FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- Iraqis called them "ghost riders."
The Army's new Stryker brigades earned the nickname in Iraq this year because of their speed, unusual quietness in arrival and ability to survive insurgent attacks.
Unlike Humvee drivers who often plow through bomb-infested convoy routes without stopping, soldiers driving eight-wheel armored combat vehicles known as Strykers boast that they engage their enemies when the enemies appear. But the lunchtime bombing Tuesday at a military mess tent in Mosul that killed 22, including brigade members, came as a stark reminder of how mortal the "ghost riders" always were.
"An attack at a dining facility is going to target everyone there, whether you're a tank crew driver or a Stryker driver or a soldier working in supply," said Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for Fort Lewis, home of the nation's two active Stryker brigades. "You don't have the same kind of protection."
Reporters and television cameramen stood watch yesterday outside the main gate at Fort Lewis, waiting for word about the Stryker brigade's dead and wounded.
About 4,600 Stryker soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division deployed from Fort Lewis in October and November to spend the next year in Iraq, with most assigned to the Mosul area. They replaced the 3,500 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry, who returned this fall.
Officials at the base said yesterday afternoon that they still did not have details about the fatalities, referring calls about the release of names to the Department of Defense. The Pentagon had not released the names as of yesterday evening.
How the Strykers made it into Iraq at all is a story of a tortured, multibillion-dollar program, hailed by supporters as visionary and derided by critics as a boondoggle.
The Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, now retired, served as the godfather of the idea of turning six existing Army brigades into Stryker brigades. Each was to have more than 3,500 men, outfitted with fast-moving troop carriers, heavy weapons and high-tech communications gear.
Named in 2002 for two Medal of Honor winners, the brigades were designed to move troops quickly into battle.
In contrast to light infantry, Strykers would arrive with heavier weapons and greater protection. They would approach the battlefield with little of the noise and warning that come with employing heavy armor such as tanks. The lightly armored Strykers look like a hybrid between a Humvee and a tank. About 11 men can be transported inside at more than 50 mph over rough terrain. A cannon on top can be fired remotely.
Skeptics countered that the hulking personnel carriers were overpriced and underprotected compared with the armor on track carriers such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and too heavy to be transported efficiently. The General Accounting Office estimated the cost of the six planned brigades at $8.7 billion, more than $1 billion dollars higher than an estimate in 2000.
The Army lightened the vehicles and added cage-like slat armor to their exteriors last year.
For those who need to travel the dangerous roads of Iraq, the Strykers have become a valuable asset able to withstand rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs and other weapons used by the insurgents against American forces, experts say.
"I'd much rather be in a Stryker than a Humvee," said John Pike, who runs GlobalSecurity.org, an online clearinghouse for defense-related information.
Two Stryker brigades have been deployed in Iraq. The vehicle has been lauded by commanders in the field, and the program remains generally on course. Fort Lewis expects to add a third brigade transferring from Fort Polk, La., according to Costello.
The Strykers' service has not come without a price. Before the mess hall bombing, six soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry had died in Iraq, according to published reports. They included Spc. Thomas K. Doerflinger, 20, of Silver Spring, who was killed by small-arms fire last month.
Though the vehicles have sustained heavy damage at times, Costello said he is unaware of any fatalities from direct enemy fire against a Stryker.
Advocates argue that the program has already proved its worth.
"They effectively used speed and situational understanding," Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, said in a speech in October. "The speed and agility of the Strykers has earned the 3rd of the 2nd a nickname among many Iraqis. ... They were known as the 'Ghost Riders,' because the Stryker vehicles arrived and deployed their infantrymen with little noise and with little warning."
One Stryker battalion moved hundreds of miles south from Mosul within two days to fill a greater need.
"That's operational agility with strategic impact," Cody said.