GIs rig homemade security for Humvees
CAMP BLACK JACK, Iraq — Though he rides through the valley of the shadow of death, Spc. Antrone Vaughn fears no evil.
“My religious beliefs don’t allow me to be scared,” said Vaughn, a 26-year-old M240B gunner from Holly Springs, Miss.
But by the same token, “God made us to have common sense,” he said. And Vaughn’s common sense tells him there are safer Humvees than his for riding around Baghdad.
Vaughn rides with 1st Sgt. James Higgins, Headquarters Support Battalion, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Brigade. Vaughn’s protection from roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades is half-inch steel sheets his boss has installed. If he had his druthers, Vaughn said he’d be in the gunner’s cockpit of an M-1114 factory-armored version.
Higgins said he has done all he could with what started out as an unarmored troop hauler. Units still need the open-bed, multi-passenger Humvees to haul soldiers and supplies, he said.
By its design, it’s more vulnerable than the M-1114. But Higgins has surrounded the bed of his vehicle with steel “that will stop everything but our stuff.”
He said he’s seen steel absorb a 7.62 mm round, which bubbles out the sheet, but doesn’t penetrate. The higher velocity Army 5.56 mm round will, Higgins said.
The result is a vehicle he feels is superior to Humvees with add-on steel doors, called “appliqué.” Add-on armor does nothing for a scout model’s undercarriage or the front end, he said.
By comparison, his vehicle has steel underneath, on the doors and around the rear bed.
“The only other thing I can do is get ballistic glass [for the windscreen] and that’s on order,” he said.
Though he “started with nothing” and added to it, now Higgins said he feels comfortable when he’s out on convoys and fuel escorts with his soldiers.
“If he says so,” Vaughn said, shaking his head. “I hope he knows what he’s talking about.”
Most soldiers — either by instinct or experience — believe the M-1114 Humvee offers the best protection against bombs and bullets, and the push to get armored Humvees to tactical units is accelerating.
Few 1st Cavalry Division soldiers, unlike their predecessors in Iraq, have to jerry-rig Humvees with sandbags and steel plates to absorb blasts and bullets.
At Camp Black Jack — a section of Camp Victory North, headquarters for the Fort Hood, Texas-based division — it’s difficult to find a tactical vehicle that isn’t armored. But it’s not impossible.
Two soldiers showed Stars and Stripes their handiwork — sandbags held in place by sheets of plywood. That’s all the protection the gunner has in the rear bed of their troop carrier.
“We’ve got the [factory armor] doors, at least,” said the truck commander, who asked his name not be used. He, his driver and gunner patrol Baghdad in the Humvee on cycles of 12 hour-plus missions, with two days of rest.
The jerry-rigged Humvee has some advantages, the soldier said. With a plywood/sandbag sandwich in place of armor in the rear bed, the gunner has a more open field of fire than a soldier trying to shoot out of the tiny passenger windows of a M1114.
But, he added quickly, “It would make me 100 times happier to have steel plates.” Neither the truck commander nor his driver said he believed the vehicle would withstand a roadside bomb blast.
Armored Humvees have an infinitely better chance of surviving attacks by improvised explosive devices, as Staff Sgt. Adam Bills, a truck commander, and Pfc. Adam Logan, his driver, know well.
Bills and Logan, with 1st Cav’s 91st Engineer Company, recently survived an IED made from a 122 mm mortar round while driving an up-armored model — one of at least 10 attacks against their company so far.
“You want to see what an IED did to a Humvee?” Logan said. He walked around and pointed out a quarter-sized indentation in the armor on truck’s rear cover. “Pretty good, huh?” The only injury was a facial cut on gunner Pvt. Jose Flores, Logan said.
There’s no reluctance to embrace the armored versions coming in, Bills said. “No, our attitude is, ‘Hey, this is something cool to have because it keeps us alive.’ I say nothing but good things about up-armored Humvees.”
“After what I’ve seen, I consider myself extremely lucky to be alive because some soldiers haven’t been that fortunate,” he said.
Still, soldiers know there are no guarantees in war.
“Just because you’re in an up-armored Humvee doesn’t mean you can’t be touched,” said Spc. Matthew Coulson, assigned to the 1st Armored Division’s Friedberg, Germany-based 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.
That said, Coulson added, “1114s do real good with IEDs.”
U.S. policymakers agree. With a high percentage of U.S. casualties resulting from roadside bombs during the year since the ground war began, there is an urgency to give soldiers armored Humvees. But that effort is uneven.
Three of 11 Humvees in their 1st AD battery are up-armored, and those they got from departing units, said Coulson. Coulson and Pfc. Varnel Drotzur have been riding around Baghdad in their troop hauler for more than a year now that their division has gotten held over for 90 days, the soldiers said.
Coulson and Drotzur have installed steel sheets over their doors and around the rear bed of their troop hauler. The steel sheets will “slow down” shrapnel, but won’t stop it, Coulson said. They believe the steel offers no protection against IEDs.
By comparison, incoming divisions, such as the 1st Cav, which is replacing the 1st AD, apparently are nearing the 100-percent armored mark.
Units such as his engineers battalion have stopped using unarmored vehicles outside the wire, confining them to base transportation, Bills said. Now, most trucks going on patrols or missions are either Model 1114 full, or vehicles with armor add-on.
Many soldiers also had concerns that appliqué kits don’t include ballistic glass for windscreens. “There’s no doubt [ballistic glass] will take an IED hit,” Bills said, motioning to a rear passenger window cracked by an IED, but still intact.
Ultimately, the soldiers’ reality is that there is no such thing as being “safe.”
“I’ve seen a lot of damage from IEDs, and you can only do so much," said Higgins, the 1st Cav first sergeant. “If you take an RPG, or your right on top of an IED, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got.”
The best insurance is a crew trained to stay away from the riskiest situations, and whatever armor you can get, Higgins said.
Still, more than a dozen soldiers interviewed had stories about surviving attacks, and about the superiority of armored Humvees. Asked if they could go to their motor pools and select any version, they were unanimous.
They all chose the M1114.
— Nancy Montgomery of Stars and Stripes contributed to this report.
Army making ‘full-court press’ for more vehicles
When the war began last March, only about 2 percent of the Army’s 110,000 Humvees were armored.
Now, of the 15,000 Humvees in Iraq, 2,750 — or about 18 percent — are armored. The Army’s goal is to reach 4,400 fortified Humvees in Iraq by October, Army officials have told Congress.
The Army is making a “full-court press” to locate and deliver every armored Humvee in its inventory to Iraq, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, 1st Armored Division commander, said in an April news conference.
The 1st AD came to Iraq a year ago with about 26 armored Humvees, Dempsey said in an April interview with Stars and Stripes. Now, with do-it-yourself upgrades, they have about 300, with about 300 unarmored, Dempsey said.
At the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade, more than 70 percent of vehicles used outside the wire are factory up-armors, or have the appliqué kits (add-on steel doors), said Maj. Paul D. Horlacher, 2nd Brigade S-4 (logistics officer).
That’s up from about 33 percent when the brigade left Kuwait, and up from only seven armored Humvees when the brigade left Fort Hood, Texas, Horlacher said.
Out of 360 Humvees, 252 are armored — 143 of the M-1114 model factory up-armored trucks, and 109 with appliqué kits, he said. The main feature of appliqué kits are heavily armored doors with ballistic glass, adding about 1,000 pounds to the vehicle. Modified Humvees also get armor plates in the rear and full armor floors.
Unlike the factory up-armored Humvees, however, there is no armor in the roof, which is fiberglass.
About half the Humvees the brigade received in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, came from peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo.
According to brigade records, 10 trucks were scheduled to receive appliqué kits on a recent workday, and 2nd Brigade Combat Team storage areas are filling up with armored Humvees.
On a recent weekend, 70 model M-1114s sat in a brigade lot, waiting to be fielded to the division.
His brigade, as well as the division as a whole, expects to reach the 100 percent mark in May or June, with a priority on equipping tactical units first, Horlacher said.
While all the brigade’s Humvees aren’t armored, all have Kevlar blankets, sheets of blast-resistant material that fits on the floorboards, or side protection that can stop assault rifle rounds, he said.
— Terry Boyd