JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Fearing roadside bombs and sniper bullets, the members of the Army Reserves' 428th Transportation Co. turned to a local steel fabricator to fashion extra armor for their 5-ton trucks and Humvees before beginning their journey to Iraq earlier this month.
But their armor might not make it into the war, because the soldiers didn't get Pentagon approval for their homemade protection.
The Army, which is still developing its own add-on armor kits for vehicles, doesn't typically allow any equipment that is not Army-tested-and-approved, Maj. Gary Tallman, a Pentagon spokesman for Army weapons and technology issues, said Thursday.
"It's important that other units out there that are getting ready to mobilize understand that we are doing things" to protect them, Tallman said, "but there's policy you have to consider before you go out on your own and try to do something."
The 72 vehicles operated by the 428th Transportation Co. aren't designed for battle and so have thin metal floorboards and, in some cases, a canvas covering for doors. But Iraqi guerrilla groups have been targeting all types of military vehicles with homemade bombs and small-caliber weapons.
E-mails from soldiers already deployed in Iraq urged the Missouri reservists to get extra armor if possible, said 1st Sgt. Tim Beydler of the Jefferson City-based transportation unit. So the soldiers approached a local funeral home director, who paid the tab for 13,000 pounds of one-quarter inch steel. Industrial Enterprises Inc. donated the fabricating work so the steel could be fitted under vehicle floorboards and on the inside of doors.
The soldiers drove off in convey Dec. 12 for Fort Riley, Kan., planning to fasten the specially made steel to their vehicles when they got to Iraq.
"We're doing what we can to protect our soldiers. That's the bottom line," Beydler said last week while news of the donated steel was being praised locally as an example of grass-roots support for the troops. "It not only boosts morale of the soldiers, but also of the soldiers' family members, who know their soldiers will be afforded some extra protection."
Fort Riley spokeswoman Deb Skidmore said Thursday that the Army reserve unit will be allowed to take their steel with them to Iraq, but she said Central Command will decide later whether the troops will be allowed to use it.
The Army's concern, Tallman said, is that unapproved steel-plating could somehow cripple the vehicles or cause them not to perform the way they were designed. For example, a Humvee armor kit recently tested at the Army's Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground was so heavy that it caused the vehicle to break, he said.
Tallman and spokesmen at several Army bases said they were unaware of any other units trying to craft their own armor before leaving for Iraq. But Tallman said the Army had discouraged several families of individual soldiers from trying to obtain their own bulletproof vests, citing the same reason for Army testing of equipment.
Kirkweg said the Missouri soldiers didn't have time to wait weeks, months or years for the Army to test and approve a steel-plating project that he could complete in three days. Among those deploying in the transportation unit was Kirkweg's neighbor, a mother of a 5-month-old child.
"We thought this is a very important project here -- we're talking about the possibility of saving people's lives," he said. "So without hesitation we went ahead and proceeded with the thing."