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SF deaths come amid MRAP rollover concerns

Three soldiers drowned after RG-31 rolled into canal in Afghanistan

Jul. 1, 2008 - 07:01PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 1, 2008 - 07:01PM  |  
From left, Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey M. Rada Morales, Master Sgt. Shawn E. Simmons and Sgt. James M. Treber drowned in a rollover accident in Afghanistan on June 28.
From left, Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey M. Rada Morales, Master Sgt. Shawn E. Simmons and Sgt. James M. Treber drowned in a rollover accident in Afghanistan on June 28. ()
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Three Green Berets drowned Saturday when their Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle rolled into a river in Afghanistan. The deaths come amid growing concerns about the threat of catastrophic rollovers in the military's silver bullet solution to improvised explosive devices.

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Three Green Berets drowned Saturday when their Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle rolled into a river in Afghanistan. The deaths come amid growing concerns about the threat of catastrophic rollovers in the military's silver bullet solution to improvised explosive devices.

Two military reports issued in June indicate growing problems associated with the MRAPs' potential for rollover — as well as electrocution, when the vehicle snags low-hanging power lines — and an emerging threat from the vehicle's glass dissolving into a cancer-causing powder when struck with explosively formed projectiles.

Saturday's accident occurred in volatile Kandahar province and killed three members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to a Defense Department statement.

The Pentagon identified the victims as 39-year-old Master Sgt. Shawn E. Simmons of Ashland, Mass.; 32-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey M. Rada Morales of Naranjito, Puerto Rico; and 24-year-old Sgt. James M. Treber of San Diego. The Special Forces soldiers were traveling in an RG-31 Mine Protected Vehicle.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates labeled the MRAP as a top Pentagon priority soon after assuming his post in 2006, to supplant the far more vulnerable up-armored Humvee as the military's people-mover of choice in combat zones.

The 2008 Defense Authorization Act provided $17.6 billion to buy more than 17,000 MRAPs for use across the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. But the Corps has sliced its MRAP request from 3,700 to 2,300 vehicles, while the Army has said it won't need all 10,000 allocated to the service.

The move to a heavily fortified personnel carrier has been credited with saving scores of American lives, but it has also prompted a series of reports highlighting potential shortcomings with the MRAP, including its potential for roll-overs

A June 13 report by the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, written by Col. Monte Dunard, indicates concerns about the bulky, top-heavy vehicle rolling over in combat zones. Marine officials declined requests to elaborate on the findings, but the report speaks to relatively recent acknowledgement of problems with the MRAPs.

Of the 38 MRAP accidents between Nov. 7 and June 8, only four did not involve a roll-over. Many of the incidents ended with troops suffering injuries, and an April 23 roll-over led to the drowning death of two soldiers.

The report suggests that conditions leading to the April 23 incident appear to be common. The weight of the MRAP, up to 30 tons depending on the model and equipment upgrades, prompted the road to collapse and the MRAP to roll over into a canal.

"Road shoulders in the Middle East do not meet U.S. standards and may collapse under the weight of the MRAP, especially when the road is above grade and can fall to lower ground (ditches and canals)," the report states. "Nearly 75 percent of all rollover crashes occur in rural areas."

The report provided practical advice for avoiding MRAP rollovers.

"Reduce speeds when negotiating turns. Avoid sudden vehicle maneuvers, overcorrecting or excessive steering that can result in loss of control that may cause a maneuver initiated rollover," the report states. "When a vehicle goes off a rural road, the vehicle can overturn when it strikes a ditch or embankment, or is tripped by soft soil."

Electrocution, glass concerns

The June 13 report also highlights problems associated with the vehicles' height, which can reach up to 16 feet when including antennae. Power lines, sometimes hung as low as 11 feet off the ground, can snag on a MRAP and may lead to electrocution, according to the report.

"There have been … instances of electric shock when the vehicle's height causes them to be close enough to power lines to create an electric arc," the report states.

A separate June 27 report by the center warned troops that the safety glass used in MRAPs can dissolve into a harmful powder when exposed to the extreme heat associated with an EFP.

"Hazardous material such as this can cause adverse health effects including asthma, skin rashes, allergic reactions, allergic sensitization, cancer and other long-term diseases," the report states. "Crew and recovery personnel involved in recent incidents have complained of respiratory (chest tightness/coughing) and eye irritation."

At the end of June, the Defense Department had shipped 7,165 MRAPs overseas, with 6,293 fielded. Additional MRAPs are arriving daily. The military estimates each MRAP costs about $1 million to manufacture and equip.

The main MRAP vendors are BAE Systems, Navistar International, Force Protection and General Dynamics. A senior Army official said the service's long-term MRAP plans include a scaled-down role following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The official said Army plans call for increased use of MRAPs as specialized unit vehicles to be called upon by combat commanders for explosive ordnance disposal, route-clearance missions, ambulance detail and command-and-control functions.

Troops cite drawbacks

Many troops in Iraq told an embedded Military Times reporter that MRAPs were not well-suited to the terrain or mission. They cited the vehicle's size as too big for operations in the narrow confines of Iraqi cities and too heavy for the narrow and crumbling roads.

And not only is it dangerous due to the potential for rollover or electrical shock, but counterproductive to the effort to win over hearts and minds with local residents when the vehicle accidentally pulls down power lines. Its massive size often is often seen as menacing, further straining attempts to establish and maintain good relationships.

Some troops openly wonder about the design of the vehicle, for example why the troop seats face inward and not outward in such a way they could fire their weapons through ports, which some versions lack. One soldier asked why they just don't use Strykers, an armored, tactical and popular vehicle.

Just getting out of the vehicle can be dangerous as troops complain about the height and steepness of the dropdown stairs at the rear of the some versions. Running down the ramp is treacherous.

For the driver and vehicle commander, riding in an MRAP is as smooth as driving a beer truck. But for the troops in the rear compartment, it can be downright dangerous. Due to the physics of the vehicle, troops riding in the back are forcefully propelled out of their seats and into the overhead when in rough terrain. As one soldier put it, they're "great until you hit the first bump." Medics talk about the soldier who broke his neck after bouncing his head off the overhead, another who broke a tooth after coming down after a large bump and biting down hard. He required treatment at the Army hospital in the Green Zone, creating an unforeseen mission just to transport him. Another soldier is said to have seriously damaged his skull after slamming into a protruding bolt in the overhead while wearing a soft cover during a familiarization ride.

Soldiers say the size of the truck does have its advantages. One platoon sergeant from the 4th Infantry Division uses his MRAP as a sort of patrol mothership, packing extra ammunition, food and water into the rear compartment for the rest of the troops. When his unit came upon a severely wounded Iraqi, his MRAP became the ambulance.

One sergeant in the 101st Airborne in the region south of Baghdad put his feelings on MRAPs this way, "It's too easy to tip over, especially with canals. On Main Supply Routes, MRAPs would be great, but out here they are not tactical. But I'd rather get hit by an IED in an MRAP than a Humvee any day."

———

Staff writer Kris Osborn contributed to this report

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