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Are truckers expendable?

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

The brave soldiers of the 89th Company, 57th Transportation Battalion – out of Fort Eustis, Va. – lay their lives on the line just keeping the beans and bullets moving on the highways of death in Iraq. But on the double-jeopardy downside, they’re driving thin-skinned trucks that wouldn’t stop a heavy-duty spitball. Fiber doors don’t come close to stopping AK-47 slugs, and a rocket-propelled grenade round rips through a truck like a paratroop boot through a barracks window.

To make matters worse – according to reports I’ve received from Fort Eustis and Iraq – these heroes have a battalion commander who’s blocking them from getting the right armor protection to survive their dangerous job. And without armor upgrades to their trucks, the 89th troopers are easy pickings.

So far during the past 30 days, the 89th’s convoys have been in the thick of it 11 times. On Aug. 5, an 89th soldier was killed and five were wounded. But while these daring truckers took their lumps, they still accomplished the assigned mission – driving through a hail of enemy fire and killing seven ambushers along the way.

When the 89th left Fort Eustis, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Helmick, the unit’s former battalion commander, said they’d be issued up-armored trucks in Kuwait. The troops are still waiting. And their new commander, Lt. Col. Myrna Merced, doesn’t seem to care if the soldiers are protected as long as the convoys run on time.

A soldier in Merced’s battalion alleges she’s “incompetent and certifiably insane. And our chain of command knows this and is doing nothing. In the meantime, my fellow soldiers are paying the ultimate price because we don’t have the right stuff.”

Another soldier in the 57th says: “She [Merced] is currently under investigation. Three of her company commanders have filed complaints on her. A BDE [Brigade] commander has ordered her to undergo psychiatric care, and medication.”

Sounds like the Army version of the “Caine Mutiny.” But meanwhile, Merced’s still in charge – and still denying the 89th proper armor protection.

An official recapitulation of the Aug. 5 action follows:

Another report from a senior officer at Eustis says the Army is still working on a permanent “armor kit solution for the M915 [truck] but it will not be ready for months due to design problems unique to the 915. In the meantime, they need something.”

Need something indeed! For the first year in Iraq, it was not enough armored vests, then not enough armored Hummers. And now into the second year of a very nasty war, soldiers in trucks for the richest, most powerful nation in the world remain totally unprotected.

Meanwhile, Merced’s unit is the only model M915 truck battalion in Iraq that doesn’t have easily available armored protection that can be added on by field-expedient techniques by GIs for about a grand.

Surely this demands a congressional investigation – and the immediate attention of Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, the skipper of the lash-up that commands the 57th. The same guy who personally responded to my reporting that his command was charging three bucks a soldier for movies.

Surely, if he can como with me about movies, he can find the time to protect his soldiers’ lives.