Student veteran uses independent study to protect active military

Paul Ramirez poses by his first armor prototype after setting off an improvised explosive device to test his armor.

Photo courtesy of Paul Ramirez
Paul Ramirez poses by his first armor prototype after setting off an improvised explosive device to test his armor.
Paul Ramirez, 25, was an army ranger and later a mercenary during the war in Iraq.

Photo courtesy of Paul Ramirez
Paul Ramirez, 25, was an army ranger and later a mercenary during the war in Iraq.

In 2004, Paul Ramirez and his Army comrades set out on a low-risk reconnaissance mission in separate vehicles. All of Ramirez’ friends were in one vehicle – the vehicle that ran over a roadside bomb, killing all who were inside.

With the deaths of his colleagues, including his best friend, Ramirez was moved to find a way to protect the lives of those who were still serving in the military. In 2007, Ramirez began developing vehicle armor, which would stop, slow down or deflect the roadside bombs that have been the cause of death of many soldiers in Iraq.

Ramirez first attended Chapman in spring 2007, but left college the next semester to earn money as a mercenary in the war in Iraq. After returning from Iraq and re-enrolling at Chapman this fall, the war veteran pursued a mathematical angle to his armor project through Chapman’s math independent study course. This past November, Ramirez presented his armor prototype to military defense officials.

“I’m doing this so that in the future, fewer soldiers can experience the fate that my friends had,” said the 25-year-old. “I just feel that being reliant on prayer alone has to come to an end. Advancements in technology should be made as quickly as possible.”

As an only child growing up in East Los Angeles, Ramirez chose to involve himself in football and different forms of martial arts at age eight, including boxing and karate. Being occupied by sports was a way to avoid trouble on the streets, he said.

The war veteran attended private schools during his elementary and secondary educational years, paid for in full by an uncle who stressed the importance of schooling, said Ramirez. At Don Bosco Technical Institute High School in Rosemead, Calif., Ramirez’s area of study was materials science. He was captured by the thrill of breaking things down and building them back up again, he said. This excitement led him to serving as a bomb technician in the war in Iraq and building his vehicle armor prototype.

After his high school graduation in 2001, Ramirez received two congressional nominations to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. But witnessing the destruction of the Sept. 11 attacks profoundly changed his priorities in life.

“I thought that enlisting and becoming an Army ranger would be like a faster way of helping out my country,” said Ramirez. “At the time, I thought, ‘College is always going to be there.'”

Bypassing college after his high school graduation, Ramirez, who was 19 at the time, served his first tour in Afghanistan in 2002. When he arrived in the war zone, Ramirez applied his knowledge of materials science by adding more armor plating to the army vehicles to make them able to withstand small arms fire.

“At the outset of the war, they gave us light-skinned vehicles that were not really armored,” he said. “We had to make our own limited upgrades to our vehicles using the knowledge I had acquired.”

In 2004, Ramirez, an Army specialist, was shocked by the explosion that killed his friends who were riding in a Humvee, one of the most heavily armored, bulletproof vehicles in the military, he said.

“The up-armored Humvee became nothing more than a crushed soda can,” Ramirez said. “I couldn’t believe it … it was three weeks before we were coming home and we almost all made it.”

After four tours and four years of serving in the Army, Ramirez returned from Iraq and was accepted into Chapman for spring enrollment in 2006. That fall, Ramirez reconnected with his football background and joined Chapman’s defensive line. But four games into the season, Ramirez left Chapman to return to Iraq as a mercenary because of the lure of the action in war and his need for more money, he said.

“In the beginning, I could only think of going back to the war,” said Ramirez. “I kind of got it out of my system. I knew I had to leave it behind.”

Ramirez returned to civilian life in 2007 after four tours as an Army ranger and two more as a mercenary. During his transition, the war veteran met with his defensive line coach, Bill Yurak who coached Ramirez at Don Bosco and at Chapman. Yurak was dying of heart complications and called Ramirez, asking him to promise that he would stop risking his life in war and instead go back to Chapman. Five days later, Yurak died and Ramirez applied for fall 2008 enrollment at Chapman.

In the summer of 2008, Ramirez pursued his interest in creating an armor or material to be used in manufacturing military vehicles that would protect the passengers from roadside bombs.

The armor that Ramirez is developing is designed to withstand higher levels of explosives, including the bomb that killed his friends, which he identified as an explosively formed penetrator. This type of bomb is essentially a concave cylinder that when detonated, becomes a convex penetrator and sends out a hot jet that melts the vehicle metal, thus making it easier for the penetrator to go through the vehicle and kill the passengers. Ramirez’s project is basically a type of composite that won’t allow the jet of the bomb to melt the metal as much by deflecting the jet stream elsewhere, he said.

“Technical advancements in ballistic protection were lacking when the vehicles were made,” he said. “I realized how important the materials science discipline was. I had all that knowledge, and I wasn’t doing anything with it.”

This past summer, Ramirez’s military bomb school instructor, Ed Fritz, helped Ramirez with his project, which is a resin-based thermoset, a type of material that reacts to temperature. Fritz told Ramirez to continue his work and present his project to military officials in the fall, according to Ramirez.

In his first semester back at Chapman, Ramirez has enlisted the help of his math independent study professor, Adrian Vajiac, and senior math major Alex Leipf.

Vajiac has helped Ramirez with the math and physics of explosions, including kinetic energy, jets, and projectile motion, he said. Although Ramirez claims Vajiac has been an influential person in his research process, Vajiac believes his assistance to Ramirez is limited.

“This part of science is beyond my abilities to help him … our independent study is only purely theoretical,” said Vajiac.

Leipf, who played football with Ramirez in 2006, helped explain the mathematics background to Ramirez. Leipf said he explained different math equations to Ramirez, who had only been looking at his project from a materials science angle.

“I looked through the math equation formula and made it so it was useful, so he could use the formula on the materials side,” said Leipf.

In November 2008, Ramirez presented his armor project to Explosive Ordnance Disposal officers from the Navy and the Army, he said. In his first trial, the project worked as planned – there was no damage to the armor. In the second trial, the penetrator of the bomb pierced the armor, but was deflected, which Ramirez still counts as a success, as it was more effective than the Humvee material was, according to Ramirez.

Ramirez is scheduled to present his armor to the military officials again in February 2009.

“I think it’s awesome that he’s trying to help out his friends and brothers that are still in the service,” said Leipf. “He’s not that much older than anyone else here and he’s pursuing what he wanted.”

Ramirez’s ideal goal is to have his armor approved by the Department of Defense in February, be compensated monetarily and use that money to continue going to school for as long as he can.

“What else am I going to do?” he said.

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