Humvees falling prey to war
By Bruce Wallace; December 12, 2004
Los Angeles Times
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq — This is a graveyard for
Humvees, the final resting place for the hulking vehicles felled by
insurgents' roadside bombs.
In a parking lot, the U.S. military's most common personnel
carriers lie flattened with noses down in the mud. Their metal
carcasses are barely recognizable. Tires have been splayed to the sides
or blown away entirely. Shrapnel has burst holes in some unprotected
parts of the vehicles, as if they were tinfoil.
The nine mangled Humvees here have been destroyed by improvised
explosive devices, or IEDs, as the military calls them.
"Now this one here, you can see the IED tore the whole back end
off the vehicle. It's just gone," said Sgt. Patrick Parchment of 24th
Marine Expeditionary Unit, which operates south of Baghdad.
"The front is sitting cockeyed. And that's steel," he said,
showing another severed vehicle.
The blasted remains do not offer much optimism about the fate of the
Marines who had been riding in them. Sixteen Marines of the 24th MEU
have died since arriving here in July; 259 more have been wounded. The
majority of the casualties resulted from IEDs, as Marines must run a
daily gantlet of the roadside bombs on highways and dirt roads that cut
The Marines and Army have almost 20,000 Humvees in Iraq,
according to the Pentagon. But a quarter of them lack proper shields.
The lack of armor triggered an uproar last week when a Tennessee
National Guardsman told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that troops
had to forage for scrap metal to weld to their vehicles for protection.
The confrontation, at a U.S. base in Kuwait, raised questions about
whether the Pentagon was doing enough to provide armor and other safety
equipment for the 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The visit to the Humvee cemetery here occurred before Rumsfeld's
meeting with the troops.
An ongoing risk
Marines here say they are at risk every time they drive out the
gate of their base to make supply runs or conduct patrols. Surveying
the mangled Humvee frames, they shake their heads when they talk about
some of the blasts they have survived.
Humvees fitted with steel plating provide the best protection,
the Marines say. But they point out that many Humvees on this base are
being driven with jury-rigged armor that offers only limited defense
"For the most part, the armor's doing its job, saving many
lives," said Parchment, 24, from New York City, whose unit cannibalizes
the disabled Humvees for armor and other parts. The extra weight from
the armor means the Humvees seldom flip over after they are hit, he
"But sometimes the shrapnel goes right through the frame"
finding gaps in the armor, Parchment said.
And it offers little protection against bigger explosives, such
as 500-pound aircraft bombs.
Marines and soldiers continue to die almost daily from IEDs, the Iraq
war's contribution to the world's catalog of effective low-tech
weapons. The term "improvised" seems misleading because the explosive
is typically a factory-produced 155 mm artillery shell.
The shells are usually propped against a post or hidden under
mounds of garbage at roadside. The destructive power of shrapnel
detonated in the open-air has left U.S. troops with record rates of
head and neck wounds, and double the rate of limb amputations compared
to previous wars.
On dangerous roads such as the main highway leading from
Baghdad's airport to this base 25 miles south, the military has torn
down guardrails that served as hiding spots for the shells.
The short posts that supported those guardrails remain. IEDs are
frequently rested against them and detonated either by cellphone or by
having a hired triggerman simply touch two wires when the target
passes. The Marines say the going rate for hiring someone to plant and
detonate an IED is about $200.
Many Marines want the posts taken down and other hidings places
"On an open road it's usually easier to see but often you
usually don't recognize the trouble until you go by it and then you
say, 'Hmm, that looks suspicious,' " said Lance Cpl. Edward Jay Messer,
23, of Mansfield, Ohio, who drives supply trucks down the highway.
This unit of 2,200 Marines alone is being hit at a rate of two
IEDs a day, with an average of four discovered each day. "IED" has
become a verb to the Marines, as in "some of us have been IED'd five or
six times," said Messer.
Many are aimed at the 7-ton supply trucks that ply the highways,
as the shrapnel pocked fleet sitting in the parking lot of the 24th MEU
shows. The Marines try to avoid putting anyone in the unprotected back
of the trucks, pushing everyone into the armored cabs where "you're
fairly well protected," Parchment said.
Marines continue to be ferried on patrol or into battle in
open-topped vehicles with little more than thin steel plating welded to
the sides and instructions to keep their heads low.
Praying for safety
Messer recently drove into the base here with a damaged Humvee
Partially armored, the disabled Humvee does not look ready for the
graveyard. Its frame is unbent; its wheels roll cleanly.
The only visible damage is a streak of jagged rips along the
driver's side where shrapnel has strafed the Humvee. The punctures
start just above the front tire and rise toward the driver's seat,
slicing between the armored side of the hood and the armored door.
"Look at the dashboard if you want to see what happened," Messer
said. The gauges are covered with large drops of dried blood. The
Marines did not know if the driver survived.
"At the end of the day you just have to trust the hairs on the
back of your neck to drive these roads. That, and say your prayers
every morning," he said with a wry smile.
"And every afternoon," he continued. "And every night."