By Roxana Tiron - 04/04/06 12:00 AM EDT
Soldiers, who must stay clean-shaven at all times, want to avoid pseudofolliculitis barbae — and not just because it is hard to pronounce.
Better known as razor bumps, the ailment has made its way into the deliberations of the Senate.
Mississippi’s powerful Republican senators, Thad Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Trent Lott, earmarked $1 million in the 2006 defense appropriations bill to qualify for military use a three-part shaving system made in their state.
The money will go into the Army’s research and development coffers to study the efficiency of Shaver’s Choice Skin Therapy Shaving System made by SC3 LLC in Madison, Miss. The company’s slogan is “Beat the Razor Bump Blues.”
At first glance, the provision may seem like a good example of the need for earmark reform, but according to medical studies and supporters it’s a problem that needs addressing.
Pseudofolliculitis barbae is a common condition, afflicting three in five African-American and other soldiers with curly hair, Cochran’s staff explained in the request for the $1 million. Jenny Manley, Cochran’s spokeswoman, made the information available to The Hill.
The condition results when hairs grow back into the skin, causing inflammation and a foreign-body reaction. Over time, it can cause infection and scarring.
Razor bumps can become a serious medical condition that results in the medical discharge of personnel, according to the justification for the $1 million request.
The U.S. military insists on soldiers’ staying clean-shaven, particularly in areas where they may have to use protective chemical and biological equipment. A beard can undermine the seal on a gas mask. Soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo all have to adhere to the shaving policy.
But the $1 million earmark is prompting questions from a prominent watchdog group.
“The Army needed an earmark to do this?” asked Keith Ashdown, with Taxpayers for Common Sense. “I do not understand why they needed the request to come from Congress,” he added, speculating that the Pentagon could have turned a deaf ear to the company’s entreaties.
He also pointed out that the research, development, testing and evaluation section (RDT&E) of the military services’ budget is the most earmarked portion of any appropriations bill. “Seven and a half percent of that [portion] is earmarked,” Ashdown said. “It makes the point that if you try to get an earmark in the military budget you go to RTD&E.”
Under Lott’s legislation on earmark reform, the $1 million would not be considered an earmark “because it goes to a federal entity,” Ashdown said.
Lott spokeswoman Susan Irby said the money fills an unfunded requirement. “The company brought it to our attention first that it was something the Army would be interested in,” Irby said. “In this situation it was not the senator asking the Army to do this. This would be the Army’s request; it would be their responsibility to determine.”
The Army Medical Command did not return several phone calls for comment by press time.
Three of company’s owners are former members of the military. One of them, Mark Jones, was an assistant to Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We hounded Senator Lott for two years,” said Michael Van Velkinburgh, the company’s vice president of operations. “Every time we had an opportunity to get to Washington, we would go see our entire congressional delegation. We would keep going back. We always carried samples with us.”
In the end, the two senators’ staff decided to give the company a chance to prove to the Army that its product works, he said.
The Shaver’s Choice Skin Therapy Shaving System works in three steps: The first one is a mild astringent towelette designed to kill bacteria and clean the skin without drying it out. The second is a shave gel that supposedly penetrates the skin and lifts the hair so that it gets a blunt cut instead of a pointed tip. The third step is a skin-therapy after-shave.
People who do not have razor bumps “cannot comprehend the pain involved,” Van Velkinburgh said. “Imagine having a dozen of those on your neck all the time. It causes morale problems. Their sergeants think [their men] are slacking off, [and] they miss the promotion.”
The company already sells its products at PX stores on military bases. But the $1 million would go to a study that would certify the product to be used in the soldier’s field kit.
Normally soldiers can buy their own hygiene products, but when they are deployed or in areas with no access to stores the Army provides a kit that lasts for about a month. The kit contains Barbisol shaving cream and a product called Bump Stopper 2, which supposedly burns off a layer of skin to expose the trapped hair.
The Army has been trying to find solutions to the problem. In 2004 it awarded a 19-month research contract worth $2.5 million to Palomar Medical Technologies to develop a self-treatment laser device for razor bumps.
When SC3 saw the money appropriated in Congress to find a laser solution, “we were sitting here screaming and trying to get in touch with the military,” Van Velkinburgh said. “We called the Pentagon.” But the Pentagon said that without proper research and review it cannot include the company’s products as part of the field kit.
Now with the $1 million appropriation, Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is expected to test the shaving products. To do so, the Army would have to use some of the money to buy the products from SC3.