TIKRIT, Iraq — The shrapnel that raked Sgt. James Murphy’s face on a road north of Taji in August caused as much frustration as it did pain.
It was the fourth roadside bomb of the day to hit his convoy of 42nd Infantry Division military police. Murphy recalls a few rounds of automatic rifle fire whizzing past him as well — as if the bombs hadn’t already grabbed his attention.
His wounds healed quickly, but he continues to simmer over a choice he has had to make hundreds of times since February as a Humvee gunner in Iraq: stand up and become vulnerable to gunfire and vehicle accidents, or sit low in the gunner sling and potentially miss sight of a threat to the entire convoy.
“The metal front shield limits your view,” said Murphy, 31, of Lavallette, N.J. “You should never have to stand up to see what’s going on around you. Right now, everything from your head to your chest is exposed.”
In July, the military began shipping Humvees to Iraq with metal front gun shields, known among gunners as “chicken plates.” Some gunners praise the protection the new plate gives them, but the vast majority interviewed by Stars and Stripes over several weeks said that the plate obstructs their view, forcing them to stand.
When gunners stand to survey a desert swath or a pockmarked highway, they expose themselves to small-arms fire. They risk further injury should the vehicle strike a hump or a roadside bomb, or rollover in an accident.
Given a choice between protecting themselves by sitting or leaving the task of spotting a suicide car bomber to someone else, nearly all gunners interviewed said they would stand.
“I understand what my job is,” said Spc. Joshua Forman, 21, of Sammamish, Wash. “I understand that I could die. Once you get past that, it’s not really an issue. You come to peace with that, you can do more for your team. I’d gladly give my life to save the life of any other soldier I work with.”
Many say they are hesitant to bring up safety concerns with their chain of command for fear of looking like they are complaining. They say that a few officers have examined their discretionary funds to purchase better slings and other improvements for gunners.
Other gunners say that improvements can be made to the turret setup that could make them more efficient and probably save lives. Each gunner interviewed came up with a unique list, ranging from transparent gun shields to sturdier seating and improved access to weaponry.
Some gunners say they would rather not have the front metal shield at all.
“I’m tall, and even for me it blocks the line of sight,” said Pfc. Chris Birdsong, 24, who is 6’4” and no longer uses the shield. “There is a lot of responsibility for the gunner, a lot to look out for.”
When he did use the shield, Birdsong used to turn the turret 45 degrees so that the shield no longer blocked his view. That also left him exposed to a frontal assault.
“It’s in the very, very, very back of my mind that something could happen, with or without the shield,” said Birdsong, of the 1st Brigade Troops Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division based in Fort Stewart, Ga. “But this year, it’s more IEDs than people taking shots at us.”
Birdsong saw a possible alternative to the metal shield during a visit to a warehouse with vehicles struck by roadside bombs. Surrounded by scorched Humvee metal, Birdsong noticed that most of the glass had shattered but remained intact.
“You could see on one where the shrapnel stuck into the window, then just stopped halfway through,” Birdsong said.
Similarly, a transparent anti-ballistic shield would protect the gunner without obstructing the view, Birdsong said. Each of the gunners interviewed preferred a transparent or ballistic glass shield except one, who said he rather have no shield at all.
However, there aren’t enough transparent shields to go around.
Twenty Humvees in all of Iraq have transparent shields as part of the Army’s program to rapidly evaluate new technologies, according to the general in charge of operations for Army Materiel Command.
The Army also has a version of the transparent shield on armor personnel carriers, Maj. Gen. Mitchell Stevenson wrote in an e-mail.
“As soon as we can settle on a design [that] meets the needs of the warfighter (and accounts for such problems as opaqueness as you refer to), we will move out to rapidly procure and field quantities necessary to meet the need,” he wrote.
That news grabbed gunners’ interest, but few expected to see glass shields during their deployments because of either bureaucracy or cost.
“I’m impressed that the Army is taking the initiative to do that,” Birdsong said. “It’s just going slowly, like everything … it gets caught up with red tape and paperwork.”
Pentagon officials deferred questions about transparent gun shield costs to defense contractor BAE Systems. A company spokesman declined to give exact figures. Cost would depend on quantity ordered and factors such as shield configuration, the spokesman said.
Current transparent armor is made up of layers of glass, which costs about $3.25 per square inch, said Lt. Joseph La Monica, who heads transparent armor research at Air Force Research Laboratories, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Herb Muktarian, a BAE spokesman, said gunshields are part of an overall system, the cost of which is driven by factors such as, “How many do you want; what do you want it to do; and how fast do you need it?”
While he could not say how much transparent armor costs, Mukitarian said transparent armor has proved its value on the battlefield by providing protection while allowing U.S. troops to identify threats.
“Our solution is configurable for a wide range of vehicles, including the Armored Commander’s Shield on Bradley, the M1 Abrams, M113s, HMMWVs and Transparent Armor for the Stryker Common Ballistic Shield,” Muktarian wrote in an e-mail to Stripes. “TAGS [transparent armor] units are particularly effective in close-combat urban environments.”
Some gunners, like Murphy, have decided not to wait for an official transparent shield. He mounted a homemade glass shield taken from an old Humvee windshield.
A roadside bomb struck and the windshield shattered, but it stopped shrapnel and served its purpose.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a replacement after that,” Murphy said.
Reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this story from the Pentagon.
What gunners want
Most gunners interviewed by Stars and Stripes praised various aspects of the Humvee, noting its overall performance at surviving roadside bomb attacks intact. However, all saw room for improvement.
What gunners want:
- Spc. Daniel Martin, 22, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, 22 — “Rear-view mirrors on the sides would come in pretty handy,” he said. He also suggests a foot pedal to help maneuver the turret.
- Spc. Warren Neal, 21, Pinconning, Mich., 1st Brigade Troops Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division — “It could use some back padding,” he said. “Every time you’re hitting bumps, it beats the crap out of you.”
- Pfc. Adam Ross, 19, Canton, Ohio, 1st Brigade Troops Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division — “I’d like to see them redo the turning [turret] handle. You have to stand up to turn it, and you’re constantly hitting yourself.”
- Spc. Elizabeth Collado, 31, Puerto Rican National Guard — “It’s uncomfortable to turn the turret with the handle. But the armor provides good cover.”
- Sgt. Benjamin Joress, 20, Framingham, Mass., 42nd Infantry Division Military Police Company from the Massachusetts National Guard — An air-conditioning vent could be added or redesigned, he said. “You’re sitting right above the radio and taking all the heat. That’s in 140-degree weather.”
- Sgt. James Murphy, 31, Lavallette, N.J., 42nd ID MP Company, from the New Jersey National Guard — “The gun shield needs to be incorporated into the turret. It’s way out there. If somebody is looking [at the right angle], he can shoot you right in the face.”
- Sgt. John Maltby, 25, Crescent City, Fla., 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division — “They could definitely make a better seat in there. My legs fall asleep.”
- Sgt. Jennifer Scott, 26, Bossier City, La., a reservist attached to Psychological Operations, 1st Brigade Troops Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division — “It would help if there were a way to turn the chicken plate,” she said. Hooks or a rack along the armored sides of the turret would allow gunners to react with a secondary weapon quicker, she added.
— Erik Slavin