When he needed a way to help ensure his brother would come home safe from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ernie Fessenden didn’t resort to rocket science. Instead, he turned to toys.
Teaming up with local hobby store owner Kevin Guy, the Rochester, Minn., resident employed some good old-fashioned American ingenuity to solve the problem. And their simple invention, using a toy truck, has saved the lives of six soldiers.
In 2007, Fessenden and Guy sent Fessenden’s brother, Staff Sgt. Chris Fessenden, a radio-controlled (RC) model truck outfitted with a wireless video camera to help him check for bombs under trucks and search for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roadsides in Iraq. That same remote-control truck, essentially a souped-up children’s toy, ended up preventing the potential deaths of six soldiers two weeks ago in Afghanistan, as Chris detailed in an email to Ernie.
“At first I was just absolutely shocked,’’ Ernie told TODAY.com in a phone interview. “It could have been [Chris] out there, so first I'm concerned with that, and I hope nothing like that ever happens to any of the soldiers. Then after that it was, ‘Do you need another truck?’ ’’
Chris had lent the model truck to a group of fellow soldiers who were going out on a patrol. They used the toy, which can go up to 30 miles per hour, to scout the area ahead of them for potential IEDs.
When the toy truck zipped out in front of the soldiers’ armored Humvee, it became enmeshed in a trip wire on the road that triggered what was estimated to be 500 pounds of explosives. The bomb exploded, but none of the soldiers was hurt.
Had they not sent the remote-control truck scooting up ahead of them, the soldiers might have approached the IED on foot — or driven the Humvee into the trip wire.
“They already thought they saw something suspicious, so they stopped and put the RC car out to confirm what they thought,’’ Ernie said. “This isn't going to replace anything they have — it just gives them a safer way to investigate.’’
Ernie and Guy have since shipped two more trucks to Chris, who received them on Monday. “If we can get some guys out of harm's way, I want to do it as soon as possible,’’ Guy told TODAY.com.
The remote-control trucks have been such a thorn in the side of insurgents that they have already triggered counterattacks aimed at reducing their effectiveness.
“It’s like we went over to the bad guys and stuck a stick in their eye with a toy,’’ Guy said. “They are now jamming the radio frequency of the trucks, but we were on top of that. We've already combated that.’’
Guy said he has been in contact with the Department of Defense and Traxxis, the maker of the truck, known as the Stampede, to help provide more of the toys to soldiers. On Monday night, Guy launched the website Trucks to Troops, where people can donate money to help send remote-control trucks to soldiers who can benefit from them.
“We’re hoping to save more lives by using this inexpensive product,’’ Guy said.
Birth of a notion
This bit of Yankee ingenuity began when Chris Fessenden was deployed to Iraq as a vehicle mechanic in 2007, in the midst of his second decade in the military. One of his duties was to check under dump trucks and military vehicles for anything suspicious or any possible bombs that may be attached. Ernie asked Chris what he used to perform these tasks, and the answer was decidedly low-tech.
“He said that either you get on your hands and knees and look under, or they used a mirror to look underneath,’’ Ernie said. “I said, ‘There's got to be a better way than that.’ I was thinking, ‘What can we do to help them so that my brother comes home safe?’ ’’
Ernie, a software engineer, initially investigated the use of ground-penetrating radar, but felt that was too complicated and expensive. He had always been fascinated with radio-controlled helicopters, but figured in this instance, a truck would work best when trying to inspect the underbelly of the military vehicles.
He turned to Guy, a former truck driver and the owner of Everything Hobby, a 6-year-old store that specializes in remote-control cars, trucks and planes. They came up with the idea to outfit a Traxxis Stampede with a video camera that had a monitor that Chris could put on his rifle, and they added infrared lighting around the sides for night vision.
All told, it cost about $500, including $200 for the truck.
“This was the only solution that was really easy to do,’’ Ernie said. “We thought, ‘If it works, great, and if not, we're only out a couple hundred bucks.’ ’’
Functional and fun
The truck ended up serving a dual purpose: It not only helped Chris and his fellow soldiers detect multiple IEDs over the years, but has also been a fun way for them to pass the hours during downtime. It even popped up in a video of a Christmas party this past year.
After Chris was done with his deployment in Iraq, he was stationed in South Carolina and Oahu before he was sent to Afghanistan last month, and the Traxxis Stampede was with him the entire way.
“He really enjoyed it in Iraq not only for the job, but as something to play with,’’ Ernie said. “The primary use is to help him come home safe, but sometimes there is a lot of downtime over there. Anything we can do to make things better and make things go faster for them over there is something that they appreciate so much.’’
Ernie can’t help but be amazed at the fact that in a military with a $600 billion budget, something as simple as a modified child’s toy could help soldiers perform their jobs more safely. “It’s like, ‘Guys, can we start back from the beginning and get a simple solution?’ ’’ he told TODAY.com.
After the Stampede was obliterated in the roadside explosion two weeks ago, Guy told Ernie to immediately send a new one to Chris. The two had earlier tried to raise money at a county fair for the original truck to be refurbished and came up with only $6.25. But now that the story of the life-saving truck has become public, they were able to raise enough money to ship Chris a second truck in addition to the one donated by Guy.
And Guy has been overwhelmed with emails and phone calls to his store in the past week from people eager to help. He also has been selling more Traxxis Stampedes than usual.
“I think people want something to rally behind,’’ Guy said. “Any time we can take nothing and turn it into something to save lives, that's huge.’’
To learn how to help send remote-control trucks to soldiers, visit TruckstoTroops.com.