Our own Christian Lowe is embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan through June 1 and sends us this dispatch from FOB Sharana in eastern Afghanistan.
By Christian Lowe
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan -- In one of the most conspicuous shifts in policy since the war in Afghanistan began, local Army commanders have ordered that Soldiers must be in heavily armored IED-resistant vehicles when leaving the confines of any base in eastern Afghanistan.
Up-armored Humvees, the go-to patrol truck for troops here since 2001, have been relegated to driving within forward operating bases or were donated to the Afghan army and police.
The Pentagon is sending so-called "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" vehicles, or MRAPs, to the theater at a fevered pitch, with planeloads of the heavy trucks arriving daily at FOBs in this region.
The motor pools now feature a hodgepodge of MRAP trucks, including the Navistar International-made MaxxPro; the BAE Systems-made RG-31 Nyala; and the most recent arrival, the Oshkosh-built M-ATV.
Soldiers here say each has its advantages and disadvantages.
"I love the M-ATV," said Staff Sgt. Philip Burchfield, platoon sergeant with 1st Platoon, Angel Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment. "It can take us places we can't go with the MaxxPros or RG-31s."
Battalion officials here want more of the nimble M-ATVs. Their lighter weight, lower profile and more forgiving suspension give unit commanders greater flexibility in supporting troops who have to patrol remote villages situated along roads that better support tractors and livestock than they do trucks.
But what the M-ATVs gain in agility, they give up in protection against IEDs. Soldiers here say the M-ATV protects against roadside bombs better than an up-armored Humvee, but not much.
"If we hit an IED, it's still going to mess this thing up," one Soldier said during a recent vehicle patrol.
Sitting in a M-ATV is like strapping into a cockpit. The four contoured seats each have five-point seatbelts and a communications suite. Gunners wear heavy-duty harnesses clipped to a fixed point inside the vehicle to avoid being thrown from the turret in a rollover or explosion.
The tight confines are more akin to a Humvee than anything else. But being strapped in and linked by i-comm to the rest of the vehicle gives its own sense of security.
Though it offers more protection than a M-ATV, the ride in a MaxxPro or RG-31 along most of the main routes between bases here is brutal, with the stiff suspension taking every bump and furrow like a trampoline. But despite the rough ride, Soldiers are glad to have the marginal addition of protection that these vehicles give from increasingly sophisticated IEDs.
However, while IEDs remain a huge concern, Soldiers are more worried about the number of armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades that are winding up in the hands of insurgents.
One Soldier with Angel Co. was severely wounded last month when an RPG entered the driver's side of the vehicle, slicing right through the MRAP's armor. While some MRAPs have the RPG-catching "bird cages" attached to the exterior for added protection, some of the RPGs still find their way through.
Commanders here clearly prefer the M-ATV to the other varieties of MRAPs, but even with the added mobility the smaller vehicle provides, getting from Point A to Point B can take an agonizing amount of time and the conditions force drivers to go slower, leaving them more vulnerable to command-detonated IEDs and RPG shooters.
And with combat outposts separated sometimes by as much as an hour-and-a-half drive, there's little chance one platoon can rush over to offer support to another.
But the Soldiers make do. And despite all the drawbacks, one Soldier who's on his second deployment to Afghanistan -- and his first using the MRAPs -- said he wouldn't leave on a patrol in anything else.
"I like MRAPs way more than the Humvee," said Spc. John Johnson, an infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3-187, during a recent mission riding in a MaxxPro. "It's the IEDs that scare me the most. And this thing can take an IED a lot better than a Humvee."