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...
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.
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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 through farms.
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 against shrapnel.
“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 said.
“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 bulldozed.
“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 in tow.
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.”