MRAP vehicles save military lives overseas

MCLB-ALBANY -- Since the onset of war six years ago, much thought has been put into the safety of men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2006, the office of the Secretary of Defense had concluded that too many troops were being lost to roadside bombs. Officials decided vehicles were needed that could sustain the blast of an explosive device and keep the troops moving as they needed.

Enter the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, a program with an established presence at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany.

"We needed a way to protect those guys," said Chris Berry, senior logistician with the joint MRAP program office.

Production on the vehicles started in February 2007, roughly four months after the need was acknowledged. To date, approximately 15,000 vehicles have been produced. The vehicles are among the top priorities for the Secretary of Defense's office.

Due to the novelty of the vehicles, and a demand to get the vehicles shipped overseas as quickly as possible, the undertaking has not been easy.

"It's not like going to a Chevy dealership," Berry explained. "The MRAP (vehicles) emerged very quickly; the logistics training came afterward. It has evolved to where it is today."

Construction of the vehicles, moving them to their destination and having the supplies needed to pull all the pieces together have been undertakings of human effort beyond measure, Berry said.

"MRAP is the ultimate team sport," he said. "I'm privileged to be an orchestrator in a part of that. It's amazing how quickly the industry was energized."

The cost of the program thus far, including the hardware to get all the parts in place, has exceeded $25 billion, Berry said.

When the project first started, there were five original corporations involved. Since then, the project has seen a good amount of growth.

"It went from a small company to a massive organization in a matter of months," Berry said.

With thick, dense armor surrounding the outside and a V-shaped bottom designed to deflect a blast, the MRAP vehicles have begun to replace Humvees -- which lack the ability to sustain the blow of a roadside bomb --as vehicles of choice.

"The Humvees are flat-bottomed vehicles, and they don't take a blast very well," Berry said.

The three MRAP vehicles used by the Marine Corps are the Cougar Category 1, the Cougar Category 2 and the Buffalo. The Buffalo, the largest of the three, weighs in at 75,000 pounds and has a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour.

The folks who work behind the scenes to make the product a reality, including Berry, take great pride in getting the job done right.

"(The program) has some of the best talent, best people in the country," he said. "People take a lot of time out of their personal lives to see that these guys are taken care of."

Over time, Berry said he has grown weary over reports that have criticized the program for not getting the vehicles out to the warfighters fast enough. Still, officials continue to express their enthusiasm for the program.

"The Department of Defense does care about these kids," Berry stated. "A lot of folks are extremely emotional about this. There is a massive force solely dedicated to protecting the warfighter. We want them to come home. It's not about us, it's about the warfighter."

Berry, who has been involved with the program since its inception, suggested that the dedication of those working in the program has been so great, in fact, that their efforts have come at great personal costs.

Even so, the personal sacrifices oftentimes don't seem that significant.

"I've had no life for three years," he said. "I don't mind; my family doesn't mind. With what we are doing, someone gets to see their family again. It's been a blessing and true honor to do something like this. At the end of the day, I couldn't ask for a better reward."

In some cases, the dedication to the program can have even deeper meaning. Ann Jowers, who works in the MRAP office, has a son in the Army who happened to be riding in one of the vehicles when it encountered a blast.

"My child is still walking and breathing," she said. "It means a lot to me when friends come up to me and say I'm glad those vehicles are out there. There's no comparison in the difference of morale."

In recent weeks, the program has been involved in putting independent suspension systems on the vehicles so they can better function on the roadways of Afghanistan, which has virtually no infrastructure system.

The idea behind the new suspension systems is not only to improve safety, but reliability as well.

"When the vehicles break, we just can't let them sit," Berry explained.

With any program can come its inefficiencies, but overall, Berry said, he is proud of how far the MRAP program has come.

"With anything, you grow and learn," he said. "We met the challenge and exceeded the challenge. There are going to be naysayers for years to come. The program has been highly successful. I wouldn't go back and second guess anything we've done."