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Humvees damaged in battle sit in a parts yard at the Red River Army Depot in Hooks, Texas. Along with the Fort Bragg Depot, the Red River Depot is responsible for reconditioning equipment for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images
Inside a corrugated metal garage at Fort Bragg, N.C., a small group of Army mechanics spends their days dealing with a different kind of war casualty.
Maj. Terry Wescott runs the repair depot, which the military calls an "equipment reconstitution site." Mechanics here tend to vehicles from Army Reserve civil affairs and psychological operations units. Most of the Humvees and trucks have come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, and Wescott says they often bear the scars of war.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a toll not only on U.S. troops, but also on their equipment — the tanks and Humvees and helicopters. The Pentagon is asking Congress for more than $13 billion to repair and replace machinery.
"The extended use of the vehicles in theatre of course, just the desert itself causes more wear and tear on the vehicles," Wescott says. "As well as some of them have sustained battle damage and so forth. So they do the repairs here, and when it comes back, it's in like new condition."
Getting equipment back into new condition can be challenging. Many vehicles have severe body damage or are in need of complete engine overhauls. Out of a recent group of 38 Humvees that arrived here, only eight ran. Sgt. Ceferino Lopez — a mechanic from New York — says vehicles coming back from the Middle East often look ready for the junkyard.
"Some of them, they've been hit with who knows what over there, ran over who knows what over there, or just got smashed into," Lopez says. "You know, if you're taking fire from one side or the other, and people have a tendency to either hit the brake or hit the gas. And if someone hits the brake in front when you while you hit the gas behind them, they come back pretty messed up, some of them."
Still, Fort Bragg mechanics can fix most of these vehicles and return them to duty. While the reservists here at the reconstitution site tend to tires and batteries and windshields, other soldiers on base replace engines, do body work and give each truck or Humvee a fresh coat of desert-tan paint. Army vehicles have a minimalist design that allows even severely damaged ones to be fixed in a week or two. And Sgt. Edward McNair — who used to own an auto shop in the civilian world — says in some ways this work is easier.
"The military got a standard to it. There's a procedure they must go through," McNair says.
He offers an example: "We got one standard-size oil, that's what we put in everything. It ain't like they're gonna get Pennzoil."
The Army operates several repair depots like this around the country, where mechanics fix vehicles, upgrade armor, and also work on broken radios, generators, and other military machines. It's a job that's become especially important as U.S. involvement continues in the Middle East. At a recent congressional hearing, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said military hardware is under what he called "unprecedented stress."
"The destruction of equipment, the wearing out of equipment has accelerated over what it was before," he said. "I mean we're wearing out helicopters, trucks, Humvees, tanks at rates that are six, eight, 10 times in some cases what we're programmed for, so obviously combat action is destroying equipment we've committed."
Last year, Congress appropriated $17 billion to repair and replace Army equipment, a sharp increase in funding from previous years. But while Schoomaker says that has reduced the Army's maintenance backlog, repair depots still are working 20 hours a day, six days a week. And Schoomaker says billions more must be spent on machinery, so soldiers overseas have equipment to fight with, and units at home have equipment to train with.