To help the Iraqis stand up as the Americans stood down, and of course the plan worked wonderfully.
By Peter Eisler, Blake Morrison and Tom Vanden Brook for USA TODAY:
Pfc. Aaron Kincaid, 25, had been joking with buddies just before their Humvee rolled over the bomb. His wife, Rachel, later learned that the blast blew Kincaid, a father of two from outside Atlanta, through the Humvee's metal roof.
Army investigators who reviewed the Sept. 23 attack near Riyadh, Iraq, wrote in their report that only providence could have saved Kincaid from dying that day: "There was no way short of not going on that route at that time (that) this tragedy could have been diverted."
A USA TODAY investigation of the Pentagon's efforts to protect troops in Iraq suggests otherwise.
Years before the war began, Pentagon officials knew of the effectiveness of another type of vehicle that better shielded troops from bombs like those that have killed Kincaid and 1,500 other soldiers and Marines. But military officials repeatedly balked at appeals — from commanders on the battlefield and from the Pentagon's own staff — to provide the lifesaving Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, for patrols and combat missions, USA TODAY found.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates late last month, two U.S. senators said the delays cost the lives of an estimated "621 to 742 Americans" who would have survived explosions had they been in MRAPs rather than Humvees.
The letter, from Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Kit Bond, R-Mo., assumed the initial calls for MRAPs came in February 2005, when Marines in Iraq asked the Pentagon for almost 1,200 of the vehicles. USA TODAY found that the first appeals for the MRAP came much earlier.
As early as December 2003, when the Marines requested their first 27 MRAPs for explosives-disposal teams, Pentagon analysts sent detailed information about the superiority of the vehicles to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, e-mails obtained by USA TODAY show. Later pleas came from Iraq, where commanders saw that the approach the Joint Chiefs embraced — adding armor to the sides of Humvees, the standard vehicles in the war zone — did little to protect against blasts beneath the vehicles.
Despite the efforts, the general who chaired the Joint Chiefs until Oct. 1, 2005, says buying MRAPs "was not on the radar screen when I was chairman." Air Force general Richard Myers, now retired, says top military officials dealt with a number of vehicle issues, including armoring Humvees. The MRAP, however, was "not one of them." Something related to MRAPs "might have crossed my desk," Myers says, "but I don't recall it."
Why the issue never received more of a hearing from top officials early in the war remains a mystery, given the chorus of concern. One Pentagon analyst complained in an April 29, 2004, e-mail to colleagues, for instance, that it was "frustrating to see the pictures of burning Humvees while knowing that there are other vehicles out there that would provide more protection."
The analyst was referring to the MRAP, whose V-shaped hull puts the crew more than 3 feet off the ground and deflects explosions. It was designed to withstand the underbelly bombs that cripple the lower-riding Humvees. Pentagon officials, civilians and military alike, had been searching for technologies to guard against improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The makeshift bombs are the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces.
The MRAP was not new to the Pentagon. The technology had been developed in South Africa and Rhodesia in the 1970s, making it older than Kincaid and most of the other troops killed by homemade bombs. The Pentagon had tested MRAPs in 2000, purchased fewer than two dozen and sent some to Iraq. They were used primarily to protect explosive ordnance disposal teams, not to transport troops or to chase Iraqi insurgents.
Even as the Pentagon balked at buying MRAPs for U.S. troops, USA TODAY found that the military pushed to buy them for a different fighting force: the Iraqi army.
On Dec. 22, 2004 — two weeks after President Bush told families of servicemembers that "we're doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones" — a U.S. Army general solicited ideas for an armored vehicle for the Iraqis. The Army had an "extreme interest" in getting troops better armor, then-brigadier general Roger Nadeau told a subordinate looking at foreign technology, in an e-mail obtained by USA TODAY.
In a follow-up message, Nadeau clarified his request: "What I failed to point out in my first message to you folks is that the US Govt is interested not for US use, but for possible use in fielding assets to the Iraqi military forces."
In response, Lt. Col. Clay Brown, based in Australia, sent information on two types of MRAPs manufactured overseas. "By all accounts, these are some of the best in the world," he wrote. "If I were fitting out the Iraqi Army, this is where I'd look (wish we had some!)"
The first contract for what would become the Iraqi Light Armored Vehicle — virtually identical to the MRAPs sought by U.S. forces then and now, and made in the United States by BAE Systems — was issued in May 2006. The vehicles, called Badgers, began arriving in Iraq 90 days later, according to BAE. In September 2006, the Pentagon said it would provide up to 600 more to Iraqi forces. As of this spring, 400 had been delivered.
The rush to equip the Iraqis stood in stark contrast to the Pentagon's efforts to protect U.S. troops.
In February 2005, two months after Nadeau solicited ideas for better armor for the Iraqis and was told MRAPs were an answer, an urgent-need request for the same type of vehicle came from embattled Marines in Anbar province. The request, signed by then-brigadier general Dennis Hejlik, said the Marines "cannot continue to lose … serious and grave casualties to IEDs … at current rates when a commercial off-the-shelf capability exists to mitigate" them.
Officials at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Va., shelved the request for 1,169 vehicles. Fifteen months passed before a second request reached the Joint Chiefs and was approved. Those vehicles finally began trickling into Anbar in February, two years after the original request. Because of the delay, the Marines are investigating how its urgent-need requests are handled....
Not until two months ago did the Pentagon champion the MRAP for all U.S. forces. Gates made MRAPs the military's top priority. The plan is to build the vehicles as fast as possible until conditions warrant a change, according to a military official who has direct knowledge of the program but is not authorized to speak on the record. Thousands are in the pipeline at a cost so far of about $2.4 billion.
Gates said he was influenced by a news report — originally in USA TODAY — that disclosed Marine units using MRAPs in Anbar reported no deaths in about 300 roadside bombings in the past year. His tone was grave. "For every month we delay," he said, "scores of young Americans are going to die."...
Given the view that the war would end soon, the Pentagon had little use for expensive new vehicles such as the MRAP, at least not in large quantities. The MRAPs ordered for the Iraqis were intended to speed the day when, to use Bush's words, Iraqi forces could "stand up" and the United States could "stand down."
Nadeau, who wrote the e-mail that led to MRAPs for the Iraqis, explains why he did so: "The U.S. government knows that eventually we're going to get out" of Iraq. The United States wants "to help get (the Iraqis) in a position to take care of themselves."