FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIDGEWAY, Iraq -- As Marines continue rolling into Iraq, leaders in Kuwait bustle to outfit as many military convoys as possible with extra passenger protection from ambushes and improvised explosives commonly used by insurgents.
According to guidance from the I Marine Expeditionary Force's commanding general, every effort is to be made to armor the thousands of "soft-skinned" military vehicles the Marines are bringing with them to Iraq.
Given the tactics currently used by the enemy, the Marine Corps is eager to add higher levels of protection to their vehicles, beyond simply requiring passengers to wear Kevlar helmets and flak jackets with bulletproof inserts and lining the truck's inside with sandbags.
In fact, vehicle hardening is a top priority for the Marines, "... even if that means delaying a convoy by a day in order to do so," said Lt. Col. Todd Lloyd, the 1st Force Service Support Group's logistics officer overseeing operations in Kuwait.
Protection for most vehicles comes in the form of add-on kits, which fasten to the chassis or frame. Different kits provide different levels of protection and are applied depending on the mission the vehicle will be used for, said Lloyd. Metal doors replace canvas; Kevlar blankets or steel plates cover floorboards and seats; some even have bulletproof windshields.
Yet certain kits are on back order, meaning some vehicles may be driven to their forward operating bases in Iraq with little or no additional protection. However, said Lloyd, these vehicles are being tracked and will be hardened as soon as the kits become available.
The area west of Baghdad that the Marines are moving into contains the hot-spot city of Fallujah, which has been the site of numerous convoy ambushes by extremists using rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and improvised explosives.
Since most I MEF units just returned from fighting in Iraq last summer, some as late as September 2003, and only got the word to deploy to Iraq in November, time to get retooled for this deployment has been limited.
In December, I MEF asked its subordinate commands – 1st FSSG, 1st Marine Division and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing – to identify the number of vehicles it would need for its return trip to Iraq. This ultimately began the process of identifying how many hardening kits would be needed, said Lloyd, whose Marines are responsible for approximately 20 percent of the vehicles to be hardened.
Since then, Marine Corps Systems Command, who tests and fields gear for the Corps' operating forces, scurried to get the kits manufactured and shipped to Marines at their staging areas in Kuwait.
Yet some Marines, worried that the kits wouldn’t reach them in time or even wanting to further harden the vehicles, have sought out numerous alternatives.
Staff Sgt. Charles J. Willson, who oversaw the staging of I MEF vehicles in Kuwait, was among the handful of Marines at Camp Victory who scooped up humvee armor plating shed by Army units returning from Iraq.
"We're doing the Marine thing," said Willson. "If they’re willing to give it to us, we're willing to take it. We're going to bring all our Marines home."
Some Marines with 1st FSSG stumbled across Army National Guard Sgt. Alan R. Shields, who, with 35 years of metal working under his belt, has designed his own armor kit. With a handful of Marines, which he also taught how to cut and weld metal, and sheets of scrap steel, Shields could armor a humvee in two to three days.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 James L. Patterson, the officer-in-charge of the 1st FSSG's Mortuary Affairs Unit, found two Marine mechanics, bought them a pizza and asked them to help harden his humvees, to include adding a machine gun mount and a wire-takedown bar to protect the gunner from low-hanging, decapitating wires.
"There's nothing more wonderful than a lance corporal with an imagination and a cutting torch," Patterson said.
While some of the hardening efforts have left some vehicles reminiscent of those in the Mad Max films, most are careful not to do anything that cannot be taken off later.
Reacting to the enemy's tactics, Army units here have individually relied on fabricating much of their armor plating using resources available in Iraq using their own labor, said Maj. Anthony Fabiano, the Group's deputy logistics officer. Marine Corps Systems Command's approach of fielding specific kits helps the Marine Corps maintain some sort of standard protection.
In the near future, Fabiano plans to check all the vehicles to ensure their armor is up to snuff and determine whether or not 1st FSSG Marines could be employed in creating additional plating from available steel for Marine vehicles.
"Just because 'SysCom' came out with something doesn't mean it can't be improved upon," he said.
While the combat troops of 1st Marine Division's convoys will likely be concentrating on patrolling the streets and seeking out insurgents, the 1st FSSG's are primarily focused on moving supplies. Most military logistics vehicles aren't armored like tanks because they are not meant to be attack vehicles.
"Vehicle hardening is essential," said Fabiano, who has been in Iraq for two months already and has ridden in numerous convoys.
Approximately 25,000 Marines and sailors, under the command of I MEF, are currently streaming back into the country they helped liberate less than a year ago. Once they have relieved the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, the Marines will conduct security and stability operations while the newly-formed Iraqi government strengthens. Iraq signed an interim constitution March 8, 2004, stepping in the direction of self-rule.
I MEF is based in Camp Pendleton, Calif.