The week before he died, Army Pfc. John D. Hart called his parents in Bedford, Mass., from his base in northern Iraq. Amid the joy of hearing familiar voices, the 20-year-old paratrooper told his dad that he felt exposed in the soft-skinned Humvee he and his comrades rode into battle each day.
“The full consequences of what he was telling us was not obvious at the time,” Hart’s father, Brian, said a few weeks after his son’s death. “The concern was genuine and very real.”
When Hart died in a small-arms ambush in mid-October, the Army had no official plan to “retrofit” most of the 12,000-odd Humvees in Iraq. This in spite of continuing attacks on convoys and complaints from combat units that they were taking unnecessary casualties in the thin-skinned Humvees.
There is no official figure on how many of the 728 U.S. combat deaths might have been prevented by better armor. Yet as attacks on convoys escalate, an increasing number of the deaths and injuries are being sustained in vehicles. That, combined with public pressure from bereaved parents like the Harts and their representatives in Congress, pushed the Army into action. In late March, the Army told its commanders to make “hardening” of their Humvees a priority.
Way ahead of you
Even if the Humvee problem escaped the attention of senior military officials, it certainly got noticed quickly at the unit level, where maintenance battalions watched one blood-stained vehicle after another come back from patrol.
Since at least late last summer, these crews have been welding any metal they could get their hands on to the sides of the low-slung Humvees — the military forerunner of the Hummers now roaming American highways.
In some cases, says Col. Andy Gembara, a former special operations commando and father of an Army captain who just finished an Iraq tour, local commanders are hiring Iraqis to update the vehicles.
“They call it ‘haji’ armor, and I was glad to hear she had it,” says Gembara, now the CEO of a small defense contracting firm in the Washington area. “It makes sense. The Army may get upset if it’s not done by standard, but so what? They’re smart to do what they can until the Army can catch up.”
Until late last month, the Army’s official guidance on the issue of hardening Humvee armor was a recommendation to troops to put sandbags on the floorboards to deaden the impact of mine explosions. Some soldiers say the military should have addressed the issue much more quickly.
“They don’t like calling attention to things like this, but the problem was obvious right away,” says a U.S. Marine officer in Iraq who asked not to be identified. “The war mutated from armored combat into a guerrilla campaign, and suddenly the tanks were parked and we moved out into the population without much protection.”
When the Army did announce plans to armor 8,400 of the Humvees now in the country and replace another 4,400 with purpose-build armored versions, the news was presented as a logical response to changing conditions.
Yet as far back as 1993, the military knew it might have a problem. Following the loss of 18 U.S. troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, that year, the Army and several other military institutions, including the Marine Corps Command College and the Army War College, undertook reviews of what had gone wrong. The headlines, of course, focused on poor strategic and command decisions — allowing a U.N. humanitarian operation to turn into a manhunt, failing to set up a rational working relationship between U.S. commanders and the U.N. command.
But the reliance on poorly armored or unarmored vehicles, including Humvees, was another lesson supposedly learned. One of the many official studies of the issue, a 1997 paper by Maj. Clifford E. Day at the Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, concluded the reliance on soft-skinned Humvees “needlessly put their troops in harms way without the proper equipment to successfully complete the mission.”
Battlefield adjustments are as old as war itself, of course, and armoring Humvees will not prevent American troops riding in them from becoming casualties. But no one argues they are better off unarmored.
Troops on the ground know this better than anyone. In World War II, U.S. tank crews reacted to an earlier such error — German shells were passing right through the armor on their Sherman, Grant and Stuart tanks — by applying “iron Band-Aids,” spare strips of tank track welded to the hulls of their tanks.
Supply problems also play their part.
“In Vietnam, we sometimes found we got authorization for one weapon and ammunition for another,” says Col. Jack Jacobs, a retired infantry leader and recipient of the Medal of Honor. “I had to go barter to get M-60 ammunition in Vietnam because we were only authorized M-19, and it’s not compatible. I wound up trading some supply guy captured enemy weapons, clothing and belt buckles.”
These days, in the age of cell phones, credit cards and the Internet, other options are open to troops who find themselves at the short end of the Pentagon's stick.
Sgt. Ian Mason, for instance, runs a maintenance battalion of the 1st Infantry Division in al-Ramadi, about 75 miles west of Baghdad. He resorted to emailing an Army contractor, ESAB Corp. of Florence, S.C., when he found that spare parts for the plasma cutting torches being used to retrofit the Humvees were not available through Army channels.
“They have been most gracious to us and have put together a care package for us that includes all kinds of safety equipment and spare parts for our plasma cutter,” the sergeant told MSNBC.com in an e-mail. “As far as I know there is not a NSN (National Stock Number) for the parts of the equipment that are expendable.”
In other words, the Army ordered the plasma cutters but not the nozzles and electrodes needed to make them work.
Robert Fernicola, who runs ESAB’s plasma cutting line, says this kind of plea for help from the front line is not unusual.
“They try to back-channel it when they can’t get what they need from the Army,” says Fernicola. “They did it with a credit card.” ESAB also sent Mason's unit a big care package filled with the coveted spare parts.
Jets and casualties
Some Army maintenance chiefs, in desperation, are using their own credit cards to make purchases. One soldier, who asked not to be identified, listed boots, goggles and protein bars as particularly coveted items.
Gembara noted that special forces soldiers, in particular, tend to go outside the Army system to get specialized gear, from belts to knives to small arms.
But it has gone too far, he says, when troops find themselves re-engineering an entire weapon system — the Humvee — in the field.
"I think it’s a valid criticism to wonder why it took so long to put armor on these vehicles," he says. "But this is the never-ending battle between people in Washington who want another 20 supersonic jets vs. making our troops safer. There were no big companies or heavy lobbies lined up behind ‘armored Humvees,’ and it’s the troops who pay the price."
The cost of an armored Humvee, built from scratch, is $150,000. That's $1.8 billion to replace every Humvee in Iraq with one that offers armored protection. Or, looked at through the windshield of a Humvee on the Baghdad-Tikrit highway, that's less than 2 percent of the $99 billion the Air Force is spending on the F-22 fighter it insists it needs.
You do the math.
Michael Moran's Brave New World appears weekly on MSNBC.com.