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Thursday, December 9

Combat engineers improvise to armor troop transport

By C. Mark Brinkley | Army Times

MOSUL, Iraq - There's a huge Army dump truck here that's unlike any other in the U.S. arsenal, a virtual Frankenstein's monster truck, bulging and rippling at its spot-welded seams.

It's half gravel hauler and half Iraqi armored personnel carrier, half general issue and half junkyard find.

``We've had to come up with some ways to do our mission,'' said 1st Lt. Eddie Lewis, 24, a National Guard combat engineer from Fredricksburg, Va. ``It's been tough.''

In response to a question from a serviceman in Kuwait on Wednesday about a shortage of armored vehicles in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, ``As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.''

The soldiers from the 276th Engineer Battalion (Combat), an Army National Guard unit from Richmond, Va., know about improvising. They have few armored vehicles. And conducting missions in Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities, without armor is like poking a bear with a stick, just inviting trouble.

Insurgent attacks have been on the rise for weeks. Improvised explosive devices and car bombs are frequent, especially against the trucks that aren't armored.

So the combat engineers have learned to turn heavy equipment into fighting vehicles. The soldiers scavenge for parts from destroyed Iraqi personnel carriers and weld the parts on their own vehicles.

It's more art than science. The cargo and dump trucks were not made for hauling troops in the back - one combat engineer had his leg dislocated as a result of being jostled in the bed of the truck, Lewis said - and they certainly weren't made for strapping on weapons.

Most have improvised gun turrets welded to their beds, where the soldiers mount machine guns but often have a tough time keeping them steady. The sides have been reinforced with steel, ordered from neighboring countries and ``acquired'' from scrap and junkyards nearby, which the riders hope will stop insurgent bullets.

Behind the plates are sandbags, and behind the sandbags are Kevlar blankets, and behind the blankets are sheets of plywood.

``That was the best protection we could come up with, considering what we had on hand,'' Lewis said.

The combination has done well against the scattered small-arms fire, but forget about stopping a rocket-propelled grenade. All the soldiers can do in those situations is hope for the best.

Most of the humvees here have been ``up armored'' to some degree, with additional bulletproof glass and reinforced doors. But many still have canvas tops, and the floorboards are particularly vulnerable to booby traps, even with sandbags lining the floor.

``The stuff the armor's bolted to is just aluminum,'' Lewis said, pointing to a reinforced humvee that had been pocked by shrapnel from an insurgent mortar shell. ``So there's still a lot of weak spots.''

Some of those who questioned Rumsfeld suggested National Guard units were given hand-me-down equipment. But Lewis and others said active-duty units using similar equipment are facing the same problems throughout Iraq.