By James Garamone
American Forces Press Service
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., Sep. 9, 1999 Let me say this straight up -- I hated the old M-17 protective mask. That's why the proposed Joint Service General Purpose Mask is such a pleasant surprise.
All service members will use the new mask, which will replace five masks currently used in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The Army is lead agent, but the mask development team has representatives from all services.
Putting on the M-17 always made me claustrophobic. Peripheral vision? Hah! The M-17's binocular eye ports cut down my vision. If I wanted to see something it had to be in front of me or I had to turn my whole head. Since I wore glasses, the mask, even when placed correctly, forced me to move around to see what I was looking at. Securing the mask meant tugging four straps tight. Once on, the M-17 was tough to breathe through. I remember one genius in Baumholder, Germany, who decided we would run PT wearing the mask. Thought I was going to die.
The hood, with all the zippers and Velcro and strings, was impossible to secure quickly by yourself. It also trapped heat and fogged up the eye ports. Putting on the old steel pot over it was like balancing a piece of china on a stack of books -- it always fell off. Using the mask with the Kevlar helmet is only somewhat better.
The M-40 mask, currently in use, is better all around than the M-17 except for one thing -- the canister. During a training exercise, I somehow hooked the canister on some camouflage netting, broke the seal with my face and got a couple of lungfuls of tear gas. I got an object lesson in M-40 maintenance as I cleaned lunch out of the inside of the mask.
At a recent demonstration here, I picked up the prototype Joint Service General Purpose Mask and was surprised by how light it was. It is much smaller than the M-17 and doesn't have the canister of the M-40. The mask is attached to a comfortable cap- like headpiece. It's sealed to the face by two straps sewn to the back of the headpiece and the bottom sides of the mask. It takes just a few seconds to put on the mask and seal it. You don't have to constantly mess with straps.
The mask rides low on the face and is comfortable. The best thing to me is the improved field of view. The mask is one piece and the eye ports stretch well to the side of the eyes, giving the wearer some feeling of peripheral vision. You can move your eyes instead of your head. Officials don't know how eyeglass inserts will be incorporated
There is no hood. That is part of the new Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology overgarment.
I couldn't test how easy it might be to breathe in the mask, because the new filters are not ready yet. Officials said they wish to make it easier for service members wearing the mask to breathe by 50 percent.
The M-17 and M-40 cost about $100 each. Officials said they want the new mask to cost about $50.
All around, the new mask ought to be great. Look for it in 2005.