Our Mike Manhatton is in Kuwait covering the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the Third Infantry Division as they train for service on the front lines. Mike will bring you their stories next week on THE News, but in the meantime, he was able to email us this update.
Sometimes it's the simplest things that can save lives. Things you already know, but always need a reminder. It's even like that here in the Kuwaiti desert, as Third Infantry Division soldiers with the 4th Brigade Combat Team get in their last-minute training before heading north to Iraq.
Today's my first full day with the unit, currently calling a large camp in the desert home. Camp Buehring, named for an officer killed in a rocket attack in Baghdad. The story goes he was based at a downtown Baghdad hotel, getting ready for his work day when an insurgent fired a rocket. Through a twist of wartime fate, that rocket went right through his room, killing him.
It's often the day-to-day dangers you never expect. We started this morning on a firing range. Bradley Fighting Vehicles lined up in the desert, taking aim, testing their systems, "zeroing" their weapons. The loud boom echoing across the desert. Even the smaller weapons, like machine guns mounted on tripods and even the soldier standard M-16 echo around the dunes. This is the time to test everything. The problems they find today, they can fix now, before they become deadly dangerous "up north."
You expect the dangers on the firing line, but something most of us would never think of is taking a toll in Iraq, and even bases at home. So the second stop on our tour today was, of all things, a driving course! Most of the soldiers are very familiar with the workhorse Humvee, they rumble around Hunter and Fort Stewart all the time. But the Humvees the troops drive in Iraq are different. They call them "up armored."
Obviously they need much more armor to roll through the often-hostile streets of Baghdad. All that armor makes the already hefty Humvee literally a ton heavier. Like putting another car on top of the family minivan or SUV. Handling that weight on the road takes extra training. So one of the exercises today had soldiers driving a short loop course in the desert, outside Camp Buehring. The first pass, with a master driver at the wheel.
His first move, driving off the road, on purpose. With the often-questionable roads around Iraq, not to mention road hazards, going off the pavement is going to happen. It's just a matter of time. The idea here is to train the driver to react. The wrong move, hitting the gas or the brakes or spinning the wheel, has disastrous results. The up-armored Humvee is top heavy, and can tip. So the master driver trains the troops to feel what happens when they go off, and the best ways to safely bring the Humvee back on track.
So what if they can't? What if the worst happens, and the Humvee goes over? How can you possibly train for that? They've found a way. They take a Humvee past its prime, cut away everything except the seats, steering wheel and seatbelts, and hook it up to something that looks like a giant rotisserie. No engine, no wheels, just the body skewered from front to back.
The soldiers go through a classroom session with some frightening video of what happens when you don't wear your seatbelt. It's the key. The statistics the Army offers is that of all Humvee rollover accidents, 97% of the soldiers inside who wore their seatbelts escaped with minor or no injuries at all. Of those who didn't, it's an ugly casualty list. Deaths and dismemberments, bruises and broken bones were the good news.
The next step out of the classroom is to the Humvee on a Stick. Soldiers take the usual positions in the Humvee, driver, commander, gunner and crew. Strapped in, the trainer starts the rotisserie. It's like a thrill ride, but the stakes are high. If they don't learn this, when it happens on the road, in Iraq, it will very likely be very serious.
I had a chance to go along for the ride, taking the crew seat right behind the driver. My job, when we rolled over: grab the gunner by his body armor and hold on to him as if both of our lives depended on it. The first time around, the trainer rolled the Humvee to its very limit of stability, something like 25 degrees. Imagine parking on the very steepest hillside around, and then add some. At that angle, pitched to the passenger side, it was all I could do to hold on to the gunner, nearly swinging free from his turret. When the trainer rolled us the other way, it was just about impossible to keep anything stable. As they say in the civil defense tests, were this a real rollover, in a real Humvee, I'd be covered with all the gear we haul along. Weapons and ammo, coolers and MREs. Not to mention the other soldiers in the cabin.
You know what's coming next. The trainer, like a crazed carny, cranks the skewer a bit more, spinning us completely upside down, then back up, and back down. There's nothing you can really do to stay upright. Just try to remember the classroom session, and figure out if you can really brace your feet against the seat in front of you, and hold the gunner, and in my case, hold on to a rolling video camera to capture the moment.
It was a little like playing "laundronaut" in the college dorm dryer, except with four other bodies bouncing around with you. I don't recommend trying it. Unless, of course, you expect to be driving in an up-armored Humvee in Baghdad sometime soon.