FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- It was around lunchtime on Sept. 3 when the shots rang out across Camp Maiwand in eastern Afghanistan.
Two gunmen -- one armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and the other operating a mounted PKM machine gun in the rear of a pickup truck -- had just opened fire on a group of Soldiers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade visiting the Afghan base.
"The plan was the fully automatic machine gun was going to open up on us, and the AK was going to pick us off one by one," said Staff Sgt. Steven McQueen, assigned to the brigade's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment.
"It just so happened that the terrain we were operating in, there was a choke point that we were walking through -- it was a perfect opportunity to attack us," he added.
During the insider attack, McQueen was struck in the back of the helmet with a 7.62x54mm Russian round at a distance of about 20 feet, knocking him off his feet, he said. Understanding the gravity of the situation, McQueen quickly recovered and started checking on his Soldiers as they worked to secure their position.
"It's nothing that I've experienced in my life that I can relate it to," McQueen said. "If I had to guess, [it would feel like] you stood there and let a horse kick you in the back of the head.
"I was surprised that I was able to react as quickly as I did because I knew what had happened ... I knew I was shot," he added.
The attack lasted about 10 minutes before Afghan National Army forces moved in to apprehend the rogue policemen, McQueen said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Bolyard was fatally shot in the attack and was laid to rest at the West Virginia National Cemetery later that month. McQueen was sent to Germany and treated for a traumatic brain injury.
"I had no surgeries. Basically, the eight days that it took me to get [from Germany] to Fort Benning [in Georgia], the brain bleed was healed," he said. "Other than some physical therapy to correct some balance issues, that's the only treatment I've had."
On Monday, leaders at Program Executive Office Soldier presented McQueen with his damaged Enhanced Combat Helmet during a personal protective equipment return ceremony.
"My dad used to have this saying. He would say, 'Son, Superman is not brave," Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, head of PEO Soldier, said at the ceremony. "My dad was telling me [that] Superman was invincible. He couldn't be hurt. The reality is our servicemen and women can be hurt."
Affixed to a plaque, the section of McQueen's damaged headgear shows clear signs of distress with a portion ripped open to expose layers of shredded padding underneath.
"I want our equipment to make our Soldiers invincible," Potts added. "We're going to do our best to provide you the equipment that you need to go out there and fight and return."
SOLDIER PROTECTION SYSTEM
After the presentation, PEO Soldier officials met with the media to discuss the new Soldier Protection System, or SPS. The new system provides Soldiers with a modular, scalable integrated system that can be tailored to meet their mission requirements.
The fact that McQueen is still alive today is "a testament to what we do as acquisition professionals, in terms of providing capabilities that will bring our Soldiers home safely," said Col. Stephen Thomas, Soldier protection and individual equipment project manager.
The Enhanced Combat Helmet, he noted, resulted from collaboration between the services after it was procured by the Marine Corps.
"This allowed us to provide the highest level of capability to our warfighters going into harm's way," Thomas added.
The new SPS features an Integrated Head Protection System, or IHPS, a modular scalable vest, a ballistic combat shirt, and the ballistic combat belt. Overall the new system is said to weigh less while maintaining the same level of ballistic protection and mobility than current systems, officials said.
The IHPS, for example, has shown a 100 percent improvement against a blunt force impact, when compared to the ECH, said Lt. Col. Ginger Whitehead, Soldier protective equipment product manager.
In simple terms, blunt force protection refers to the way the energy is dissipated after a round strikes the helmet, Whitehead added.
Additionally, the IHPS will feature a boltless retention system, making it easier for Soldiers to mount accessories to their helmet, or have the ability to integrate a visor or mandible protection device. When compared to current head protection technology, the boltless retention system eliminates the need for pre-drilled holes, which has the potential to weaken the ballistic material, she said.
Security force assistance brigades are currently using a version of the SPS, Thomas added. The 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will be the first conventional force to receive the upgraded personal protective equipment.
Even if it is the new SPS or the current equipment, McQueen has a newfound appreciation for his military-issued gear.
"Before this incident, I thought the helmet was cumbersome, and it was overkill," said McQueen, joking that he once preferred to wear a ball cap and a plate carrier. "I was sorely mistaken. This helmet works, and I'm a living testament to it."
A lot of science and a lot of innovation go into producing the helmet and other protective equipment, he said.
"From now on, all my Soldiers will wear [their helmet] -- and if they are in a hostile environment, they won't take it off," he said.
Having served for seven years, McQueen is determined to meet the goals he set for his Army career. And while he is slightly delayed, he said. The sergeant is still committed to making the selection for Special Forces and completing Ranger training.