In Memory of a Fallen Friend, Navy S.E.A.L. Founds Armored Vehicle Company

For former Navy S.E.A.L. Christopher Berman, the mission to build a better armored vehicle is personal. Unlike his days as an elite Navy operative, he wasn’t responding to a command from his superior, but rather an inner calling.

Berman’s friend, Scott Helvenston, was working for private security contractor Blackwater in Iraq when tragedy struck in 2004. The car Helvenston was riding in was ambushed by insurgents as he and three other members of his security detail made their way through the dangerous streets of Fallujah.

During the attack, Helvenston’s body and that of one of his colleagues was pulled from their smoldering vehicle, dragged through the streets, and hung from a bridge. Graphic images of the atrocity were broadcast around the world, remembered now as one of the darkest days of the war.

The incident led to heightened conflict between U.S. Forces and the Iraqi insurgency. It also inspired Chris Berman to act on his own. Later that year he founded Granite Tactical Vehicles with the intent of building a better armored vehicle, to save others from the same fate as Helvenston's.

“To this day, I believe that had they been in one of these vehicles, then the four of them would still be alive,” said Berman referring to the insurgent attack that killed his friend.

He’s come a long way since he built his first vehicle using the frame of a Ford pick-up, some scrap metal and his bare hands. What started as a crude handmade prototype with a skeleton crew soon evolved into a full assembly line that Berman set up in an old factory in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. Four years later, Granite Tactical Vehicles is a thriving $10 million dollar business which he hopes will expand and create hundreds of jobs for North Carolina.

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Despite having to make cross-country trips to the West Coast where his wife and five children live, he’s kept his eye on the ball and his sights set on catching the attention of the U.S. Defense Department. So far, Granite Tactical has developed vehicles for private security contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as police S.W.A.T. teams here in the United States. He says he realized he was on to something and had achieved his goal of saving lives when his phone rang the day after Thanksgiving in 2005.

“I got a phone call from somebody I knew [in Iraq] who personally survived an I.E.D. attack on one of these vehicles”, said Berman.

Today, his focus is still on saving lives. He hopes to answer the U.S. Military’s call for a replacement of the decades-old Humvee this year.

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He says the Marine Corps is showing interest in his armored version of the Humvee. Berman’s idea is to retrofit existing Humvees with life-saving armor and blast resistant V-shaped hulls for half the cost of a new one. Similar armored vehicles are currently being used by soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Berman is awaiting word from the Marine Corps regarding a joint research project to test his version and the armored capsule he developed.

At the end of the day Berman says, it’s not just about winning big government contracts, “Every day I come to work fulfilling both my dream and a way to make a living.”

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