DAYTON, Ohio -- The heavy armor added to military Humvees to protect soldiers from roadside bombs and other incendiary devices has had an unintended consequence: Dozens of soldiers have died in Iraq from rollover accidents, a Dayton Daily News examination found.
The armor adds as much 3,000 pounds to the vehicle, which makes it more difficult to control and more likely to roll over, especially when operated in the harsh conditions in Iraq, which include night missions, primitive roads and unforgiving terrain.
An analysis of the Army's ground accident database, which includes records through November, found that 60 of the 85 soldiers who died in Humvee accidents in Iraq - or 70 percent - were killed when the vehicle rolled. Of the 337 injuries, 149 occurred in rollovers.
"The whole thing is a formula for disaster," said Scott Badenoch, a former Delphi vehicle dynamics expert in Dayton who is working with the military to design a new, lighter vehicle to replace the Humvee. "The up-armoring has caused more deaths than it has saved."
Ron Hoffman, senior research physicist at the Aerospace and Mechanics Division of the University of Dayton's Research Institute, said he believes the armor has saved more lives than it has cost, providing a necessary shield against roadside bombs, hand-propelled rockets, machine-gun fire and improvised explosive devices.
"These IEDs they're facing in Iraq are potent," he said. "If I was a soldier in Iraq, going down a road in a Humvee, I would opt for the armor."
Still, Hoffman agreed that there have been unintended consequences. "You are shifting the center of gravity in the vehicle," he said. "With the threat they're facing over in Iraq, I can see the dilemma: We put more armor to protect our soldiers and destabilize the vehicle."
The workhorse of the Humvee fleet is the M1114, which is "up-armored" at the Armor Holdings plant in West Chester Township, Ohio. The plant churns out 650 Humvees a month, most of them headed to Iraq.
A steady increase in rollovers has followed the up-armoring, the newspaper found. Serious accidents involving the M1114 have increased steadily as the war progressed, and accidents in the M1114 were much more likely to be rollovers than mishaps in other Humvee models.
Of the 38 soldiers who died in accidents involving the up-armored M1114 during the Iraq war, 34 were killed in rollovers. Of the 64 soldiers killed in other types of Humvees during that period, 36 died in rollover accidents, according to the newspaper's analysis of the Army database.
The Army constitutes about 75 percent of the military personnel in Iraq. Similar data from the other service branches were not available.
The total number of rollover accidents involving armored Humvees is likely much higher.
The M1114 is not the only type of armored Humvee, but the Army database does not specifically identify older models retrofitted with armor, though a handful were identified in narrative versions of reports. In addition, not all Humvee rollovers are counted in accident statistics.
On April 3, 2003, syndicated newspaper columnist Michael Kelly and Staff Sgt. Wilbert Davis of Alaska were killed when the lightly armored Humvee they were riding in rolled over into a canal. "They said it happened a lot, and that was sort of a surprising thing," said Kelly's widow, Madelyn Kelly.
"The Humvee wasn't originally designed to carry all the extra weight," said Rep. David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican who has closely monitored the armoring of the Humvee as a senior member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. "We need to lighten it and strengthen some parts on it, but we also need to train the drivers to understand the problems," Hobson said.
The Army Combat Readiness Center in Alabama, which provided the accident database, confirmed many of the newspaper's statistical findings.
The Daily News made numerous attempts to get comment from other branches of the Army, including a request made in Iraq to interview an Army Humvee expert stationed there. Reporters sent to Army officials a written summary of the newspaper's findings and written questions about Humvee rollovers.
Although there was no direct response to the newspaper, the Army did fax documents to the newspaper that say rollovers are common in Iraq. "Speed, road conditions, tire damage and sudden evasive actions are the routine causes," the documents say. "Several accidents have also occurred when the vehicle weight has collapsed the roadside, and the vehicle landed in water."
A June 2006 fact sheet from the Army outlines a number of safety programs initiated by the service, including "a gunner's restraint system, an improved seat restraint belt, single movement combat locks, internal vehicle communications, and a fire suppression system for the crew and cargo compartments."
The Army "aggressively launched a series of multi-discipline efforts to reduce rollovers," the fact sheet says.
When Humvees do roll, the most vulnerable passenger is the gunner, the soldier who operates the weapon mounted on the vehicle's top. Gunners are doubly vulnerable in rollover accidents because their perch above other passengers not only makes it easier for them to be pinned under the rolling vehicle, it also makes them susceptible to being thrown out as the vehicle rolls.
Gunners were killed in at least 27 of the 93 fatal Humvee accidents since 2001.
Ray and Debbie Newhouse said their son, Nicholas Eugene Wilson, 21, loved being a gunner and never spoke to them about a rollover problem before he went on a March 11, 2005, mission to search for roadside bombs just outside of Ramadi. The Humvee struck a culvert and rolled off the shoulder of the gravel road into a canal. The collision broke off the entire gun turret, pinning Wilson beneath it; three soldiers dived in, trying to save him.
"The Army issued written reprimands to several soldiers in Wilson's unit, including the commanding officer, for failing to conduct rollover drills.
"These vehicles are not safe, period," said Ray Newhouse.