Soldier safety

Thursday, January 8, 2004

For the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq, the fear of roadside bombs and snipers is all too real. Iraqi guerrilla groups have been targeting all types of military vehicles with homemade bombs and small-caliber weapons.

When members of the U.S. Army Reserve's 428th Transportation Company in Jefferson City was activated to go to Iraq, the soldiers took creative measures to fashion homemade armor to add on to their vehicles.

Who could blame them?

The 72 vehicles operated by the 428th are not designed for combat. Some of the vehicles have thin metal floorboards or canvas covering for doors. These types of vehicles would not hold up well against snipers and booby traps.

Other units across the country, including a National Guard Unit in Mobile, Ala., have found ways to modify their vehicles to make them more resistant to attack.

The soldiers did not obtain Pentagon approval for the homemade armor. The military brass says it is still developing its own add-on armor kits for vehicles and does not typically allow any equipment that is not tested.

U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has thrown his support behind the Jefferson City unit.

Skelton, who has earned tremendous bipartisan respect, in late December sent a letter urging Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee to "give every consideration to the efforts of the 428th."

Brownlee told the Senate Armed Services Committee in November that the Army is looking at ways to add armor to vehicles.

But the earliest that could happen is late 2005. That doesn't help the soldiers who are in Iraq today and will remain there for the foreseeable future.

The government should allow the soldiers to outfit their vehicles any way they see fit. Local businesses donated 6 1/2 tons of steel plating, which will accompany the unit overseas. Using it may save lives.

As Skelton put it in his letter, "The Army should commend the soldiers of the 428th Transportation Company for their innovation and old-fashioned American ingenuity."

In the meantime, the U.S. military should also see this as an opportunity to get input from soldiers about how to better armor the vehicles.

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