Just before the November attack on Fallujah, Lance Cpl. Garrett Ware spent long hours trying to piece together a patchwork of armor to fortify his Marine Humvee. He tied ceramic plates...

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Just before the November attack on Fallujah, Lance Cpl. Garrett Ware spent long hours trying to piece together a patchwork of armor to fortify his Marine Humvee. He tied ceramic plates along the sides of the vehicle and slapped sandbags and plywood atop the cab.

Despite his labor, Ware said, the result was far from perfect.

“It was pretty jury-rigged, and sometimes stuff would be falling off,” said Ware, a Marine from Kirkland. “At times, you didn’t have protection where it was really important — your arms and neck. … If we could get something better, we would take it in a heartbeat.”

In a yearlong push to improve the armor of U.S. troops in Iraq, the Marines who have been sent to some of the most deadly areas of Iraq have not received top-of-the-line vehicles. And their situation appears to contradict statements made Wednesday by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told U.S. troops in Kuwait that the forces most likely to go into combat “are the ones that have the best equipment.”

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In recent months of fierce fighting, Marines have taken some of the heaviest casualties. Though the Marine Corps does not specify how individuals die, published news reports reviewed by The Seattle Times indicated at least eight Marines died in November when riding in Humvees attacked by insurgent forces.

U.S.-based factories have been churning out a new generation of fully armored Humvees — the M1114s — complete with hard tops, underside protection and fortified chassis to help carry more than 3,000 pounds of additional weight. Admiring Marines have given them a nickname — the “Air Force Ones,” Ware said.

But the vast majority of the more than 5,900 M1114s delivered to Iraq to date have gone to the Army. Meanwhile, the Marines continue to improvise with the armor kits, sandbags and plywood on a fleet of more than 2,000 Humvees in Iraq.

Marine officials say they went with the Humvees they had on hand when units were redeployed on short notice earlier this year. But they said they worked hard to add armor to those vehicles and are proud of their efforts to design, deliver and install protective kits on all their vehicles that ended up in Iraq.

“It was an unprecedented success story,” said Maj. Robert Crum, a public-affairs officer at Marine Corps System Command.

But Marine Corps commanders concede the Humvee armor now in the field still needs improvement. At the end of November, they announced a program to install a new generation of tougher, better-designed kits. These kits include hardened tops, gunner shields and reinforced doors.

Though the first shipments already have begun, they estimate it will take 12 to 18 months to install all those kits in Iraq.

U.S. MARINE CORPS
This Humvee is armored with a kit that is scheduled to be installed over the next 12 to 18 months. Marine officials say the kits are a significant improvement over the add-on armor now in the field.


In a Nov. 30 press release announcing the kits, Marine Corps officials said they had a “distinct advantage” over factory-produced Humvees, citing more versatile protection. And Crum said the Marines currently have no plans to purchase any of the M1114s to help bolster the Humvee fleet.

“Marine Corps System Command determined that the best solution is the Marine armor kit,” Crum said. “That’s not to say that down the road there might be a requirement for another type of solution.”

But officials of the company that produces the M1114s say the Marines have expressed interest in recent weeks in acquiring up to 100 of the vehicles each month. That company, Armor Holdings, yesterday announced it would increase production from the current level of 450 vehicles a month to 550.

Michael Fox, an Armor Holdings spokesman, said that all of the monthly production is contracted by the Army. But the Army could distribute some of those vehicles to the Marines.

Fox said the M1114 is intended to provide much better protection than Humvees fortified with kits. It has more armor underneath, as well as more undercarriage support to carry the extra weight, Fox said.

“There are lots of differences between the kits and the factory vehicles,” he said.

Also this week, Textron Systems, manufacturer of an armored car that has fared well in Iraq, announced it has been contracted to provide 50 additional vehicles to the Army, which would bring the total to 182. So far, there are no contracts to produce vehicles for the Marines, said Clay Moise, a Textron vice president.

The troubled effort to armor U.S. vehicles in Iraq has been politically sensitive for more than a year, with bereaved families of troops who died in an initial deployment of unarmored Humvees lobbying Congress and the Pentagon for more protection.

Concerns over armor have intensified in recent months as a deadly insurgency targets more U.S. troop vehicles. The issue took center stage earlier this week as a U.S. Army National Guard soldier in Kuwait, acting at the request of a Tennessee reporter, complained to Rumsfeld about scavenging for protective metal in a scrap heap.

Marines long have prided themselves as a tough, fast-moving force that emphasizes firepower over the use of heavily armored, slow-moving vehicles, such as tanks.

But this year, as the Marines have faced a multitude of vehicle attacks in Iraq, armor has emerged as a major concern. That concern surfaced at a Nov. 17 hearing of the Armed Services Committee as Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., read a letter from an anonymous Marine.

“The only thing I would complain about concerning the equipment is the armor we have for Humvees,” the Marine wrote. “It is very thin, and a mine strike or an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] could rip right through the thin armor with ease. I’ve seen IED strikes and mine strikes first hand, being a combat engineer. After shipping up to a hit vehicle, it’s not a pretty sight. I know there’s better armor out there, because I’ve seen civilian contractors with vehicles that can withstand a mine strike and keep on going.”

Lance Cpl. Ware took several days to piece together armored protection for the battle in Fallujah. At the end of it, the Humvee cab was protected with plywood and sandbags. But the rear of the Humvee, which seated four Marines, still had no roof to help shield from hostile fire that might come from above.

“That’s how the military works with the Marines, and somehow we deal with it,” Ware said.

Ware was wounded during the first day of the battle for Fallujah, taking shrapnel to the eye as he dismounted from the vehicle to fight in the street. He is now back at his home in Kirkland recuperating.

Researcher David Turim contributed to this story.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com