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Marines From Iraq Sound Off About Want of Armor and Men

New York Times | April 25, 2005
By MICHAEL MOSS

In May 29, 2004, a station wagon that Iraqi insurgents had packed with C-4 explosives blew up on a highway in Ramadi, killing four American marines who died for lack of a few inches of steel.

The four were returning to camp in an unarmored Humvee that their unit had rigged with scrap metal, but the makeshift shields rose only as high as their shoulders, photographs of the Humvee show, and the shrapnel from the bomb shot over the top.

"The steel was not high enough," said Staff Sgt. Jose S. Valerio, their motor transport chief, who along with the unit's commanding officers said the men would have lived had their vehicle been properly armored. "Most of the shrapnel wounds were to their heads."

Among those killed were Rafael Reynosa, a 28-year-old lance corporal from Santa Ana, Calif., whose wife was expecting twins, and Cody S. Calavan, a 19-year-old private first class from Lake Stevens, Wash., who had the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, tattooed across his back.

They were not the only losses for Company E during its six-month stint last year in Ramadi. In all, more than one-third of the unit's 185 troops were killed or wounded, the highest casualty rate of any company in the war, Marine Corps officials say.

In returning home, the leaders and Marine infantrymen have chosen to break an institutional code of silence and tell their story, one they say was punctuated not only by a lack of armor, but also by a shortage of men and planning that further hampered their efforts in battle, destroyed morale and ruined the careers of some of their fiercest warriors.

The saga of Company E, part of a lionized battalion nicknamed the Magnificent Bastards, is also one of fortitude and ingenuity. The marines, based at Camp Pendleton in southern California, had been asked to rid the provincial capital of one of the most persistent insurgencies, and in enduring 26 firefights, 90 mortar attacks and more than 90 homemade bombs, they shipped their dead home and powered on. Their tour has become legendary among other Marine units now serving in Iraq and facing some of the same problems.

"As marines, we are always taught that we do more with less," said Sgt. James S. King, a platoon sergeant who lost his left leg when he was blown out of the Humvee that Saturday afternoon last May. "And get the job done no matter what it takes."

The experiences of Company E's marines, pieced together through interviews at Camp Pendleton and by phone, company records and dozens of photographs taken by the marines, show they often did just that. The unit had less than half the troops who are now doing its job in Ramadi, and resorted to making dummy marines from cardboard cutouts and camouflage shirts to place in observation posts on the highway when it ran out of men. During one of its deadliest firefights, it came up short on both vehicles and troops. Marines who were stranded at their camp tried in vain to hot-wire a dump truck to help rescue their falling brothers. That day, 10 men in the unit died.

Sergeant Valerio and others had to scrounge for metal scraps to strengthen the Humvees they inherited from the National Guard, which occupied Ramadi before the marines arrived. Among other problems, the armor the marines slapped together included heavier doors that could not be latched, so they "chicken winged it" by holding them shut with their arms as they traveled.

"We were sitting out in the open, an easy target for everybody," Cpl. Toby G. Winn of Centerville, Tex., said of the shortages. "We complained about it every day, to anybody we could. They told us they were listening, but we didn't see it."

The company leaders say it is impossible to know how many lives may have been saved through better protection, since the insurgents became adept at overcoming improved defenses with more powerful weapons. Likewise, Pentagon officials say they do not know how many of the more than 1,500 American troops who have died in the war had insufficient protective gear.

But while most of Company E's work in fighting insurgents was on foot, the biggest danger the men faced came in traveling to and from camp: 13 of the 21 men who were killed had been riding in Humvees that failed to deflect bullets or bombs.

Toward the end of their tour when half of their fleet had become factory-armored, the armor's worth became starkly clear. A car bomb that the unit's commander, Capt. Kelly D. Royer, said was at least as powerful as the one on May 29 showered a fully armored Humvee with shrapnel, photographs show. The marines inside were left nearly unscathed.

Captain Royer, from Orangevale, Calif., would not accompany his troops home. He was removed from his post six days before they began leaving Ramadi, accused by his superiors of being dictatorial, records show. His defenders counter that his commanding style was a necessary response to the extreme circumstances of his unit's deployment.

Company E's experiences still resonate today both in Iraq, where two more marines were killed last week in Ramadi by the continuing insurgency, and in Washington, where Congress is still struggling to solve the Humvee problem. Just on Thursday, the Senate voted to spend an extra $213 million to buy more fully armored Humvees. The Army's procurement system, which also supplies the Marines, has come under fierce criticism for underperforming in the war, and to this day it has only one small contractor in Ohio armoring new Humvees.

Marine Corps officials disclosed last month in Congressional hearings that they were now going their own way and had undertaken a crash program to equip all of their more than 2,800 Humvees in Iraq with stronger armor. The effort went into production in November and is to be completed at the end of this year.

Defense Department officials acknowledged that Company E lacked enough equipment and men, but said that those were problems experienced by many troops when the insurgency intensified last year, and that vigorous efforts had been made to improve their circumstances.

Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis of Richland, Wash., who commanded the First Marine Division to which Company E belongs, said he had taken every possible step to support Company E. He added that they had received more factory-armored Humvees than any other unit in Iraq.

"We could not encase men in sufficiently strong armor to deny any enemy success," General Mattis said. "The tragic loss of our men does not necessarily indicate failure - it is war."

Trouble From the Start

Company E's troubles began at Camp Pendleton when, just seven days before the unit left for Iraq, it lost its first commander. The captain who led them through training was relieved for reasons his supervisor declined to discuss.

"That was like losing your quarterback on game day," said First Sgt. Curtis E. Winfree.

In Kuwait, where the unit stopped over, an 18-year-old private committed suicide in a chapel. Then en route to Ramadi, they lost the few armored plates they had earmarked for their vehicles when the steel was borrowed by another unit that failed to return it. Company E tracked the steel down and took it back.

Even at that, the armor was mostly just scrap and thin, and they needed more for the unarmored Humvees they inherited from the Florida National Guard.

"It was pitiful," said Capt. Chae J. Han, a member of a Pentagon team that surveyed the Marine camps in Iraq last year to document their condition. "Everything was just slapped on armor, just homemade, not armor that was given to us through the normal logistical system."

The report they produced was classified, but Captain Royer, who took over command of the unit, and other Company E marines say they had to build barriers at the camp - a former junkyard - to block suicide drivers, improve the fencing and move the toilets under a thick roof to avoid the insurgent shelling.

Even some maps they were given to plan raids were several years old, showing farmland where in fact there were homes, said a company intelligence expert, Cpl. Charles V. Lauersdorf, who later went to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency. There, he discovered up-to-date imagery that had not found its way to the front lines.

Ramadi had been quiet under the National Guard, but the Marines had orders to root out an insurgency that was using the provincial capital as a way station to Falluja and Baghdad, said Lt. Col. Paul J. Kennedy, who oversaw Company E as the commander of its Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment.

Before the company's first month was up, Lance Cpl. William J. Wiscowiche of Victorville, Calif., lay dead on the main highway as its first casualty. The Marine Corps issued a statement saying only that he had died in action. But for Company E, it was the first reality check on the constraints that would mark their tour.

Sweeping for Bombs

A British officer had taught them to sweep the roads for bombs by boxing off sections and fanning out troops into adjoining neighborhoods in hopes of scaring away insurgents poised to set off the bombs. "We didn't have the time to do that," said Sgt. Charles R. Sheldon of Solana Beach, Calif. "We had to clear this long section of highway, and it usually took us all day."

Now and then a Humvee would speed through equipped with an electronic device intended to block detonation of makeshift bombs. The battalion, which had five companies in its fold, had only a handful of the devices, Colonel Kennedy said.

Company E had none, even though sweeping roads for bombs was one of its main duties. So many of the marines, like Corporal Wiscowiche, had to rely on their eyes. On duty on March 30, 2004, the 20-year-old lance corporal did not spot the telltale three-inch wires sticking out of the dust until he was a few feet away, the company's leaders say. He died when the bomb was set off.

"We had just left the base," Corporal Winn said. "He was walking in the middle of the road, and all I remember is hearing a big explosion and seeing a big cloud of smoke."

The endless task of walking the highways for newly hidden I.E.D.'s, or improvised explosive devices, "was nerve wracking," Corporal Winn said, and the company began using binoculars and the scopes on their rifles to spot the bombs after Corporal Wiscowiche was killed.

"Halfway through the deployment marines began getting good at spotting little things," Sergeant Sheldon added. "We had marines riding down the road at 60 miles an hour, and they would spot a copper filament sticking out of a block of cement."

General Mattis said troops in the area now have hundreds of the electronic devices to foil the I.E.D.'s.

In parceling out Ramadi, the Marine Corps leadership gave Company E more than 10 square miles to control, far more than the battalion's other companies. Captain Royer said he had informally asked for an extra platoon, or 44 marines, and had been told the battalion was seeking an extra company. The battalion's operations officer, Maj. John D. Harrill, said the battalion had received sporadic assistance from the Army and had given Company E extra help. General Mattis says he could not pull marines from another part of Iraq because "there were tough fights going on everywhere."

Colonel Kennedy said Company E's area was less dense, but the pressure it put on the marines came to a boil on April 6, 2004, when the company had to empty its camp - leaving the cooks to guard the gates - to deal with three firefights.

Ten of its troops were killed that day, including eight who died when the Humvee they were riding in was ambushed en route to assist other marines under fire. That Humvee lacked even the improvised steel on the back where most of the marines sat, Company E leaders say.

"All I saw was sandbags, blood and dead bodies," Sergeant Valerio said. "There was no protection in the back."

Captain Royer said more armor would not have even helped. The insurgents had a .50-caliber machine gun that punched huge holes through its windshield. Only a heavier combat vehicle could have withstood the barrage, he said, but the unit had none. Defense Department officials have said they favored Humvees over tanks in Iraq because they were less imposing to civilians.

The Humvee that trailed behind that day, which did have improvised armor, was hit with less powerful munitions, and the marines riding in it survived by hunkering down. "The rounds were pinging," Sergeant Sheldon said. "Then in a lull they returned fire and got out."

Captain Royer said that he photographed the Humvees in which his men died to show to any official who asked about the condition of their armor, but that no one ever did.

Sergeant Valerio redoubled his effort to fortify the Humvees by begging other branches of the military for scraps. "How am I going to leave those kids out there in those Humvees," he recalled asking himself.

The company of 185 marines had only two Humvees and three trucks when it arrived, so just getting them into his shop was a logistical chore, Sergeant Valerio said. He also worried that the steel could come loose in a blast and become deadly shrapnel.

For the gunners who rode atop, Sergeant Valerio stitched together bulletproof shoulder pads into chaps to protect their legs.

"That guy was amazing," First Sgt. Bernard Coleman said. "He was under a vehicle when a mortar landed, and he caught some in the leg. When the mortar fire stopped, he went right back to work."

A Captain's Fate

Lt. Sean J. Schickel remembers Captain Royer asking a high-ranking Marine Corps visitor whether the company would be getting more factory-armored Humvees. The official said they had not been requested and that there were production constraints, Lieutenant Schickel said.

Recalls Captain Royer: "I'm thinking we have our most precious resource engaged in combat, and certainly the wealth of our nation can provide young, selfless men with what they need to accomplish their mission. That's an erudite way of putting it. I have a much more guttural response that I won't give you."

Captain Royer was later relieved of command. General Mattis and Colonel Kennedy declined to discuss the matter. His first fitness report, issued on May 31, 2004, after the company's deadliest firefights, concluded, "He has single-handedly reshaped a company in sore need of a leader; succeeded in forming a cohesive fighting force that is battle-tested and worthy."

The second, on Sept. 1, 2004, gave him opposite marks for leadership. "He has been described on numerous occasions as 'dictatorial,' " it said. "There is no morale or motivation in his marines." His defenders say he drove his troops as hard as he drove himself, but was wrongly blamed for problems like armor. "Captain Royer was a decent man that was used for a dirty job and thrown away by his chain of command," Sergeant Sheldon said.

Today, Captain Royer is at Camp Pendleton contesting his fitness report, which could force him to retire. Company E is awaiting deployment to Okinawa, Japan. Some members have moved to other units, or are leaving the Marines altogether.

"I'm checking out," Corporal Winn said. "When I started, I wanted to make it my career. I've had enough."

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