'Skunk Werks' armor shop helps soldiers through better protection for U.S. vehicles
Stars and Stripes October 31, 2004
LSA ANACONDA, Iraq — Every time a convoy returns to the base, Capt. Michael DeLaughter gets nervous.
“Every time I have a convoy on the road, they’re shot at or something is blown up against them,” he said.
As the 7th Transportation Battalion’s maintenance officer, DeLaughter is responsible for about 1,500 vehicles. As roadside attacks intensified, it’s been his job to help create ways to guard against them.
Most of the battalion’s convoys are protected by trucks — vehicles with no armoring. And unlike the thousands of armored kits added to Humvees across Iraq, the Army hasn’t supplied armoring kits for the battalion’s trucks.
“We’re not going to wait for them,” DeLaughter said. “On any given day, I can have up to 300 trucks on the road. It’s our soldiers that are on the road.
“This is a truck drivers’ war, unfortunately.”
In his small plywood office inside the maintenance area, pieces of battered and punctured steel fill the walls. They demonstrate some of the techniques his unit employs to protect its vehicles.
One sharp dented triangle is proving the most effective, a ballistic steel called Armox designed to stop small arms rounds.
But DeLaughter doesn’t just take anyone’s word, he said. “We always have [explosive ordnance disposal teams] go out and shoot at it.”
His battalion has attached more than $80,000 worth of Armox to its vehicles this year.
In Al-Asad this April, a Humvee with an Armox gunner’s box rolled over a land mine, DeLaughter said. The Humvee was mangled, but the intact box — and the soldiers in it — survived.
A photo of the wreck sits on the office wall, with a collage of other mangled and wrecked vehicle images. Never wasteful, they reused the shattered Humvee’s Armox box on another vehicle, DeLaughter said.
“It is helping, it’s there for a purpose,” said Spc. Scott LaClair, one of two soldiers working in the 7th Transportation’s armoring shop called the Skunk Werks.
“You see in the trucks that come in after being hit by an IED how it worked. It definitely makes it worthwhile,” LaClair said.
LaClair and his coworker, Staff Sgt. Doug Stenberg, are truck drivers for the New Hampshire National Guard and welders in their civilian lives. For that experience, they were selected for the Skunk Werks.
As truck drivers, they can appreciate the need for armor. The battalion has lost eight soldiers to convoy attacks this year. A ninth is missing.
A transportation soldier was killed in a convoy attack Wednesday, 10 miles from base. His unit was pulling supplies on a flatbed trailer.
“Each [improvement] kind of builds up your confidence a little. This stuff has been tested,” LaClair said. “Deep down, everyone knows it’s there.”
Members of the 724th Transportation Company have driven trucks and Humvees with and without added armor.
Their Humvees now have add-on armor kits and Armox in areas where the kits don’t protect.
“It restricts your movement but it’s safe,” said Spc. Craig McDermott, a gunner and driver with the 1st Platoon, the Bulldogs. “I haven’t had a bullet come through yet.”
But the Skunk Werks inventors aren’t resting on their laurels.
As vehicles were increasingly attacked by roadside explosives this year, DeLaughter’s team went a step further.
Armox stops bullets, but as a hard steel, it can crack under the pressure of improvised explosive blasts.
This summer, two sailors attached to the Skunk Werks — both with experience working on heavy armored ship hulls — suggested an improvement. They added a layer of soft steel to the Armox to withstand the blast pressure, with rubber in between.
The EOD crew proved it worked against small arms and explosives. They called it dreadnought, named after early 20th-century armored warships. A dreadnought gunner’s box now adorns the back of most of the battalion’s gun trucks.
The trucks are evolving in other ways. The battalion’s communications unit is creating radios that allow the crew to communicate amid the clamor of battle.
At Skunk Werks, the vehicles may lack elegance, but they’re designed to work.
“It’s handmade, the seams might not match,” DeLaughter said. “But we have given [soldiers]the best protection possible.”