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Need for hardening vehicles ebbs in Kuwait

By Master Sgt. Hak Haskins

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait (Army News Service, Feb. 8, 2005) -- On Feb. 4, the goal of the 276th Maintenance Company was to up-armor 300 vehicles before the close of business.

That single-day total wasn't going to set the bench mark for production, though; it was just a day's work.

But had it not been for an increase in the production of armored Humvees back in the United States, the 276th might have been pushing 400 freshly-hardened vehicles through the door, and the unit did that on more than one day in January.

Last month alone the 276th and its companion company up-armored 6,600 vehicles in a production system that Chief Warrant Officer Randal Joeckel called "an Army factory."

That "factory-type" production in Kuwait since December is also a large part of the reason that expected need for hardened vehicles in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom decreased by nearly 2,000 this month.

Units meet surge, improve design

The result of the factory mentality was a system that adhered to a strict production schedule and a daily inventory of armored parts.

It also improved the design of some armor pieces - stronger hinges is one - and some of those changes have allowed the gaining units to install some panels with bolts, not a welding torch.

"We have too many units coming here," said Staff Sgt. Robert E. Cruz, the NCOIC of the 276th's's production schedule. "I don't have time to weld (all the parts) so we came out with a new model."

Currently, a sturdier door handle is on the drawing board.

Drivers from units who are waiting for up-armor don't have time to stand around and chit-chat about home. They are handed wrenches and put to work. Also, units that need 10 or more vehicles up-graded must provide a working party.

Welders keep torches hot

To remain efficient "we have to keep our welding rods hot and our cutting torches hot," said Maj. John Murillo, the support operations officer of the 158th Combat Support Battalion, the higher command of the maintenance companies.

In less than three months the three maintenance companies involved in up-armor work in-theater - the 175th, the 276th and 699th maintenance companies - used 12 tons of welding rods and 124,000 hardened bolts to fashion $27 million worth of ballistic steel sheets into doors and panels to help keep Soldiers safer while on convoy missions.

Joeckel, the officer in charge of the 276th's maintenance shop, said his 10-Soldier allied trades shop grew to 20 Soldiers almost immediately and as many as 86 Soldiers were working the mission at its height last month.

The 276th, a Reserve unit from Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, took over its mission from the 699th in mid-January. The unit was employing more than half its personnel strength as machinists, welders and inventory-yard workers.

"We canvassed the unit for machinists, for wrecker operators, and we trained them all to be metal workers in a couple of weeks," Joeckel said. "Then came the big push" to get all vehicles hardened. We have never denied a vehicle yet that is headed north. I can't say enough of my Soldiers."

Even with Army machinists and welders working around the clock they couldn't keep up with the demand, and five Kuwaiti machine shops were contracted to help out.

Then came the Navy.

Navy sends hull techs to help

A volunteer crew of 15 hull technicians arrived in late January and they were put to work immediately after undergoing Joekel's cross-training program.

Seaman Apprentice Brett Jones had seen enough of the water and was ready for a change.

Jones is one of those who came to Kuwait from the USS Emory S. Land, a sub tender stationed in Italy, to assist the Army in up-armoring vehicles.

"We've got a lot of work to do out here, more than we thought," Jones said. "We've been working our butts off out here, and we're enjoying it."

When the Navy was asked to provide a crew to help its Army counterparts, it wasn't short on volunteers, said Lt. j.g. Chris O'Leary, the crew's officer in charge. The 15 slots were quickly filled.

"We thought this was a great opportunity and we took it. And, we would take another one," said O'Leary, who spent 11 years as an enlisted machinist's mate before earning his commission.

The crew members are hull technicians and have the same kind of training and skills that Army machinists and welders possess.

Sailors' doing ship-shape job

"We don't have any Humvees, but we do structural work and the welding is not much different than on ships," O'Leary said. "The 276th has a process and they showed us. We picked it up fast."

The Navy's impact was felt immediately when its senior chief petty officer made a suggestion for modifying one of the steel panels used for larger trucks. It was a design change that found its way into the template and has been used since.

The Navy hull technicians also came with an advantage, said Murillo.

"We're treating them like a brigade welding team even though they will only be here 45 to 60 days," Murillo said. "But there is a little better teamwork because [the Sailors] have no other interest. They are here purely doing machine work."

O'Leary's crew has been split into two functional areas: Installing hinges, doors and panels, and producing corner pieces for 5-ton trucks. It runs a 24-hour operation side-by-side with the Soldiers.

The Sailors are too new in the 276th's maintenance shop to have developed much in the way of social relationships, though one Sailor said he and some Soldiers "throw the [football] around" when they take breaks.

But Petty Officer 2nd Class Roddey Zinda, another hull technician with four years of Naval service behind him, said he volunteered for one reason: "It's a respected job and it's my trade and I know I am good at it. And if I can help . it just made sense."

Officers get hands dirty too

All hands on the crew work on the 24-hour shift, including O'Leary, whose face was streaked with sweat and the soot of spent welding rods.

"When you see the officer and the senior chief working with the crew, it boosts morale," Zinda said, "And shows us how important this is."

That sentiment was echoed through the ranks.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Jessica Curtis said the result of her work on Naval vessels was important and may help save a life. But in Kuwait "you get to see a lot of your work and where it is going. This may help save many lives and it has a much greater sense of importance."

The crew landed in Kuwait near the end of January during a rain storm that turned much of the desert into a temporary flood plain. Making that entrance even more memorable was a communication gaffe that sent their personal luggage back to Italy, then Germany, before it found its way to Buehring, which is a few miles south of the Iraqi border.

Soldiers helped out by providing a few creature comforts and the essentials from toothpaste to razor blades.

The Sailors noticed.

"This is a lot of hard work and under arduous conditions all the time," O'Leary said. "We're here for 45 to 60 days but a lot of the [Soldiers] are here for a year. I don't know how they do it. It makes us appreciate how good we have it and the sacrifices these people make."

Three types of armor in theater

There are three levels of armor for vehicles being used in the Central Command area of operations, said Col. William Frunzi, the TRADOC systems manager for tactical wheeled vehicle modernization.

Level III armor was the first measure taken by Soldiers to protect themselves from increased threats.

"Level III is sheets of steel units buy and cut to add on to their vehicles," Frunzi said. The armor is usually fabricated and applied in Kuwait.

The biggest concern with Level III armor is whether the steel is up to the task being asked of it, said Maj. Cary Ferguson, Training and Doctrine Command assistant system manager for tactical wheeled vehicle modernization. Units are using a variety of steels to accomplish the task.

Frunzi said steel "coupons" - sample squares of the steel - are sent to a test center at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md., where scientists put them through a series of tests to determine their ballistic qualities.

"The intent is to test and certify the steel," he said. "We want to make sure it's good stuff."

Level III armor typically protects the sides and rear of the vehicle, Whitcomb said.

Level III was a step up from what Soldiers in the field had at the time, but better, more permanent solutions were necessary to properly protect the force, Whitcomb said.

Level I and Level II armor are both armoring that take place at factories in the United States, Frunzi said. The former consists of the up-armored Humvee.

There were a small number of these vehicles in theater at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but most of them were assigned to military police units for security operations.

Level I armor adds protection all around the crew compartment, said Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, commander, Coalition Forces Land Component Command.

"It essentially gives you protection, both glass and on the armament on the side, front, rear, sides, top and bottom," he said. "If you'll think of protection in a bubble, that's kind of what the Level I up-armored Humvee gives you."

But Humvees are not the only tactical wheeled vehicle being used in Iraq, and not all of them can be replaced by their up-armored cousins. Level II armor, which consists of manufactured add-on kits that are attached to vehicles either at home station before units deploy or once the vehicles arrive in Kuwait.

Like Level III armor, Level II kits protect the sides and rear of a vehicle, Whitcomb said. But future kits will add armored glass to protect the front as well.

"Our objective is for every vehicle in Iraq to have some level of armor," Funzi said. "If a vehicle has to be driven (outside of safe areas), it's going to have armor."

(Editor's note: Master Sgt. Hak Haskins serves with 377th Theater Support Command Public Affairs. Sgt. Jacob Boyer, editor of The Wheel newspaper at Fort Eustis, Va., contributed the last portion of this article.)

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www.ARMY.mil OCPA Public Affairs Home


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