By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- For the 278th Regimental Combat Team's yearlong duty in Iraq, the Army has provided some armored Humvees, refitted other "soft-shell" Humvees with new armor and promised that more protection is on the way. But some of the nearly 4,000 soldiers in the Tennessee-based unit whose vehicles still lack protection are taking matters into their own hands this week.
Members of the 278th's first squadron are forging metal plates for their vehicles, primarily from steel taken off vehicles being sent home from the Middle East.
"They used to be Sgt. Smith, and now they are Joe the welder," said Staff Sgt. Ronald Price, 56, of Athens, Tenn., a former commander of the regiment who re-enlisted at a lower rank to go with his men to Iraq.
Officials with the 278th said they would not release specific numbers on the armored status of vehicles because of security concerns.
But Maj. Bobbie Sprouse, the regiment's supply and logistics officer, said the Army has moved the 278th to the front of the list for updating armor.
"No vehicle will be driven north that isn't armored," Maj. Sprouse said of the 278th's upcoming journey into Iraq. "No soldier will cross the Iraqi border on a soft-shell vehicle."
He said vehicles now are being fitted with extra metal and ballistic shield windows using pre-cut patterns. All patterns were approved by officials, he said.
Vehicles without armor will be hauled, not driven, to the 278th's camps somewhere east of Baghdad near the Iranian border. Maj. Sprouse said some vehicles with armor already installed are waiting on the 278th at its new Iraqi bases.
Still, here at the first squadron's makeshift armoring factory, rusty discarded doors and other stacks of twisted metal are hammered into rectangular and square shapes to be fitted onto the sides and underbellies of trucks, Humvees and other military vehicles in the 278th arsenal. The soldiers are trying to protect themselves from homemade roadside bombs that kill many troops in Iraq.
"It is either take the initiative and do it or suffer the consequences of getting hit," said Spc. Kevin Auer, 28, of Knoxville. "This is one of those things where one man's trash is another man's treasure."
In a back section of the base's vast motor pool sit piles of scrap metal in every shape and size. The soldiers work late here slapping added protection onto the vulnerable spots of vehicles.
"We found a junkyard and started bringing stuff back," said Capt. Reid Brock, a machine operator from Athens, Tenn. "We've got some professional scroungers in this outfit."
The troops, who operate under floodlights until about 10 p.m. each day, are managing to put eight to 10 vehicles a day through the outdoor assembly area.
"This is basically something we are doing on our own," said Staff Sgt. Clarence Melton, 44, of Sweetwater, Tenn. "This is the 'Junkyard Wars.'"
Staff Sgt. Price said the National Guard unit counts professional welders, fabricators and steel workers among its ranks, while others simply are using their "backyard country welding common sense."
He said soldiers went "hat in hand begging for steel" to a nearby contractor. When asked for a few pieces of scraps, the contractor, who happened to be from Alabama, surprised his fellow Southerners by giving them truckloads of discarded metal.
"He said, 'Your payment to me is the fact you guys are going north (to Iraq),'" Sgt. Price recalled the contractor telling him.
Now the sparks of blowtorches, the hum of metal grinders and the pounding of hammers echo throughout the motor pool as soldiers, many keeping their rifles slung over their backs, work their metal magic. Those incapable of wielding a tool lend a hand by lying flat on their backs and using both feet to hold the homemade armor up as others weld it into place.
"We are not too worried if it looks pretty," said Capt. Tony Miller, Maj. Sprouse's assistant. "We just want to make sure we get the job done. There is a method to the madness."
Soldiers also devised different designs to protect the gun turrets on the roofs of many vehicles. The roof gunners will have the most exposed positions during the convoy.
Others crafted gun pedestals and mounts for trucks that don't normally carry heavy weapons to add extra firepower for the trip.
"You know what this reminds me of? 'Mad Max' movies," said Spc. Joshua Halvorson, of Athens, 30. "An apocalyptic world where they had to find their own armor to survive."
Soldiers crowded the area for hours hoping their truck or Humvee would be the next one to get a makeover.
Spc. Chad Gardner, 40, of Sevierville, Tenn., said he doesn't mind having to put armor on his own 5-ton truck.
"I like it because if I helped armor up my vehicle, I know it is going to work," he said. "It kind of gives us control over our own fate a little bit."
But Sgt. John Hughes, 43, of Athens, Tenn., said most of the metal add-ons probably would do a better job of stopping bullets than explosions.
"The bad thing is all this stuff is going to do is make people feel just safe enough to go out and get hurt," he said while surveying the soldiers at work.
Many of the soldiers have not stopped at securing scrap metal.
Spc. Halvorson said he has been told his vehicle will get steel plates on the doors and windows. But his crew placed a piece of plywood on the back of his cab for protection.
"We don't know how long it will last," he said. "We are going to have to test it to make sure it doesn't fall off."
On the cab of his 5-ton truck, Spc. Gary Armstrong, 22, of Milan, Tenn., built a makeshift roof out of Kevlar blankets, the same protective material found in the soldier's helmets. The blankets, used to wrap missiles and explosives for shipping, have found their way inside and around many of the 278th's vehicles. But at the firing range, soldiers discovered a 9 mm round can go through three layers of the blankets.
"I'm not too happy, but all you can do is wait and see what they give us," Spc. Armstrong said. "As of now, this is all that we've got."
Lucky soldiers have managed to lay their hands on plenty of blankets so they can put a double lining on their vehicle floors. Some placed blankets on their vehicle's windshields until orders came down to remove them so visibility won't be obstructed.
While soldiers such as Spc. Armstrong continue to hope more armor kits become available, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Ross, 55, a Vietnam veteran from Clarksville, Tenn., said he is not too worried.
"If it's your time to go, it is your time to go," he said. "An IED (improvised explosive device) has a lot of explosives behind it. If one hits, that armor is not going to stop nothing."
E-mail Lee Pitts at firstname.lastname@example.org