BAGHDAD, Iraq — Blowing sand. Blistering heat. Shrapnel-spewing roadside bombs. The U.S. Army says it does its best to keep its hard-pressed vehicles and helicopters running despite these conditions, but soldiers say Iraq sometimes trumps their best efforts.
Now maintenance is at the heart of the controversy over an Army Reserve unit that refused to carry fuel along one of Iraq's most dangerous stretches of road.
Last week, the Army announced it was investigating up to 19 members of a platoon from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in Rock Hill, S.C., after they refused to transport supplies from Tallil air base near Nasiriyah to Taji north of Baghdad.
The unit's members complained that the fuel trucks they were to drive lacked the armor needed for the dangerous mission, and were in bad shape. The U.S. military said Monday no decision had been made on whether to discipline the reservists.
U.S. officers say the refusal to carry out the mission last week was an isolated incident. Still, it's no secret that convoy duty is one of the most perilous jobs in Iraq.
Across the country, the brutal conditions can be seen on the Humvees on patrol with smashed or cracked front windshields or punctured doors and fenders where chunks of shrapnel have blown through. Worse, dozens of vehicles have been lost in attacks. Video clips of burning Humvees have become a staple of Iraqi insurgent propaganda DVDs.
The Army's fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, which dates as far back as the late 1970s, requires lots of maintenance to keep flying. The helicopters' engines and rotors suffer even more than land vehicles from blowing sand and the heat, and the craft are in higher demand than ever to ferry passengers trying to avoid Iraq's ambush-prone roads.
"Most of the problems we're having are from dust. Most of the bearings are open bearings, it gets in there and wears them out quicker," said Sgt. Amos Ritter of Allentown, Pa. "It's not making it to the point where we can't finish a mission. But it's a problem we need to work around."
Ritter, a 31-year-old crew chief and flight mechanic for the Army's 30th Medical Brigade, said his fleet of helicopters dates to 1982. The Army has been able to deliver common spare parts more quickly, but some parts are still tough to get.
"There are difficulties getting spare parts, it's a bit more of a wait than we're accustomed to, like back when we were in garrison," Ritter said on his base near the ancient ruins of Babylon in central Iraq. "When you're in a combat zone, you should have the priority on parts, but it seems like you're not really getting the priority down here."
In the western town of Qaim, a U.S. Marine complained that his unit lacked vehicles and protection — as well as troops — to replace those killed and destroyed by roadside bombings, ambushes and anti-tank mine blasts.
"We need more vehicles, more armor, more bodies," said Cpl. Cody King, 20, of Phoenix, Ariz., of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
At times, breakdowns have turned tragic.
In May, two soldiers in the Army's 1st Cavalry Division were killed and five wounded when a roadside bombing in Baghdad tore apart a Humvee that had broken down and was being towed.
An 18-year-old private, Christopher Fernandez, earned the division's first Silver Star medal after he helped fight off a guerrilla ambush that followed the blast. Another soldier, 33-year-old Sgt. Timothy Buttz, got the Army's Bronze Star medal for carrying the wounded and dead soldiers from the disabled Humvee.
In Alabama, Ricky Shealey, whose son Spc. Scott Shealey was one of the soldiers who refused the convoy run to Taji, said the unit was told it would have to deliver aviation fuel which had been contaminated, something the U.S. command has denied.
"They wanted the mission to go out at 7 a.m. to take that same fuel and those same vehicles, without any maintenance checks or maintenance after coming off a mission," Ricky Shealey said. "The vehicles were deadlined, meaning something on a vehicle is going to be a problem. They had 12 to 13 deadlines and these vehicles were not supposed to roll."
Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq from mid-2003 until this summer, sent a letter to the Pentagon in December 2003 complaining that a shortage of supplies was hurting the troops' ability to fight, The Washington Post reported Monday.
Sanchez told top Army officials in the Dec. 4 letter there was a serious lack of key parts for vital equipment, and the problem was so severe that "I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low," the newspaper said.
U.S. military officials have said maintenance has improved. Maintenance bays are better stocked now than they were earlier in the war.
Still, it's a tough job, said Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
"The environment in Iraq, which consists of heat, blowing sand and other extreme conditions, to include combat operations, is a difficult place to maintain aircraft and vehicles," Antonelli said. "It would be unrealistic to expect that vehicles, aircraft and other equipment do not break down. We have enough spare parts and logistics support to maintain our fleet of aircraft and vehicles to perform required missions."
But as facilities improve, equipment deteriorates. A large portion of the U.S. military's Humvees have been in service for over a year, since units returning home are told to leave behind some vehicles — especially armored Humvees, which are in high demand.
The constant use takes its toll. This reporter rode in a Humvee that broke down outside the northern city of Kirkuk last month and had to be towed to base.
On Sunday, the commanding officer of the 13th Corps Support Command, Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, ordered the South Carolina Reserve unit that refused the supply run to undergo a two-week "safety-maintenance stand down," during which it will conduct no missions as its vehicles are refurbished and armored.
Contributing: Fisnik Abrashi, Edward Harris, Garry Mitchell.