Humvees with extra armor increase security for soldiers on patrol in Iraq

Roadside blasts killed hundreds before additions

July 31, 2005|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAMP VICTORY, Iraq - When Eric Giordano offers to show his war wounds, there's no need to blush.

Shrapnel scars from a February bombing and a deep gouge from a blast in May are on the Army specialist's second skin, the armored Humvee that carried him whole and unscathed through both explosions.

"The armor plating took most of the hit," the 22-year-old military policeman from Staten Island, N.Y., says with an appreciative pat on the vehicle's disfigured hood. "The window next to my head shattered, but the inside pane held up. I have that in my room now."

The Humvee's gunner, Pvt. Matthew Michels of Buffalo, N.Y., was nicked on the chin by a piece of the Humvee's .50-caliber machine gun when the force of the explosion blasted it to pieces. He shudders to think what would have happened if he had been standing instead of hunkered down in the armored collar behind the gun mount.

More than two years into the Iraqi conflict, most of the light utility vehicles securing supply routes and escorting convoys are armored to withstand the kind of roadside blasts that killed at least 400 soldiers in Humvees before the Pentagon ordered the improved protection.

Two-thirds of the nearly 6,000 Humvees deployed across Iraq are factory-armored, coming off an Ohio assembly line with an extra 2,000 pounds of protective plating and bulletproof windows, and the Iraq mission has priority for getting new ones. With some members of Congress complaining that the work has been too slow, about 300 more vehicles are being upgraded each month by private contractors at bases in Iraq and Kuwait.

U.S. troops using Humvees and other vehicles are not out of danger. On the highways, streets and alleys that are the battlefields of this conflict, soldiers traveling in the vehicles never intended for front-line combat face suicide drivers and more powerful bombs capable of penetrating new defenses.

Last week alone, seven American troops have been killed by roadside bombs in Baghdad and Samarra.

Almost every day, a suicide bomber or insurgents with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have attacked Humvees of the 108th Military Police Company to which Giordano, Michels and about 180 others belong. "We've got a clever enemy that is always trying to find a nick in our armor," says Allen Blanchette, the company's 1st sergeant. "We react to what they do, and they react to what we do."

Bracing for the insurgents' next innovation makes for nerve-racking duty.

On a recent Saturday afternoon with a 110-degree breeze flowing in from the gun turret, Sgt. Adam Cook rides shotgun with a newly composed patrol team, combing the highways around the Abu Ghraib prison for insurgents and their deadly concoctions. He spots a white sedan at three different onramps within an hour, suspicion edging toward certainty that it is the same car and is stalking the convoy.

"Let's open it up," he yells to the driver, Sgt. Angel Alicea of Puerto Rico. Alicea hits the gas, and the Hummer's eight cylinders heave the unit into action. As the soldiers approach the onramp and the face of the car's driver comes into view, Cook makes a fist in front of his side window. The driver brakes, conforming to the battlefield etiquette of stopping to show a passing convoy that he poses no hazard. The team concludes that he wasn't stalking them and drives on.

"The sign comes from the Iraqis," Cook, of Portland, Ore., says of the fist signal. "You see them using it, like when they want you to stop talking."

Suicide bombers have become the unit's biggest fear. Cars and trucks packed with explosives have ripped open even Bradley fighting vehicles, which have much heavier armor. The Humvees, which rack up about 4,000 miles a month each, are always on the road, making them ready targets for insurgents.

The vehicle, which looks like a boxy version of the jeep, has four seats and the gunner's sling and a roomy trunk in the rear. Although now armored, the Humvees were never meant to be fighting vehicles like tanks but rather were designed to transport goods and soldiers behind the front lines.

From inside the Humvee, everything on the road portends danger: The empty banana box by the guardrail could be covering a bomb. Wasn't that curl of tire tread closer to the asphalt on the last passing? The driver of the blue pickup carrying canisters of cooking fuel could be scoping out a promising target.

"Sometimes they use kids as spotters," Cook says as the Humvee speeds past a boy of about 6 who has clambered onto the roadside, fingers tapping his mouth in a gesture of hunger.

Spc. Joseph Wolfe, the gunner, whose knees are about all his patrol mates see of him, rides in a sling in the turret, his arms cradling the gun mount, as the Humvee turns off the highway. He and Cook keep each other abreast of what could be trouble.

"Are you keeping an eye on the guy with the pink bag?" Cook asks through his radio headset. All eyes have been trained on the young bearded man since he and a woman cloaked in a black abaya emerged from an alley, the man lugging a heavy pink-and-black duffle bag. The man glares at Cook's brandished fist but halts on the sidewalk, motioning to the woman to do likewise.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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