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WASHINGTON — The towering trucks that give U.S. troops the best protection against roadside bombs and enemy bullets also make them vulnerable to routine hazards like sharp turns, rutted roads and rickety bridges.
Five deaths caused by rollovers and dozens of other accidents in Iraq and Afghanistan have led U.S. military leaders to warn troops to be smart behind the wheel, according to military documents obtained by The Associated Press and accident reports released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The message is especially relevant in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has boosted demand for these steel cocoons, known as MRAPs, short for Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles. Due to Afghanistan's mountainous terrain and unpaved roads, officials will send nearly 800 more RG-31s, the smallest of several different MRAPs the military now uses.
Yet even at a comparatively nimble nine tons, the RG-31 is not immune from tipping. On June 29, three Green Berets drowned when theirs rolled into a canal in southern Afghanistan. The accident is under investigation.
MRAPs get high marks from commanders for protecting U.S. personnel from enemy attack. Close to 7,000 of the vehicles are already in use in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Pentagon will buy at least that many more.
And despite their bulk, the MRAPs have power steering, air brakes and quick acceleration. These features can lull drivers into thinking they're just handling a bigger version of the smaller and more agile Humvee.
Don't be fooled.
"This ain't your father's Oldsmobile," said the June edition of "Safety Corner," an internal newsletter published by the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned in Quantico, Va.
There have been at least 66 MRAP-related accidents between November and June, according to Defense Department statistics. Nearly 40 of those involved a rollover caused by bad roads, weak bridges or driver error.
"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," the Marine Corps newsletter cautions.
"We're certainly concerned," said Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, the Marine Corps officer who manages the MRAP program.
The trucks are tall, heavy, have a raised chassis and V-shaped hulls. The high-rise design shoves the impact of an underbelly blast out and away from the crew inside. The weight keeps the vehicle from being tossed into the air.
But the lifesaving geometry has a cost.
"What you're giving up when you do that is the low center of gravity that provides you the sure-footedness," Brogan said. "So what we have to do is enhance our training for troops in this kind of vehicle. The more stick time they have, the more comfortable they'll be operating it."
Troops also have been shocked or injured when low-hanging power lines strung by Iraqi residents catch on the top of the tall vehicles. Rebar, the steel reinforcing rod used in construction, is another hazard. Blown-up buildings are common, especially in Iraq, and rebars can be sticking out from the concrete ready to cause problems, according to the Marine Corps publication.
The first fatal accident occurred on the night of April 23 near a town north of Baghdad.
A crew of six soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division was traveling over an irrigation canal in a Caiman, a 9-foot-tall, 19-ton MRAP made by BAE Systems in Sealy, Texas. BAE is one of several defense contractors building the vehicles, which come in varied sizes. One model, when fully loaded, can weigh as much as 40 tons.
The Caiman was moving at only 5 mph as the driver started to make a 90-degree turn, according to the Army's account. But he swung the wheel too quickly and the truck's huge rear tires caught the road's soft dirt shoulder, which began to collapse.
Trying to avoid trouble, the driver hit the gas, but the Caiman flipped on its right side. It slid down a slope back end first and into 10 feet of foul water that began to fill the vehicle.
The power shut down, plunging the crew into darkness.
Three of the four soldiers in the rear found an air pocket and stayed in it until they were pulled through the gun turret on the roof. The driver, who received a head injury, also survived.
Pfc. John T. Bishop and 1st Lt. Timothy W. Cunningham weren't so lucky.
Bishop, who was riding in the rear, was trapped after the gear he was wearing became snagged. The soldier from Gaylord, Mich. drowned. Cunningham was in the right front seat. He wasn't wearing his seat belt and was thrown to the back. He drowned, too.
Bishop's father, John W. Bishop, said Army officials told him troops who rushed to scene desperately tried to pry off the inch-thick windshield and pull open the unpinned armor door. They couldn't break inside.
"The manufacturers should put more thought into means of escape in case of an accident," Bishop said.
A month after the accident, the Army's Combat Readiness and Safety Center issued an internal "MRAP Safety Alert" detailing the tragedy.
The alert, obtained by the AP, recommended practicing what to do should the vehicle roll over and ensuring everyone onboard knows when canals and other waterways are close by. It also emphasized the importance of wearing seat belts.
While many of the injuries have been minor, such as broken fingers, others have been serious, according to a dozen MRAP accident reports released through FOIA.
On the morning of Jan. 29, a convoy of three MRAPs from the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment was heading to Fira Shia, a village northwest of Baghdad, where a car explosion had been reported. As the third MRAP in the patrol crossed over a bridge, the span collapsed, sending the vehicle into the canal below.
One soldier, upside down in the vehicle, was caught in his seat belt. He swallowed water and nearly drowned before being freed by another soldier.
The MRAP involved in this accident was a 20-ton MaxxPro made by Navistar International in Warrenville, Ill.
On April 23, just hours before the deaths of Bishop and Cunningham, a MaxxPro assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Iraq was heading north on Main Supply Route Tampa. Seeing a deep rut in the road, which runs from Kuwait to Baghdad, the driver steered to avoid it. The vehicle struck a concrete wall and rolled over, injuring at least one soldier.
Although bigger may not always be better, it does come in handy.
Troops from the 10th Mountain Division were leaving a U.S. base outside Baghdad in an MRAP on the afternoon of Jan. 21. The vehicle's make and model are not listed in the report.
As the lead vehicle in the patrol, the MRAP, sirens blaring, slowed to a stop at an intersection so civilian traffic on either side could halt and the rest of the U.S. convoy could move through. Traffic stopped, except for a Chevy Suburban that was swerving past the waiting cars at more than 60 mph.
Not seeing the large SUV, the MRAP began moving through the intersection, according to the report. The driver of the Suburban suddenly realized why everyone else was waiting. The driver hit the brakes, but the SUV was traveling too fast for the MRAP driver to react. After skidding about 30 feet, the Suburban slammed into the left side of the MRAP.
The force of the crash barely moved the MRAP and there were no U.S. casualties. The Suburban didn't fare as well. Eight Iraqis were injured — four of them seriously enough to be evacuated to a nearby military hospital, the report said.
"If I was going from Point A to Point B, put me in an MRAP," said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "Everybody you talk to who has been in a convoy and hit by a blast doesn't want to be in a Humvee because of the impact."