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Pride and Production in a Vermont Helmet Factory

MSA plant stitcher Lucy Young and molder Larry Dwyer.
Andrea Hsu, NPR
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MSA plant stitcher Lucy Young and molder Larry Dwyer.
The three-pound Kevlar Army helmets are made by hand at the plant, with the processes taking place in one big room. Shown here, stitchers make camouflage covers.
Andrea Hsu, NPR /
/
The three-pound Kevlar Army helmets are made by hand at the plant, with the processes taking place in one big room. Shown here, stitchers make camouflage covers.
The helmets are designed to stop a nine-millimeter bullet traveling at 1,450 feet per second.
Andrea Hsu, NPR /
/
The helmets are designed to stop a nine-millimeter bullet traveling at 1,450 feet per second.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating new work in communities across the country. A body armor factory is hiring in Florida, and a humvee factory in Ohio has tripled its workforce. Meanwhile, in Newport, Vt., workers at Mine Safety Appliances are churning out rack after rack of olive-green helmets.

NPR's Melissa Block traveled to Newport to take a look at the business of military production.

The three-pound "advanced combat" helmets are made in one big, hot room inside a new, single-story building. The most important material in the process is Kevlar, a fabric designed to stop bullet fragmentation and shrapnel. Plant manager Rudy Chase likens it to liquid steel. Presses with the force of several tons are required to cut through the material before pieces are draped, molded and steamed to form the helmet shell.

The workers at the factory say they're proud of helping to protect American troops -- and beyond that, they're glad to have the work. The Army contracts allowed staff to increase from 62 to 118. That's significant in a town of 5,000 people, and in a county that has the highest unemployment rate in Vermont: 7.1 percent, double the state average.

The helmet factory now runs in three shifts, producing 500 handmade helmets a day. Workers perform a variety of tasks: cutting and draping the Kevlar; sanding and painting the pressed helmets; cutting holes for chin straps; and placing rubber molding, Velcro patches and pads inside for comfort.

Lucy Young stitches together camouflage helmet covers. As she works, she thinks about the war, and her 18-year-old cousin serving in Iraq. "He's wearing our product," Young says. "Label says MSA -- he's proud too that he's wearing that."

Mine Safety Appliances calculates it will take well into next year to fulfill its contract with the Army. Then, it hopes for more work to upgrade equipment throughout the military -- and keep this plant in Newport humming.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.