Facing ever-increasing challenges around the world to defend our freedoms, our armed forces - by their own admission - have transformed dramatically.
Borne out of necessity and a changing overall mission, the U.S. military in these times is defined less these days by its size and much more by its swiftness and rapid deployability as it fights on multiple fronts in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Over the past couple years, we've seen the military make a major transition, striving to become a more mobile fighting force and one that is better protected," says DRIFIRE president and CEO Gene Cone.
Cone is an apparel and textile industry executive keenly aware of the intricacies involved with supplying fabrics to the military: After serving with the Air Force, his career has included a long tenure as president of the military fabrics division for Burlington Industries at a time when the company was thought to be the world's largest textile company.
Now as the top executive at Columbus, GA-headquartered DRIFIRE, Cone has charted a course in which the company establishes an increasingly growing presence in providing patented fabric technologies to the military and government markets.
Specializing in an engineered line of flame resistant (FR) garments that also utilize Dri-Release moisture-management technology from Optimer Performance Fibers, DRIFIRE has an ongoing relationship with every branch of the military.
The company, for instance, is currently a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) "Certified Uniform Manufacturer" of optional short sleeve (MT21-000619-13704) and long sleeve (MT21-000618-13705) Class 3 (fast wicking and drying/anti-microbial) Marine Olive Drab T-shirts.
According to Cone, DRIFIRE's FR garments are meeting the needs of a more diverse fighting force with evolving demands.
Facing guerrilla conditions in the Mideast, for instance, soldiers are confronted with daunting new threats such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the road-side bombs that often initiate an electrical charge.
The challenges are also formidable in the air. "I've had pilots come to me and say, 'You know, that flight suit I am wearing that is made out of your product saved my life because I was in a fire,' " says Cone.
The fabric of the nation
The company recently made announcements surrounding new innovations for the military, notably for air combat. In February it announced that the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has expanded its authorization to procure a greater variety of DRIFIRE safety garments for either General Services Administration (GSA) or open purchase. The approved garments include the company's silk-weight and mid-weight T-shirts, long sleeve T-shirts, long pants and silk-weight boxer shorts.
Then last month, the company announced that it is making a public showing of two new state-of-the-art garments used in the assembly of the Air Combat Uniform (ACU) for the military and other flight suit solutions. The company says it has worked closely with U.S. Navy and Air Force uniform specification experts in an effort to develop the garments.
The flight solutions rely on a performance FR clothing blend, a patented formula designed to optimize the garments' moisture wicking, drying time and FR protection.
According to DRIFIRE, the new flight uniform solutions signal a revolutionary development for military apparel, as the new garments are the first in the air combat category not comprised of meta-aramids, materials that were pioneered and used for air uniforms dating back to the 1960s up through today.
Cone says DRIFIRE's innovation represents "the most significant improvement in overall performance clothing protection since standards were first set for these garments (in the 1960s)."
With the U.S. Army, DRIFIRE is participating in the PEO Soldier sponsored "Flame Resistant Environmental Ensemble" (referred to by the acronym FREE), and as of this writing was still a finalist among a pool of companies being considered for a contract.
As a result of the U.S. pronounced "Transformation Initiative," U.S. military personnel are more mobile than ever before, but their plight has increased the risk of exposure to flame and flash fire, as highlighted during the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cone says early interest in DRIFIRE arose partly from numerous, highly publicized incidents in the early years of the current war on terror, in which polyester and other athletic clothing worn by soldiers for comfort purposes reportedly exacerbated burn injuries; it has been reported that such athletic clothing can melt to the skin when exposed to heat and flames, leading to horrific burns. The U.S. Marine Corps has banned certain athletic clothing containing polyester and nylon for Marines operating in combat zones.
According to Cone, one Marine colonel made it a "personal mission" to find comfortable flame resistant garments after one early burn incident associated with polyester athletic clothing, and found the DRIFIRE line. Grassroots support for the products quickly swelled thereafter, Cone adds.
"What we are all about is flame resistance and comfort," says Cone, who joined DRIFIRE in 2007. "I've been doing this for 28 years. I've been in the Air Force and I know what an uncomfortable FR uniform feels like. We're providing the first inherently comfortable FR garment on the market. It truly is a breakthrough."
He attributes that innovation in part to several key factors including: the company's close working relationship with the military, one developed over time; sound domestic capabilities that meet Berry Amendment demands while also facilitating quick turnaround and deliverability; and several partnerships that optimize technology and supply chain capabilities.
Foremost among those partnerships is the synergistic association with DRIFIRE sister company Optimer, a textile, research, development and marketing company. (Both Optimer and DRIFIRE are owned by Sterling Partners, a private equity firm.) With its Dri-Release technology, Optimer assisted in the initial development of the DRIFIRE product line.
The Dri-Release fabric, made from a patented yarn, is designed to feel like cotton and keeps wearers comfortable, dry and odor-free. Another core partner of DRI FIRE includes Pharr Yarns, a North Carolina yarn spinner with extensive experience producing FR yarns.
Summarizing the DRIFIRE layered technology, Cone notes that it capitalizes on a combination of hydrophobic and hydrophilic fibers. "Typically, hydrophilic is a non-FR fiber but it becomes an FR fiber when it is blended with hydrophobic fibers," he explains.
Elaborating further, he equates the fabric's construction with a drinking straw in which the middle wicks away water, "then when it's lying on top of a high percentage of hydrophobic fiber it dries quickly."
"We've essentially created an evaporative cooling system, says Cone. "The product we have invented works with the body's natural cooling mechanism."
Winning on multiple fronts
The embracing of DRIFIRE by the company's military customers has had other benefits.
Cone says the research and development poured into production of the military garments has translated into commercial market successes, including with DRIFIRE apparel for utility workers and electrical linemen, who require garments that protect them from flash fires while also meeting more stringent safety requirements recently implemented. The company's web site includes numerous "fans'" testimonials from military personnel and others who have benefitted from the technology.
As it serves the brave men and women in the service, Cone says DRIFIRE is gratified to be achieving its own mission.
"Our product has often been initially purchased for someone's son off to Iraq and that's led to families' conducting fundraisers at their churches, raising money to buy DRIFIRE for everyone in the platoon," he says. "It's really a higher order. Everyone here in our company feels satisfaction knowing we're making a difference."
Michael D. Cole is associate editor of Apparel. He can be reached at email@example.com.
fabric at a glance
Product: DRIFIRE FR Clothing and performance wear for the military.
Properties: Moisture management, flame resistance, comfort (including flat seams that reduce chafing), evaporative cooling and antimicrobial, among others.
Other key properties: According to DRIFIRE, the performance characteristics are engineered into the fabric without topical finishes or chemical additives, and will not wear out or break down over time.
Fabric construction: Patented blend of 85 percent hydrophobic and 15 percent hydrophilic fibers.
Key vendor partnerships: Optimer Performance Fibers, United Knitting (TN), Pharr Yarns (NC), Noble Biomaterials, Peckham.