From sports shoes to bomb shields: the odd detour of a key U.S. military material

SKYDEX makes blast-absorbing plastic sheets that line military vehicles like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks used by American personnel in Iraq.

In the lobby at SKYDEX Technologies, just south of Denver, there’s a stunning, inside-facing wall that approaching visitors can't see.

Departing employees, however, can take long, slow gazes at all the imagery blanketing that wall: in short, it’s a glimpse of the immense, human cost of war.

Pictures show a U.S. Army soldier missing one full leg below his hip and a portion of his second leg under the knee – body parts abruptly shredded by an IED in Afghanistan two years ago. That soldier, still on active duty, is undergoing rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“We placed the photographs there, a lot of photographs,” said Peter Foley, chief technology officer at SKYDEX. (The pictured soldier prefers to remain anonymous). “You can’t help but look at those photos and not think about how not only his life has changed but his family’s lives as well. SKYDEX people see it as they leave. It will often make us turn around and go back inside and work harder.”

A look at the innards of the SKYDEX "Convoy Deck," now installed on the floors of most MRAP vehicles used by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. If it looks like the inside of a sports shoe, there is good reason.

Foley said the company’s patented, blast-absorbing plastic sheets now line more than 18,000 military vehicles – including Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks used by American personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar cushioning materials developed by SKYDEX also reinforce the floors of military interceptor boats and the padding in troop helmets.

In an IED attack that’s large enough to carry a 100 percent chance of seriously injuring a soldier who's riding above the explosion, the odds of bad wounds drop to 10 percent if that vehicle’s flooring is covered with a SKYDEX application, according to Foley.

The core of this danger-soaking science involves thin mats filled with thermoplastic, opposing “twin hemispheres” that collapse into one another during a nearby bomb burst, sucking up the rapid, violent energy waves emitted by an IED.

When the company’s “convoy decking” is viewed from the side, however, it somewhat resembles the guts of a sports shoe.

There’s a logical reason for that bouncy, about-to-dunk look.

“We started the company thinking we were a sporting goods material,” Foley said. “That’s my background. I’m actually a biomechanist.”

Plainly put, that means he is a sports scientist trained to apply the laws of mechanics and physics to human performance.

“The early inventors (of the SKYDEX material) were early guys at Nike, pioneers in the shoe industry. This absorbs so much more shock than foam,” which has lined many athletic shoes over the years.

But within about six months of the 2001 launch of SKYDEX Technologies, the company was approached by researchers from the Marines, the Army and the Navy – “to work on different problems the military had,” Foley said.

Among those problems: IEDs.

“Because we absorb so much force, it makes sense for them to go this route,” Foley added.

“Yes, we use SKYDEX blast-attenuating floor mats in many of our MRAP vehicles,” said Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “A majority of the MRAPs in Operation Enduring Freedom have them installed.

“It is accurate to say that both in test results as well as the results from IED events in theater, the technology demonstrates the ability to significantly reduce forces to the legs of people in the vehicles,” Robbins added.

At SKYDEX, the research-and-development team is examining next-generation head protection for American troops, Foley said, “really looking at what we can do to prevent injuries from blunt trauma and blast waves.” (The company also employs 11 veterans).

But the whirlwind career detour Foley has taken - from trying to engineer a more buoyant sports shoe a decade ago to trying to protect the heads and bodies of soldiers today - isn’t lost on a man who has his name on more than 10 patents.

“The veterans who work here were, by and large, boots on the ground. They have a difficult time telling their stories,” Foley said. “So it’s really easy to remember why we’re doing this.

“I’m the son of a retired Navy captain. Like a lot of older parents, he will often talk a long, long time on the phone. Then we’ll talk about SKYDEX, what it can do to save live and limbs. And he’ll suddenly tell me that I’ve got to get off the phone and go to work.”