By Sam Hemingway
An equipment shortage is forcing some Vermont National Guard soldiers in Iraq to use less-than-safe vehicles while out on missions to clear roads of buried explosives, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Thursday.
"They are doing some of the most dangerous work by trying to determine the location of the terrible IEDs that have been killing our soldiers," Sanders said. "In some cases, the vehicles they are using do not have the proper armor."
Sanders said he first learned of the problem when two Vermont Guard members contacted him by e-mail in late May and said they do not have enough MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to safely clear roadways of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
Sanders responded by writing Acting Army Secretary Preston Geren III on June 8. Sanders said Geren later told him during a phone conversation that he was aware of the problem and was trying to solve it.
"It is almost incomprehensible to me that, after four years of war and dealing with IEDs, we still do not have enough well-enough armored vehicles to protect our soldiers," Sanders said.
An estimated 1,100 MRAP vehicles are in Iraq. This week, after complaints by Sanders and other senators, the Pentagon announced it is making production of more MRAPs a priority and wants 17,770 built soon.
Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, adjutant general for the Vermont Guard, said Thursday 80 Vermonters attached to an Arkansas-based battalion are performing "route clearance" missions in the Baghdad area.
Dubie said he was assured by commanders in Iraq that Vermont Guard members are using "state of the art" equipment to do the job. The Guard members, part of the 131st Engineer Company, hail from the Burlington and Springfield regions.
"When they're sent out to do a route clearance mission, they are moving around the equipment to do the job," Dubie said. "The question is do they have enough equipment. And the answer is, like anyone in the military, they'd always like to have more."
Later, through a Guard spokesman, Dubie clarified his statement, saying soldiers doing the actual removal of the IEDs are riding in the MRAPs, while support soldiers are traveling in armored Humvees.
The MRAPs are considered four times as safe as an armored Humvee because MRAPs have a raised chassis and a V-shaped bottom that deflects exploding bombs away from the vehicle.
Dubie said no Vermonters have died but one Arkansas soldier attached to the battalion has been killed while doing the route clearance work. He said several Vermonters have suffered injuries like concussions and cuts from glass splintering during the missions.
"Thank the good Lord, there have been no serious injuries," Dubie said. "They've done such an impressive job in defusing so many IEDs and saving countless lives. What they've accomplished is incalculable."
Dubie praised Sanders for speaking out about the need for more MRAPs.
"Having Senator Sanders involved ... has given us visibility and made this a national priority," he said. "We are always working within the military system, but it's nice to know there are other leaders out there trying to rectify this on a national level."
Sanders said he was pleased the Pentagon had decided to make production of MRAPs a priority but said he was troubled that the United States has had to rely largely on South Africa for production of the vehicle.
He said he's been told an assembly line for the vehicles will be set up in the United States but that the dependence on other countries for the MRAPs has slowed manufacture of the vehicle.
"It is beyond belief that we do not have the capability in this country to produce vehicles needed to protect our soldiers," Sanders said. "It speaks to the de-industrialization of America."