
Hartmann's comrades in the desert saw his new gear and wanted Cooper Slings for themselves.
"At that point, I felt I made a commitment to these guys that I would make them for them," he said, "so I had to go raise money, try to find a way to get these made as quickly as possible."
Greenwood quit his job as a successful home remodeler, and asked friends and family to invest in his new company. He set up a Web site and charges around $500 per Cooper Sling.
"Put yourself in Kyle's position," Hartmann said. "I mean, do you tell them, 'I know this is a safer seat for you. I know this will help you do your job much better. But this is only for my friend.'"
Saving Soldiers' Lives
Greenwood has sold more than 4,000 Cooper Slings to soldiers in the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are sold on the Internet and mailed directly to the war zones. Some are purchased by field commanders and some by civilians through an adopt-a-gunner program, while other soldiers have bought Cooper Slings with their own money. Canadian soldiers have bought them, too.
Greenwood started receiving unsolicited letters from soldiers in the field, like one from Sgt. Daniel Rodriguez after a truck smashed into his Humvee. "Your Cooper Sling kept me from being ejected out of the vehicle," Greenwood said, reading it aloud.
He read another letter from a soldier in the Texas National Guard on the front lines in Iraq: "The Cooper Sling saved my life. And my wife and soon-to-be five kids appreciate it."
Facing Pentagon Resistance
The Pentagon has so far resisted any efforts to make the Cooper Sling standard issue.
In fact, Greenwood's mission to get a Cooper Sling to every gunner was dealt a blow last month when the Army posted a warning urging soldiers not to use it.
The warning said testing had showed that "it did not prevent the gunner from being ejected out of the gunner's hatch and would actually prevent rapid entry into the vehicle crew compartment during a roll-over drill."
Greenwood was especially surprised to hear this warning because he had received letters from Army commanders thanking him for saving their soldiers' lives.
The Pentagon would not comment except to reiterate its position that testing had showed it to be unsafe and to add that it "directs that any of these items installed on Army vehicles be removed immediately and replaced with an authorized seat."
Hartmann has since come back safe from Iraq, perhaps the best testament to his buddy's invention.
"Worst-case scenario for me, it turns out to be a nonsuccessful business venture," Greenwood said. "This isn't really a sacrifice for me. The ones who are making a sacrifice are guys over there defending our country."
Pentagon commanders have taken heat for not always providing the best equipment for soldiers -- whether that be inadequate armor for a soldier's vehicle or for his body.
Regarding the Cooper Sling, the Army has agreed to take another look and will have it tested at an Army-approved facility at the end of this month.