Soldiers Must Rely on 'Hillbilly Armor' for Protection

ByABC News

Dec. 8, 2004 — -- They call it "hillbilly armor" -- U.S. military vehicles protected with scrap metal salvaged from landfills. And now U.S. soldiers want to know how long they will have to scavenge for junk to protect themselves in combat.

At Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, a Tennessee Army National Guardsman with the 278th Regimental Combat Team put the question directly to visiting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" asked Spc. Thomas Wilson of Ringgold, Ga. His question was met with shouts of approval and applause from the estimated 2,300 soldiers who had gathered to see Rumsfeld.

"It isn't a matter of money, it isn't a matter on part of the Army of desire," Rumsfeld responded. "It's a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, you go to war with the Army you have."

Soldiers say trucks and transport vehicles that lack sufficient armor leave them vulnerable for attack.

"What we basically have is what we call hillbilly steel, hillbilly armor," said Col. John Zimmermann, a senior officer with the Tennessee National Guard. "It's real frustrating for these soldiers."

Zimmermann said 95 percent of the unit's 300 trucks do not have appropriate covering. In October, Army reservists refused an order to deliver fuel in Iraq, saying their vehicles were unsafe.

Army Spc. Blaze Crook, a 24-year-old college student who will be heading into Iraq within days, was taken aback when he saw the condition of the vehicle that will take him there.

"It's got huge windows on the front of my truck," he said. "It's basically like a window of opportunity to get shot, or shrapnel or anything like that to come through. It just doesn't make me feel good that I'm riding up there without the proper armor."

Rumsfeld said soldiers can still be injured even in armored vehicles, but he said the Army is doing the best it can to protect them.

In the meantime, the Marines of Fox 2/5 Company have learned to improvise, using scrap metal to shore up their transport trucks in Iraq.

"One of the main problems [soldiers] have is exposure from the shoulder up, and that is one of the main reasons they came over to us and asked us to raise their sides and high-backs," said Kurt Hendler, a reservist serving with the Seabees, the Navy's construction force.

Hendler and his welding partner, Joe Parrot, are customizing the standard equipped personnel trucks with new steel doors, higher sides and deflecting roofs -- all fashioned from steel plates intended for road repairs in Iraq.

"We cover up the doors and put on some three-inch plate to protect the passenger and driver's side from IED [improvised explosive device] attacks, sniper fire and any other small-arms fire," Hendler said.

This makeshift armor ended up saving the life of a crew whose vehicle took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. They say it will take 2½ months to get a new door to replace the one that was damaged.

While the Pentagon works on supplying troops with more armored vehicles, replacement parts and modification kits to combat units in the field, similar improvising is springing up in bases throughout Iraq. It has become a matter of life and death.

ABC News' Martha Raddatz in Kuwait and Mike Cerre in Iraq filed this report for "World News Tonight."