Skelton urges Army secretary to consider allowing extra armor

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee on Monday urged the Army's top civilian official to give special consideration to an Army Reserve unit that wants to outfit its vehicles with homemade armor while serving in Iraq.

Army policy generally prohibits troops from using equipment that has not been tested and approved by the military.

But fearing roadside bombs and snipers, the 428th Transportation Company turned to local businessmen to fund and fabricate special steel plates for their five-ton trucks and Humvees. The Army has made no decision yet on whether the soldiers will be allowed to use the armor.

The efforts of the Missouri-based troops have gained the support of Rep. Ike Skelton, the House Armed Services Committee's senior Democrat, whose district includes Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base.

In a letter Monday, Skelton urged Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee to become personally involved in the situation. Skelton said he had learned that an officer from the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland was being sent to Iraq to test the armor proposal.

"I urge you to take a special interest in this effort and encourage the officer from Aberdeen to give every consideration to the efforts of the 428th," Skelton wrote to Brownlee. "Also, rather than being 'faced with a policy' which disallows force protection self-help, the Army should commend the soldiers of the 428th Transportation Company for their innovation and old fashioned American ingenuity."

Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said policy prohibits the Army from commenting on letters between members of Congress and senior Army leaders. But Smith added the Army has asked the steel fabricator, Industrial Enterprises Inc., of Jefferson City, to submit a sample of its vehicle armor for testing at Aberdeen.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., sent a letter last week to Brownlee also urging the Army to allow the soldiers to use the armor.

The 72 vehicles operated by the unit aren't designed for battle. They have thin metal floorboards and, in some cases, a canvas covering for doors. The specially made steel plates would fit over the floorboards and inside the doors.

Iraqi guerrilla groups have been targeting all types of military vehicles with homemade bombs and small-caliber weapons.

Brownlee told the Senate Armed Services Committee in November the Army was examining ways to add armor to existing vehicles and also was producing new armored Humvees. But he said it could take until summer 2005 to have armor on all the Humvees in Iraq.

Members of the 428th didn't want to wait for the Army to supply armor. So they got it from a local steel fabricator, and a local funeral home owner paid for it.

The unit currently is at Fort Riley, Kan., preparing to depart.

Fort Riley spokeswoman Deb Skidmore has said the unit will be able to take the steel to Iraq, but that the Central Command will decide later whether it can be used.

Skidmore said Monday the Army has not conducted any tests of the armor at Fort Riley.

Skelton said in an interview that he wants the Army to "hurry up" and complete the testing. During a September visit to Iraq, Skelton said he observed many Army units and individuals lacking the protection they needed.

He said he was proud of the 428th for coming up with a way to get the armor on its own.

"It's important that we not discourage young soldiers, young Americans, from coming up with good ideas," Skelton said. "There's an old quote, 'There's nothing more difficult than getting an old idea out of a military mind than putting a new one in.' And I think this may be Exhibit A. I just think they ought to be complimented for it, instead of finding fault with it."

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