TAQADDUM, Iraq - Two years into a war against insurgent fighters who use roadside bombs as a favored tactic, U.S. Army soldiers still are being ordered to roll off forward operating bases with inferior truck armor.
The Utah-based 146th Transportation Company has logged more than 200,000 miles on M915 tractors armored with what soldiers unkindly refer to as "hillbilly armor" - a half-inch of scrap steel hastily cut in the shape of the door and welded or riveted on.
The 146th was driving missions on Iraq's highways for more than six weeks before it could even say that most of its fleet had been adequately armored with "Level 2" protections - the hefty, inch-thick Kevlar shell and bullet-resistant windows designed to withstand roadside bomb explosions and gunfire.
Company Commander Eryth Zecher said she has been told that the final installation of Level 2 armoring for her unit's vehicles will occur by the end of October.
But she wonders why it has taken so long.
"All we've been told is that, for a while, Kuwait ran out of up-armor, and that's where our trucks went," Zecher said.
In the meantime, Zecher and her command staff say they are trying to limit the number of times the inferior-armored vehicles are sent on missions.
They also have limited use of those trucks to areas where roadside bomb attacks are less common.
With limited resources, however, it has been impossible to keep the lesser-armored vehicles off the road.
"You hate to tell your soldiers that you have to make a choice concerning their safety, but that's what we've had to do," Zecher said.
Her soldiers, meanwhile, have tried to accept the situation.
"It is better than what I had last time I was here," said Staff Sgt. Michael Thiemig, a Salt Lake City resident on his second tour of duty in Iraq. "I got here and I was like, 'Steel on the doors?' Fantastic!"
But Thiemig, a platoon sergeant responsible for making decisions about which soldiers ride in which vehicles, also notes that the roadside-bomb threat has grown since American troops first invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003.
That makes armor plating increasingly important.
The lack of adequate armor on Humvees, the most common tactical vehicle for U.S. troops, came to public light in December when a Tennessee Guardsman, during a question-and-answer period with Defense Secretary Donald Rumfeld, asked why soldiers had to scavenge for scrap metal to armor their vehicles.
Troops here say they noticed a discernable change of pace in the effort to "up-armor" Humvees following that exchange. The military now says it no longer allows Humvees to roll "outside the wire" without factory-made armor.
At the time of the Guardsman's highly publicized Humvee query, the Army was already having trouble keeping soldiers content about armor for their cargo trucks. In October, 18 reservists from South Carolina refused to go on a convoy mission, citing inadequate armoring.
In a news conference last month, Brig. Gen. Yves Fontaine, commander of the 1st Corps Support Command in Iraq, said the military is "focusing right now" on its M915 truck fleet used by the 146th and others.
Meanwhile, Fontaine acknowledged, insurgents have been producing more powerful roadside bombs, apparently in response to the up-armoring of the military's Humvee fleet.
With the approaching Islamic holy month of Ramadan - typically a time of increased anti-American violence here - as well as a referendum on the new constitution and the trial of deposed President Saddam Hussein, officers have told their troops to anticipate an increase in attacks.
"I believe our measures to protect the soldiers will rise to the challenge," Fontaine said.
Zecher only hopes the challenge is met before she has to explain to one of her soldier's parents why their child was killed in a poorly armored vehicle.
She said her frustrations are only tempered by an understanding that the U.S. military had not anticipated the challenge the insurgency would present to the Army's supply system.
"In every other war, the supply routes were not compromised as much as they are now," she said. "This is new to us."
Reporter Matthew D. LaPlante and photographer Rick Egan are traveling in Iraq with Utah-based military units. Daily online dispatches, including additional information and photographs, may be found at http://www.sltrib.com/iraq.
You may reach LaPlante and Egan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well-armored Humvees sit idle
Though the Army considers the armor good enough, soldiers say the "Level 2" protections on many of their Humvees leaves plenty to be desired. As such, they don't understand why a fleet of hundreds of brand-new Humvees with top-tier factory-installed armor - known as "Level 1" armoring - remain parked at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, while they are forced into older "Level 2" vehicles, in which the armor is manufactured separately from the vehicle and added as a "kit."
From the inside of an on-to-go gun truck, the difference in Level 1 and 2 armoring is discernible. Kit armor often rattles against its rivets, prevents ballistic windows from locking in an upright position, and, soldiers note grimly, provides little protection for the vehicle's undercarriage.
Soldiers from the Utah-based 222nd Field Artillery reported taking shrapnel in their legs during roadside bomb attacks because the Level 2 armored doors do not close tightly.
The U.S. Central Command did not respond to requests for comment.
For complete coverage from a Tribune reporter and photographer in Iraq, go to: http://www.sltrib.com/iraq.