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Creative ideas harvested to outfit Marines under fire in Iraq

16 Jun 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Dire situations inspire ingenious solutions.

This old saying rings true today for inventive Marines in Iraq who've used little more than their creativity to adapt to ever-changing enemy tactics and endure on dangerous Iraqi roads.

Troops across Iraq, including several here from the 1st Force Service Support Group, use the resources they have available, and in true Marine fashion, figure out ways to make themselves faster and safer on the battlefield.

While amply protected thanks to Marine Corps System Command's recent push which has already outfitted the Marine Corps' more than 3,000-strong vehicle fleet in Iraq with armor, some Marines are building upon that foundation.

BLOCKING BULLETS

Combining armored panels used to reinforce vehicle doors with scrap metal from a nearby junkyard, Sgt. Phillip G. Zacher, a vehicle maintenance chief for 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, here, designed and welded a shield to protect the sides and rear of a Marine manning a machine gun mounted on top of a humvee.

So impressed were Zacher's commanders, they asked him to perform the same seven-hour procedure on 20 more humvees.

The Marines' fronts are already protected by an armored plate built onto the gun mounts, he said, part of the set of vehicle armor upgrades fielded by Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va. However, the Marines wanted more.

The "extra-hardened" vehicle has been involved in one firefight since the turret was installed. Though the truck didn't get hit by enemy fire, the gunner later told Zacher that he felt a lot safer with the 360-degree protection.

Zacher's love for modifying vehicles began at 13 years old when he converted an old car into a dragster. That initial project sparked an interest in creating things out of metal, and welding became his favorite hobby. He spent his summers inventing and building contraptions with friends.

This kind of ingenuity is what troops need in Iraq to combat enemy attacks, he said.

"So much stuff changes. It has to be adapted to on a daily basis," he said.

The shield could benefit the entire Marine Corps, said Zacher. With only a few modifications to the design, it could be outfitted for almost any vehicle.

It's not only Marines who have taken an interest in this invention. Army soldiers here have taken pictures of the armor so their welders could try to reproduce it.

CHUTES, NOT LADDERS

Other units made changes requiring less technical wizardry than Zacher's. One pieced together just a few pieces of lumber, which allowed Marines to respond to an attack six-times faster than before.

During the I Marine Expeditionary Force's push toward Baghdad last year, Staff Sgt. Kurk R. Reese, 33, now the operations chief for a detachment with 3/24 that provides trucks to the battalion, decided that it took too long for Marines to dismount a 7-ton truck when under attack.

Each vehicle is designed with one way out - a small ladder affixed to the tailgate. When the troops needed to leave the vehicle in a firefight, they had to either wait their turn to use the ladder or make the five-foot plunge to the ground, risking injury.

So to speed up their exit, Reese and his crew removed the ladder and mounted small wood frames underneath several trucks' tailgates, holding them angled downward like a slide a mere three feet from the ground.

The modification allowed a squad of Marines to dart from the vehicle in approximately 30 seconds, without turning their backs to attackers, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 John W. Crandall, 34, the detachment's officer-in-charge. Using the ladder used to take his squads up to three minutes.

The Marine Corps recently added a second ladder to its 7-ton trucks in an effort to speed-up egression. Yet, when bullets are flying and time is of the essence, Crandall still swears by the slope.

Insurgents are adapting their tactics to combat the Marines, he said, so it only makes sense for American troops to do the same thing.

"They're not the only ones coming up with stuff," said the reservist and native of Rochester, N.Y. "We just need to stay one step ahead of them."

FUNNY-LOOKING TRUCK

"Mad Max" is one of Combat Service Support Battalion 1's road warriors.

Eighteen of the battalion's 5-ton dump trucks are outfitted with a forward battering ram of sorts and steel grates on their sides. The modifications are made of scraps of metal that appear to come straight out of their namesakes' apocalyptic landscape.

The vehicles were the fruit of lessons learned during last year's deployment.

"There were a lot of vehicles that were trying to push us into blocked ambushes," said Staff Sgt. Gerardo Acevedo, 38, Combat Service Support Company 113's motor transport chief. "We needed something to ram them with so we could get out of the kill zone."

The idea to use grating on the sides came while brainstorming how to combat rocket-propelled grenades, said Acevedo. He remembered a book he read about the Vietnam War, in which the author mentioned how troops would use fences mounted about a foot and a half from the sides of a vehicle to catch grenades before they hit it and detonated.

Although the trucks are bolstered with defenses, Acevedo was quick to mention Mad Max's offensive capabilities.

"It's not just a ramming vehicle," he said. "It also has ring mounts for two crew-served weapons."

The company initially built a crude prototype in January. Acevedo said they showed the plans for a final version to the 1st Force Service Support Group's commanding general, Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich, seeking funds to have the kits built by professionals with better materials.

The unit got the thumbs up and hired a civilian contractor in Southern California, who sent the kits to Iraq about three weeks ago, said Acevedo.

The company received seven of the kits. The rest were distributed to CSSB-1 units located throughout the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

"I'm praying we don't put it to test," said the Baldwin Park, Calif., native.

He would like to see the idea spread throughout the Marine Corps, he said, but only if it proves its worth.

Typically, the Marine Corps frowns on modifying its vehicles with materials that haven't been officially tested and approved, he said.  Since the dump trucks are being phased out in the next couple of years, though, it wasn't a problem.

Acevedo's unit has seen numerous firefights while running supplies to I MEF troops. He says Marines are getting creative out of necessity.

"We're learning to survive," he said, adding that his mission is to make sure his Marines come home alive, even if it takes "a funny-looking truck" to help do that.

TO THE TEST

While troops on the ground in Iraq have jury-rigged their vehicles, the Marine Corps is busy providing them with more protection so they won't have to. It goes two steps further by testing it for survivability and creating a uniform solution.

MarCorSysCom, which develops, tests and fields gear for Marines, has sent a second wave of armor upgrades specifically in response to insurgents' roadside attacks with improvised explosives, small-arms and rocket-propelled grenades, said Maj. James R. Franks, 36, one of the command's liaisons in the Middle East.

Zacher's turret shield? The Marine Corps version is already on its way to Iraq, said Franks.

The truck slide is on the agenda, also, said Franks, a resident of Fallbrook, Calif. It has less priority than vehicle armor, though, so it will take longer for the troops here to see it.

The armor provided by the Marine Corps is guaranteed to be safer, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 David D. Carter, 47, the I MEF's motor transportation maintenance officer.

"Everything Systems Command provides to the MEF has been tested," said Carter, a native of Edmond, Okla.

Even so, said Franks, Marines' expedient inventions are acceptable while waiting for more official armor.

"In the rush to get armor, a lot of units moved on their initiative, and you can't blame them," said Franks. "It's better than nothing, but Marines need to be wary of making these so permanent they can't remove them."

In the end, though, the entire Marine Corps reaps the fruits of ideas of Marines under fire and the people that can turn quick-fixes into standard-issue gear.
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