Father Builds Humvee Protection for Soldier Son

U.S. troops patrolling in Iraq are often ambushed and attacked by insurgents. Lack of proper protection prompted one soldier's father to manufacture his son's vehicle defenses.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Iraq, soldiers and Marines have had to scramble to improve their vehicles' defenses against an unexpectedly aggressive insurgency. Mostly, they've improvized armored plating from scrap metal. And in one extreme case, a supply unit based in Washington state invented a whole new piece of equipment, then they recruited the father of one of their men to manufacture it. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

In the summer of 2003, Captain Mike Pottratz of the Army's 44th Corps Support Battalion was worried about the news coming out of Iraq. Non-combat units such as his were regularly coming under attack and didn't always have the means to defend themselves. His unit, which was headed to Iraq, did have plenty of machine guns, but the guns weren't much use in a moving Humvee.

Captain MIKE POTTRATZ (US Army, 44th Corps Support Battalion): This weapon, which is quite heavy, and when we start firing it, has a substantial kick. And the only way we can actively use it is firing it out of a window.

KASTE: What Pottratz wanted was a gun mount, specifically something that could steady the machine gun and swivel it around 360 degrees. The Army doesn't supply anything like that for Humvees, but Pottratz found someone who could.

(Soundbite of soldering)

KASTE: Advanced Welding & Manufacturing is literally a mom and pop shop in suburban Seattle. At the moment, Dave Russell is welding aluminum fish trays for the Alaskan salmon fleet. But his masterpiece is his gun mount which he's dubbed the M360(ph).

Mr. DAVE RUSSELL (Advanced Welding & Manufacturing): Soldier stands in the center of the ring--in the center of the ring here and would have the weapon pointing out toward the vehicle and he can then direct fire to any position in a 360-degree circle.

(Soundbite of machinery moving around)

KASTE: In barely two months, Russell turned Pottratz's basic design into a workable prototype, tested it on a firing range and produced 45 of them, more than enough to equip the whole unit. Russell's wife, Lesa, pitched in assembling the mounts. The couple had a strong incentive to work fast because their son was a Humvee driver in the unit. Lesa Russell.

Mrs. LESA RUSSELL (Advanced Welding & Manufacturing): I think that's mainly why we got involved with this is because we wanted our--well, our son and other people's sons a little more protected. I still worried about him, but I also knew that he was protected, not only by our gun mounts but by the Lord.

KASTE: Their son, Specialist David Russell, reports that the gun mount did save lives in Iraq and that he himself may be alive because of it.

Specialist DAVID RUSSELL: We came under fire in a town near Tikrit and one of the gunners was shot in the knee, but he was on the gun and he was able to keep firing.

KASTE: He says without the ring mount, the wounded soldier would probably not have been able to keep the gun steady enough to protect the passengers. Russell, who's now back from Iraq, says other units there have tried to improvise gun mounts for their Humvees, but their hand-made jobs are nothing like the machined aluminum version built by his father. An Army Reserve unit based in Minnesota heard about the design and ordered another 88 of the mounts directly from Dave Russell. There are now nearly 160 of his mounts in use in Iraq.

John Kenkel is a military procurement expert at Jane's Strategic Advisory Services. He says Russell's gun mount is an unusual case.

Mr. JOHN KENKEL (Jane's Strategic Advisory Services): On a smaller scale, these things happen all the time. People are constantly improving, you know, parts of their uniform or the belts or the batteries that they carry. But I don't think it happens all the time when you're talking about maybe a Humvee or a tank or something where you're actually going out and designing a part and then integrating it onto a platform itself.

KASTE: At the same time, Kenkel says the situation in Iraq has made the Pentagon more flexible about procurement. Units have to be inventive to get all the equipment they need and they sometimes go outside the normal procurement system. At Advanced Welding, Dave Russell confirms that he's sometimes hired to make copies of standard-issue Army parts which the officers on base can't get through official channels.

Mr. RUSSELL: But, you know, I know that, you know, war's expensive and it costs a lot of money to put a lot of these on the shelf. I mean, it's our tax dollars, you know, to just build a bunch and put them on the shelf. And I think that with everything going on, they just couldn't keep up with the demand.

KASTE: Russell has applied for a patent for his gun mount and he'd like to supply it to the rest of the Army. His mount costs about $1,600; that's only about one-fourth the price the Army pays for a roughly comparable swivel mount designed for trucks. The Army says it's not fair to compare prices because Russell's mount is smaller and is meant only for Humvees. Still, an Army spokeswoman says Russell is welcome to go through channels to get authorization to sell his mount to the rest of the service. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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