[ According to the Newsweek article below, although “For the Bush administration it has been a mantra … America’s troops will get whatever they need to do the job,” a recent study concludes that “one in four of those killed in combat in Iraq might be alive if they had had stronger armor around them … Thousands more who were unprotected have suffered grievous wounds, such as the loss of limbs.” “[T]he I Marine Expeditionary Force … has paid dearly … with an astonishing 30 percent-plus casualties (45 killed, more than 300 wounded) in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi.” “The military is 1,800 armored Humvees short of its own stated requirement for Iraq.” –BL ]
They were sent to fight for their country. But some GIs didn’t have all they needed to protect themselves
by Melinda Liu, John Barry, and Michael Hirsh
The inaugural mission of the 1st Cavalry’s 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment was, in its humble way, a bid for hearts and minds. It was to safely dispose of Iraqi sewage. Having arrived in Iraq in late March, a 19-man patrol from the battalion, traveling in four Humvees, had just finished escorting three Iraqi “honey wagons” on their rounds in the grim slum of Sadr City, where vendors stash eggs and chickens in bamboo crates next to puddles of viscous black mud. (“You’re lucky if it’s mud,” joked one U.S. officer.) Suddenly the street became “a 300-meter-long kill zone,” recalls platoon leader Sgt. Shane Aguero, courtesy of gunmen from the Mahdi militia of Shiite rebel Moqtada al-Sadr. The Humvees swerved and ran onto sidewalks, rolling on the rims of flat tires, as gunmen kept up the barrage of bullets. Sgt. Yihjyh (Eddie) Chen, gunner in the lead vehicle, was shot dead. Another soldier was hit and began bleeding from the mouth.
And their trouble was just beginning. Two of the Humvees became disabled. Aguero yelled at one driver to gun the engine to get his Humvee moving. The engine fell out. As they’d been drilled to do, the soldiers set out to strip the disabled vehicles of sensitive items and to “zee off the radio” — to see that codes and equipment don’t fall into enemy hands. When another group got ambushed nearby, an enemy round came through the Humvee’s right rear door — through retrofitted panels that the soldiers had been told would repel AK-47 rounds. Miraculously, none of the three people inside were hit. Then a third Humvee sputtered to a halt: debris had pierced the fuel tank. “It just wouldn’t start; we coasted the last 50 yards out of the kill zone,” said its driver, Spc. Dee Foster. At last an armored Bradley fighting vehicle arrived, and its steel ramp opened to scoop him and his buddies to safety.
For the Bush administration it has been a mantra, one the president intones repeatedly: America’s troops will get whatever they need to do the job. But as Iraq’s liberation has turned into a daily grind of low-intensity combat — and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld grudgingly raises troop levels — many soldiers who are there say the Pentagon is failing to protect them with the best technology America has to offer. Especially tanks, Bradleys and other heavy vehicles, even in some cases body armor. That has been the tragic lesson of April, a month in which a record 115 U.S. soldiers have died so far and 879 others have been wounded, 560 of them fairly seriously. Those numbers greatly exceed the tallies in the combat-heavy weeks of the invasion last spring. And the impact of those deaths was felt more fully last week when blogger Russ Kick, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, won the release of photos showing coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Soldiers in Iraq complain that Washington has been too slow to acknowledge that the Iraqi insurgency consists of more than “dead-enders.” And even at the Pentagon many officers say Rumsfeld and his brass have been too reluctant to modify their long-term plans for a lighter military. On the battlefield, that has translated into a lack of armor. Perhaps the most telling example: a year ago the Pentagon had more than 400 main battle tanks in Iraq; as of recently, a senior Defense official told NEWSWEEK, there was barely a brigade’s worth of operational tanks still there. (A brigade usually has about 70 tanks.)
In continuing adherence to the Army’s “light is better” doctrine, even units recently rotated to Iraq have left most of their armor behind. These include the I Marine Expeditionary Force, which has paid dearly for that decision with an astonishing 30 percent-plus casualties (45 killed, more than 300 wounded) in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi. The Army’s 1st Cavalry Division — which includes the unit in Sadr City — left five of every six of its tanks at home, and five of every six Bradleys.
A breakdown of the casualty figures suggests that many U.S. deaths and wounds in Iraq simply did not need to occur. According to an unofficial study by a defense consultant that is now circulating through the Army, of a total of 789 Coalition deaths as of April 15 (686 of them Americans), 142 were killed by land mines or improvised explosive devices, while 48 others died in rocket-propelled-grenade attacks. Almost all those soldiers were killed while in unprotected vehicles, which means that perhaps one in four of those killed in combat in Iraq might be alive if they had had stronger armor around them, the study suggested. Thousands more who were unprotected have suffered grievous wounds, such as the loss of limbs.
The military is 1,800 armored Humvees short of its own stated requirement for Iraq. Despite desperate attempts to supply bolt-on armor, many soldiers still ride around in light-skinned Humvees. This is a latter-day jeep that, as Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division, conceded in an interview, “was never designed to do this … It was never anticipated that we would have things like roadside bombs in the vast number that we’ve had here.” One newly arrived officer, Lt. Col. Timothy Meredith, says his battalion had just undergone months of training to rid itself of “tank habits” and get used to the Humvees. “We arrived here expecting to do a lot of civil works,” says Meredith.
According to internal Pentagon e-mails obtained by NEWSWEEK, the Humvee situation is so bad that the head of the U.S. Army Forces Command, Gen. Larry Ellis, has urged that more of the new Stryker combat vehicles be put into the field. Sources say that the Army brass back in Washington have not yet concurred with that. The problem: the rubber-tire Strykers are thin-skinned and don’t maneuver through dangerous streets as well as the fast-pivoting, treaded Bradley. According to a well-placed Defense Department source, the Army is so worried about the Stryker’s vulnerability that most of the 300-vehicle brigade currently in Iraq has been deployed up in the safer Kurdish region around Mosul. “Any further south, and the Army was afraid the Arabs would light them up,” he said.
Other quick fixes are being rushed in. In Ohio, O’Gara-Hess and Eisenhardt Armoring Co. says it is flush with new orders to crank out 300 “up-armored” Humvees per month. And Rumsfeld has just approved a quiet plan to fly 28 M1A1 tanks from Germany into Iraq by April 27, NEWSWEEK has learned. The move comes as the military is planning for a final assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. Meanwhile, soldiers are rushing to jury-rig their Humvees with anything hard they can find: bolt-on armor, sandbags, even plywood panels, creating what one senior officer calls “Mad Max-mobiles.” But Pentagon sources say many of the retrofitted Humvees cannot take the extra weight, and their suspension or transmission systems fail. Another method is to spray shock-absorbing polyurethane foam — one popular brand name is called Rhino — to the inside or outside of unarmored vehicles.
The biggest problem, perhaps, is that the insurgents — whoever they are — continue to be quick to spot vulnerabilities. It is probably no coincidence that attacks have picked up significantly in April as the Marines, the 1st Cav and other fresh — and untried — troops have rotated in. U.S. bomb-disposal personnel generally succeed in discovering and disarming about half of the homemade bombs that are planted. In March, an estimated 600 to 700 attacks involving homemade devices were either discovered or foiled. In April, one administration source said, as many as 1,000 homemade bomb attacks have been attempted.
The need for more armor — and possibly troops — erupted as an issue on Capitol Hill last week in combative hearings of the Senate and House Armed Services committees. “We are not structured for the security environment we’re in,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers told senators and congressmen, including some angry Republicans. As part of his 2005 budget request, Rumsfeld had originally cut the Army budget by 6 percent. But the Army has identified nearly $6 billion in unfunded requests — and more are on the way. “The costs are going to be staggering,” says Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who has pestered the Pentagon for months for better estimates. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the House committee that military operations in Iraq are now costing about $4.7 billion a month — a sum that approaches the $5 billion a month (on average) that the Vietnam War cost, adjusted for inflation.
Sen. John McCain says the Pentagon needs an additional division beyond the 20,000 men it is leaving in Iraq for 90-day extensions. Another senator and Vietnam vet, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, even suggested the nation might have to take a long-term look at reviving the draft. Few others went that far, but one knowledgeable Army officer points out that Rumsfeld’s standing “stop-loss” order — basically a freeze on retirements — is a “silent draft.” It is not expected to be lifted “for the foreseeable future,” the officer said. On Capitol Hill, Myers spoke of transforming old field-artillery and air-defense battalions into new units. But the Pentagon has yet to come to grips with its armor crisis — or its human cost.
With Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad, Mark Hosenball and Tamara Lipper in Washington and T. Trent Gegax in New York