Tough-skinned Strykers weather storm of IEDs
MOSUL, Iraq — The midday explosion engulfed the vehicle in a cloud of smoke and dust, knocking two soldiers from their perch and rattling those inside the armored cocoon.
But like a scene out of an action movie, the cloud parts to show vehicle and occupants unscathed and ready for retribution. Although a car is seen fleeing the area, the squad opts to report the incident and press on, as if nothing happened, though clearly something had: further validation of a new Army vehicle named Stryker.
“This is what it was designed for from the get-go,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ciaran Allison, a platoon sergeant with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. The unit is part of 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
Contrast that encounter with another assault on the brigade involving an improvised explosive device.
Pvt. Michael Merila, a legal clerk, is seated in a Humvee as his convoy rolls past a sheep market along the two-lane road running past the village of Tall Afar, 50 miles west of Mosul. It’s late afternoon and the troops are heading back to their base.
Then, someone inside the market remotely detonates an IED, injuring one soldier and mortally wounding Merila. He dies en route to a hospital, hours before his 25th birthday. (Merila was later posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant.)
“It was not a good day,” recalled Capt. Thomas Bauchspies, a troop commander in the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment. “I’d like to forget that one.”
Spc. Michael Tullis, standing nearby, nods in agreement.
“Still working on it, sir,” Tullis said. “It’s not going away too fast.”
As long as there is an insurgency campaign and explosives to use, it’s doubtful the improvised devices will go away anytime soon.
For months, soldiers in basic and inventive ways have tried to counter — or at least minimize — the damage and death wrought by these devices. Not a servicemember with boots on the ground in Iraq is oblivious to their destructive nature.
“We are still fighting an adaptive enemy,” said Lt. Col. Joe Piek, spokesman for Task Force Olympia in Mosul, “but we are doing our best to stay a step ahead.”
The brigade has about 300 of the high-tech Strykers at its disposal, Piek said. Most of these new personnel carriers come equipped with an outer cage that can diffuse the destructive power of a rocket-propelled grenade. It has a tough metal skin, eye-popping electronics and even padded benches for the half-dozen troops in the rear.
They are not invincible, though.
In December, two Strykers were hit a couple of days apart by IEDs in Samarra, where the brigade was temporarily based until it moved north to Mosul to replace the 101st Airborne Division. One suffered just a flat tire. The other absorbed a more lethal punch.
“The vehicle was destroyed,” Piek said, “but it took the blast.”
Only the driver was seriously injured.
By no means has the brigade forsaken the Humvee. Third brigade commanders have hired local Iraqi contractors to outfit many of their Humvees with metal plates. It’s a move other units before them have taken in the life-and-death struggle against IEDs.
Up the road from brigade headquarters, soldiers at a forward operating base called Patriot brought with them black Kevlar floor mats and seat cushions to stop shrapnel.
Capt. Brent Clemmer, assistant operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, stands next to a Humvee sporting protective mats and cushions and recently upgraded armored doors.
“It’s not a perfect version, but it’s better than the fabric (doors),” Clemmer said as he gripped the driver’s side door of a reinforced Humvee.
Behind a nearby building, Allison and his men were relaxing around the motor pool after a mission. A few of the men were sitting in the Stryker that took the midday punch and kept on rolling.
“I was checking the overpass as we passed under it,” said Sgt. Jorge Baeza of 3rd Platoon. “It was all so sudden.”
The explosion has made Baeza and others on base true believers of this new and robust armored vehicle.
Said Clemmer: “It’s much better to be in a Stryker than in a Humvee when an IED goes off.”