The green trucks of the Iraqi Express line up daily along the Iraq-Kuwait border in a pre-dawn ritual for a trip that lasts four days and covers 1,200 miles.
Behind a makeshift steel plate on the door of a cargo truck, Sgt. Cesar Feliciano is nervous. His pregnant wife in Puerto Rico doesn’t know he’s riding a bomb magnet across Iraq for the first time, or that he’ll do it every week this year.
“I don’t tell my family about it, going on convoys. I tell them I’m going to be in a safe place, so they don’t worry about it,” he says. “I hope nothing happens.”
But on at least one of five trips, drivers say, something does happen. Eighteen months after insurgents began to line Iraqi roads with bombs, many U.S. military vehicles continue to brave the most perilous roadways without armor.
Starting Tuesday, as fresh troops continue to cross the dusty berm from Kuwait into Iraq in the largest troop rotation in U.S. military history, no American military vehicle can travel outside a protected base without some sort of armor, military officials said last week.
The announcement was the result of a concentrated push to armor trucks after a National Guardsman asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in December why soldiers were forced to scavenge for makeshift armor to protect themselves on trips into Iraq.
Nevertheless, the effort to further protect American soldiers, much of it undertaken on an ad hoc basis at military bases in Kuwait, is not finished. Even after the order takes effect Tuesday, about a quarter of the 25,300 military vehicles venturing outside bases will have only the makeshift steel plates known to soldiers as “Mad Max” or “hillbilly” armor. About 6,000 unarmored vehicles will be confined to the base camps.
Military leaders acknowledge that the improvised armor is a temporary measure until more factory-made armor kits can be produced. The makeshift armor has saved many lives, mechanics say, and some survivors have put their tales in writing.
Vehicles with the temporary armor will be used in Iraq until June, when the protection is to be upgraded, military officials told the Senate Armed Service Committee last week. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said a soldier had written recently to complain that enlisted personnel were still scavenging for armor.
“We’re still losing people over there on this issue, and it’s just perplexing to understand what the reluctance has been in terms of trying to get it right,” Kennedy said.
Insurgents began using roadside bombs -- known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs -- in summer 2003. As armor was added to vehicles, insurgents upped the ante, using larger, deadlier bombs.
No one knows the danger better than the drivers of the Iraqi Express. Spec. Matthew Heath, 20, described an attack last Easter, when insurgents ambushed his convoy. One soldier was wounded, shot through the unarmored door of an 18-wheeler.
“We’ve caught some small-arms fire, IEDs, mortar rounds, little stuff like that, car bombs,” said Heath of Statesville, N.C., who expects to head home next month after a year of running supply convoys. “On an average convoy we have about one IED attack.”
Protection is getting better, commanders say, but there are few sure things in Iraq when it comes to safety.
“I would say the next rotation of troops will be better protected than this rotation of troops, which is better protected than the previous rotation of troops,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Milano, of the Coalition Forces Land Component Command. “There are no guarantees. But we’re doing -- and we’re obligated to do -- everything we can to provide as much protection as we can to anybody operating in Iraq.”
There are three levels of vehicle armor in Iraq. About 6,000 Humvees have “level 1" armor, meaning they were manufactured as armored vehicles, with beefed-up engines, air conditioners and equipment to handle the added weight. They weigh 2,000 pounds more than the standard Humvee, with steel-plated doors, steel plating under the cab and several layers of ballistic-resistant glass in the windows. They were designed to protect against rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, shrapnel and some land mines.
Next are 12,000 vehicles that have factory-made, “level 2" armor bolted on in the war zone.
Then there are the 7,300 vehicles with Mad Max armor, slated to be phased out this summer.
The remaining unarmed vehicles won’t travel outside protected bases, except on cargo trucks, military officials said.
When Chief Warrant Officer Randall Menough’s crew began fashioning armor at Camp Buehring last year in Kuwait, there was no Army directive to Mad Max vehicles. But they did it anyway.
“I’ve been in the Army for 18 years and this is the most important thing I’ve done in my military career,” Menough said.
The company commander, Capt. Angelica Martinez, said some units asked for more armor than could be provided.
“People want to build gunships, but we just can’t do that,” Martinez said.
As outgoing troops reach Kuwait, their armor is removed for use on incoming vehicles.
The effort is expanding. At an undisclosed site in central Kuwait, Chuck Wentworth, a Defense Department project manager, oversees 177 workers who bolt on the level 2 armor. Two weeks ago, he had 34 workers. Soon he’ll have 220.
They work in 30 bays, bolting armor onto seven models of trucks that weigh 2.5 tons to 60 tons. The work on each vehicle takes about four days. In some cases, the entire passenger cab is replaced by a reinforced steel box. In others, steel plates are bolted on all sides. All have anti-ballistic windows and 360-degree protection from bullets and bomb blasts.
Nearby Camp Arifjan, 35 miles south of Kuwait City, is the primary Humvee armor installation facility in Kuwait. Here, workers install two kinds of kits. Once completed, however, the vehicles have no added protection on the top or bottom and are vulnerable to explosives dropped from overpasses or detonated underneath.
Most roadside bombs explode to the side of the vehicle, Brig. Gen. Milano said. And because Humvees armored in the field lack the heavier engines of factory-armored models, they can’t carry the weight of floor and ceiling protection, commanders say.
In one strategy to reduce exposure, U.S. commanders have been replacing supply convoys with cargo planes, taking 672 trucks off the road each week, Milano said. Civilian contractors still drive some supply vehicles, but only as part of the military convoys.
Another strategy is to reduce the amount of freight. For example, bottled water makes up 30% of cargo shipments from Kuwait. Commanders suggested last fall that the military begin bottling water in Iraq. The Army has agreed, but the first bottled-water plant is not expected to begin operating until July, with six more to follow.
As long as American troops remain in Iraq, the Iraqi Express and smaller convoys throughout the country will continue, U.S. commanders say. For truckers such as Spec. Eric Lee, that means not knowing how much time will be spent in a truck with rust-colored plates welded onto its doors.
“This is makeshift armor,” the 25-year-old Minneapolis native said on his first day out. “But it’s better than no armor.”