NAJAF, Iraq - Deafening noise, confusion and fear erupted as the roadside bomb slammed into the U.S. Army Humvee, knocking over Spc. Stephen Monti, who was manning a gun in the turret.
"Then we started checking whether we still had our 10 fingers on," Monti recalled of the recent ambush south of Baghdad.
Not only had all four soldiers escaped injury, but the vehicle - which had been fortified by armor plating and bulletproof glass - came through with just a few dents and a cracked windshield.
"There probably would have been wounds, maybe mortal ones, in your basic Humvee," said Monti, of St. Louis. "Every vehicle that goes out on the road should be 'up-armored.' Your safety is dramatically increased."
But many in Iraq are not, and attacks against them by roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades are driving up the casualty toll.
On Sunday, a Humvee was engulfed in flames after a roadside bomb struck a U.S. convoy in eastern Baghdad, killing a U.S. soldier. It was not known if the Humvee had the extra armor.
When the war began, only about 2 percent of Army's 110,000 Humvees were armored. Now, of the nearly 15,000 Humvees in Iraq, about 1,500 to 2,000 are armored, according to the Army. The numbers are increasing.
The Army is making a "full-court press" to locate and deliver every armored Humvee in its inventory to Iraq, said Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armored Division. At the same time, factories are boosting production of the armored version.
During the war last year, some Humvees were ambushed as swift-moving U.S. troops bypassed pockets of resistance.
But the attacks have mounted as Iraq became what Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces, calls "a 360-degree battlefield," with none of safer rear areas of conventional warfare.
"They were not intended to be on the front lines," Dempsey said of the unarmored vehicles. "In a linear battlefield, Humvees always operated behind the front lines - in most cases even out of artillery range. Iraq isn't a linear battlefield. As we find ourselves in a low- to mid-intensity conflict, and we have all these vehicles designed for a linear battlefield, they come up short."
The Army is trying to find every heavily armored Humvee "from every other place in the world," Dempsey told The Associated Press. "I saw an e-mail the other day that said there was one uparmored Humvee in Kosovo and they were tracking it coming here."
In the meantime, soldiers in Iraq are making do. They're hardening their "soft-skins," as unarmored Humvees are called, from kits available at some bases or by getting enterprising Iraqis to whack steel sheets onto their vehicles.
Some who have to ride in the soft-skins resort to prayer.
"It hasn't prevented me from going out, but whenever possible, I bum a ride in an armored Humvee. There is a little extra element of having to trust God more when going out in soft-skins," said Maj. Chip Huey, of Hattiesburg, Miss., chaplain for the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
The basic M998 Humvee, or High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle, began rolling off assembly lines in 1985, replacing the venerable Jeep and variously configured to serve as a field ambulance, scout vehicle or war zone taxi.
An armored Humvee, the M1114, first appeared in 1993 but the Army initially ordered a few, apparently not envisioning post-Cold War conflicts and peacekeeping missions such as Somalia, Kosovo, Haiti and Iraq, where guerrilla attacks could come anywhere and anytime.
Now, the M1114 probably ranks No. 1 on the wish list of many soldiers in Iraq, since it can stop AK-47 bullets, anti-personnel RPGs and most roadside bombs and mines - weaponry that makes short work of the non-armored version.
"You can mitigate your risks in combat in a lot of ways. One active way is to up-armor. It's essential," said Capt. Brian Ducote, of Dunwoody, Ga. Like many units, the goal of his 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 1st Infantry Division is to shield 100 percent of its Humvees.
The unit is halfway there, with 22 of the 67 vehicles M1114s and a dozen others protected by added-on armor, which normally includes rolled steel plates for the sides, shields behind the back seats, reinforced flooring and bulletproof glass. Such refits take about a day.
"It's a great temporary fix, but they need to push the armored ones," said Staff Sgt. Brian Rasmussen, of Payson, Ariz. A soft-skin, he said, was not built to take the extra weight of the armor, which strains the suspension system and makes it hard to maneuver. Sometimes the bulletproof glass available is too thick to fit into the window frames, he said.
"My crew would feel a lot safer if we had one of these," said Sgt. Leandro Diaz, of Kenedy, Texas, pointing to Rasmussen's armored Humvee. Rasmussen looked more relaxed as the 2nd Battalion prepared for a 186- mile convoy along dangerous roads from this southern city to their base north of Baghdad.
Diaz said he had to tune the engine of his soft-skin for speeds of up to 75 mph to scoot out of ambush-prone areas. And the unit has found other ways to compensate, like training everyone in an unarmored Humvee, including the driver, to pull triggers more quickly in event of an ambush, or simply avoiding using them on risky patrols.
Dempsey said his Germany-based division arrived in Iraq a year ago with just over two dozen armored Humvees out of a fleet of 400. Now, the combination of deliveries of new armored Humvees and the conversion of the unarmored ones will raise the division's total to about 200 with armor.
The Army's Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division, which recently took control of Baghdad from 1st Armored, will eventually end up with 700 armored Humvees, Dempsey said.
The Army says production is being speeded up at the Am General Plant in Mishawaka, Ind., the sole maker of the Humvee, and at O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt of Fairfield, Ohio, where the armor is mounted.
The Senate passed a supplementary $239.3 million bill in November to produce 1,065 armored vehicles at a cost of $150,000 apiece, compared with about half that for a soft-skin.
Such measures have been fueled by politicians, military experts and relatives of soldiers killed in unarmored vehicles, as well as images of insurgents gloating around burning Humvees, rifles raised in triumph.
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