A defense contractor may have rigged test results on how bug repellent Army Combat Uniforms were, officials say, leaving soldiers in insect-heavy places vulnerable to illnesses like the Zika virus and Lyme disease.

A federal complaint filed by the Department of Justice on Friday alleges that North Carolina-based Insect Shield LLC and its founder, Richard Lane, who died in 2022, incorrectly tested uniforms for insect-repellent and falsified documents beginning in 2015 under federal contracts worth more than $63 million.

The DOJ alleges that the company and Lane participated in a “multi-year failure” to apply permethrin to Army Combat Uniforms and Improved Hot Weather Combat Uniforms at the correct concentration levels. They also allege that the company submitted inaccurate lab test results to the government for the contracted garments.

The DOJ alleges that the company’s conduct included more than 430 “lots” of Army Combat Uniforms, which may have affected millions of soldiers over the years. 

Emails and calls from Task & Purpose to Insect Shield’s lawyers seeking comment on the lawsuit were not returned.

Bug-proofing the Army’s uniform

Insect Shield did not make the Army Combat Uniform but sprayed completed uniforms with insect repellent before they were delivered to the Defense Logistics Agency for distribution to soldiers. The total number of uniforms that Insect Shield treated was not specified in the lawsuit, but the scope of Insect Shield’s contracts with uniform makers suggests the number was in the millions over six years.

Between 2015 and 2021, Insect Shield held at least 49 contracts to spray uniforms from various manufacturers, according to court documents. Between 2013 and 2019, Bluewater Defense, Inc. committed to supplying the DLA with an estimated 880,000 trousers each year, sprayed with permethrin by Insect Shield, according to contract documents. Another DLA contract with Pentaq Manufacturing, Corp. shows a commitment to produce around 232,000 coats treated with permethrin each year.

Insect Shield is one of only two contractors that sprays uniforms with the bug repellent.

The Insect Shield complaint was filed in federal court under the False Claims Act which is the primary legal tool used to combat contractor fraud against the U.S. government. With this civil complaint, the DOJ is seeking monetary damages on behalf of the federal government. The suit follows an October 2019 whistleblower complaint filed by a former program manager for Insect Shield, Emelia Downs.

“Under the False Claims Act, the U.S. is entitled to three times the amount of damages it sustained, plus civil penalties of not less than $13,508 and not more than $27,018 for each false claim,” according to the federal complaint.

Military gear fraud

U.S. military uniforms are not new to accusations of contractor fraud. Several federal cases in recent years have led to multi-million dollar settlements against uniform makers and contractors, said Jason Paladino, an investigator for The Project on Government Oversight.

POGO has reported on “credible allegations of fraud over the years” with contracts under the DLA’s Troop Support office, Paladino said.

In November, Virginia-based London Bridge Trading paid $2.1 million to settle claims with the federal government and a company whistleblower over allegations that the company misled the DOD into purchasing foreign-made large duffel bags required to be made in the U.S. In October 2022, a Brooklyn man was sentenced to prison and forced to repay $20 million to the Pentagon after selling unsafe, counterfeit U.S. military uniforms that were supposed to be fireproof but were not. In 2019, defense contractor ADS, Inc., settled for $20 million over allegations that the CEO fraudulently won federal set-aside contracts reserved for small businesses.

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No more do-it-yourself bug sprays

Starting in 2012, the Army began issuing permethrin-treated combat uniforms to prevent soldiers from getting insect-borne diseases like malaria, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and the Zika virus. It is one of two insect repellents approved for clothing treatment, in addition to etofenprox. 

The factory-treated clothing replaced non-permethrin uniforms at Army Military Clothing Stores in October 2012. 

Factory treatment “guarantees that a safe and effective amount of permethrin is precisely applied” to each Army combat uniform, according to the Army Public Health Center cited in the DOJ complaint. “Factory treatment eliminates the potential risk of increased exposure to Soldiers applying concentrated liquid permethrin products to their uniforms.”

By February 2013, combat uniforms with permethrin replaced the old ones in the clothing bag issues to new soldiers. 

The Army’s adoption of Permethrin-treated clothing for its ACUs mirrors the Marine Corps’ Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, Marine Corps Tropical Combat Uniform, and Marine Corps Flame Resistant Combat Ensemble. The services identify repellent-treated garments with sewn-in labels on trousers and coats.

In the decades prior to factory-treated uniforms, soldiers were left to apply permethrin on their own. The DOD provided video instructions for how to apply permethrin safely but continued to urge additional personal protection with skin-based repellents like Deet. 

Today, the Pentagon includes pre-treated uniforms as part of its insect repellent system, along with skin-based chemicals and bed netting. “Using all elements of this system will provide maximum protection and is the safest way to prevent attack from nuisance and disease-carrying insects,” according to the Defense Health Agency.

In 2019, the DOD said it was looking at a chemical permethrin substitute for “at a lower toxicity level” that would last longer than its current lifecycle of about 50 washes.

The DOD contract included guidelines for how the uniforms should be tested. But the complaint alleges that the company and its founder “used multiple methods to conceal their test failures, circumvent the Government’s contractual testing requirements, and continue pushing out combat uniforms as quickly as possible.” 

It further alleges that they manipulated paperwork sent to the DOD and tested leftover fabric instead of randomly pulling garments from the actual uniforms being sent to soldiers. 

In 2003, Lane patented the permethrin treatment process and in July, Insect Shield rolled out the first EPA-registered insect-repellent clothing. In 2005, the company began treating troop uniforms at West Point because service members were getting Lyme Disease.

For each lot of garments treated, a contracted lab provided Insect Shield an Excel spreadsheet of results. Insect Shield only shared those results with the DOD if the garments had passed the tests, according to the DOJ.

In 2016, according to internal company communications cited in the lawsuit, Insect Shield’s Director of Military Programs, Michael Corley, described the company’s test results as “erratic.” 

In a reply, Insect Shield’s Chief Financial Officer, Aaron Holcomb, said, “we test more for safe guard, however when they all fail doesn’t do us any good. . . it’s the process that we do it and we are unable to track back to understand why it’s happening.”

These test results were not shared with the DOD, according to the complaint.

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