In Iraq, Sgt. Derrick Hurt was well-armed and supplied with the best body armor. But his Humvee was designed to travel light — with not an inch of armor on it.
That worried him and the men who rode with him. They tried makeshift ways of strengthening the vehicles' flimsy undersides. "We filled the floorboards with sandbags as much as we could, except for the gas pedal and the brake," he said. "You know, you have to operate the vehicles."
The efforts didn't stop the grenade that ripped through the opening between the gas pedal and the brake — and ripped away most of Hurt's right leg. "It just kind of bounced on the road, and I just drove over it and it exploded," he recalled.
His father, Larry Hurt, a veteran himself, was surprised when he visited Derrick at a military hospital to find so many other soldiers who also were wounded in their unarmored vehicles. "Burn victims, loss of hands, lots of other injuries, too," he remembered. "It really brings it home to you walking down the halls."
His son agreed. "[They had the] same sorts of injuries, from an I.E.D. or a land mine."
I.E.D. is military shorthand for "improvised explosive device" — the makeshift bombs that, almost weekly, are killing and injuring soldiers in Iraq. In training exercises, the Army now teaches soldiers to recognize and respond to roadside bombs.
Soldiers Seek Alternatives
Rather than training, what many soldiers really want is armor to protect their vehicles from the bombs they can't see. When reservists in the Army Reserves' 428th Transportation Company showed up at Fort Riley, Kan., to prepare for deployment, they were warned by their buddies already in Iraq that without armor on the vehicles, they'd be in danger.
Maj. Keith Porter said he took the warnings seriously. "They suggested it would be a good idea to add steel plating as additional protection," he said.
The Army, though, had none to give them. While production of armor has been stepped up, supply is far short of the need. So Porter and his soldiers started looking for ways to armor their vehicles themselves.
Local citizens, hearing of their plight, donated money, and a local steel company offered to turn 12,000 pounds of raw steel into armor custom-fit to their trucks — free of charge.
Prepared for Combat
First Sgt. Timothy Beydler oversaw the process and the careful packaging of the thick steel plates for shipping to Iraq. Each piece, he said, is designated for a specific spot on a specific vehicle. "I know when we're sending out missions and these soldiers are going out on the convoy that they're going to have this extra protection," he said, adding, "Our intent is to bring everyone home in one piece."
The 428th has since learned that other Army units also are creating homemade armor. Army officials caution that some of it may not meet military standards, but so far they have not prohibited its use.
And while it's still not an absolute certainty that the soldiers of the 428th will be allowed to use their armor in Iraq, they are definitely taking it with them, according to Beydler. "We're gonna package it, put it in a box, and it's going over with us," he said.
Hurt said he hopes the steel will give the men and women of the 428th protection he didn't have "cause I don't want this. I don't want to see any of my friends like this."
He also hopes his story might inspire Army brass to make armoring vehicles a higher priority.