WASHINGTON — The Marine Corps left troops in Iraq vulnerable to deadly roadside bombs by failing to answer an urgent request from battlefield commanders for blast-resistant vehicles, according to an internal Pentagon investigation obtained by The Associated Press. Acquisition officials shelved the February 2005 request for the "MRAPs" (pronounced EM-raps) after Marine leaders decided armored versions of the Humvee were the best answer to the improvised explosive devices that became the signature weapon of the Iraq war. However, the beefier Humvees proved incapable of withstanding the increasingly powerful IEDs.
The AP obtained portions of the investigation by the Pentagon inspector general. It was expected to be released publicly on Tuesday.
The Marine Corps and the other military branches were aware of the threat from mines and roadside bombs and of the commercial availability of MRAPs well before U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, the report said. Yet nothing was done to acquire the vehicles.
"As a result, the department entered into operations in Iraq without having taken available steps to acquire technology to mitigate the known mine and IED risk to soldiers and Marines," the report said.
This is the report's most "damning conclusion," Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a critic of the military's wartime procurement practices, said Monday. "It appears that some bureaucrats at the Pentagon have much to explain to the families of American troops who were killed or maimed when a lifesaving solution was within reach," Bond said in an e-mail to the AP.
The inspector general's nine-month inquiry was the result of complaints by Franz Gayl, a civilian defense official and whistle-blower who had accused the Marine Corps of "gross mismanagement" that led to a nearly two-year delay in shipping the MRAPs to Iraq.
Had the MRAPs been built and sent after commanders first asked for them in early 2005, hundreds of deaths and injuries could have been prevented, Gayl charged in a study that was first reported in February by The Associated Press.
The Pentagon IG report found no evidence of criminal negligence in the failure to provide the MRAPs when the vehicles were first requested. The portions of the report obtained by the AP do not directly link the lack of MRAPs to deaths of service members.
In a statement, the Marine Corps said it would be inappropriate to comment on the report until it is officially released. However, the Marine Corps noted that it requested the inquiry and worked closely with the investigators. It also said the service has greatly improved its system for responding to requests from troops for badly needed combat gear.
MRAPs weigh as much as 40 tons and have a V-shaped hull that deflects the blast out and away from the crew. More than 11,000 of the vehicles have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan since May 2007 after Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared MRAPs the Pentagon's No. 1 acquisition priority. The heavy trucks have been very effective at protecting American forces from IEDs.
The February 2005 urgent request for 1,169 MRAPs was signed by then-Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik. The Marines could not continue to take "serious and grave casualties" caused by IEDs when a solution was commercially available, wrote Hejlik, who was a commander in western Iraq from June 2004 to February 2005.
Yet despite the stark wording of Hejlik's plea, the request was mishandled and eventually lost in bureaucracy. The inspector general puts most of blame on officials at Marine Corps Command Development Command. Headquartered at Quantico, Va., the command decides what gear to buy.
After receiving Hejlik's request, the command didn't pursue it aggressively. A few months later, then-Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee decided the armored Humvee, known as the M1114, was the best and mostly quickly available solution to the IED threat. By August, the Combat Development Command had dropped Hejlik's request altogether even though the armored Humvee "did not adequately protect Marines from under-body IED attacks, which were increasing in Iraq," the inspector general said.
Hagee, however, told investigators that while he wanted the armored Humvees, he didn't intend for that to preclude the purchase of MRAPs or stop the Combat Development Command from responding to Hejlik's request.
The report also challenged Hejlik's later interpretation of what he meant by the urgent request. In July 2007, he said the Marine Corps' decision to buy armored Humvees was the right one. His intent in signing the request was for the Marines to buy the MRAPs within two years to five years, not immediately.
But the inspector general disputed that, saying Hejlik's initial request "clearly indicated that the requirement for MRAP-type vehicles was priority 1 and urgently needed."
Gayl is the science and technology adviser in the Marine Corps' plans, policies and operations department.
When Gayl's study was disclosed in February, the Marine Corps called it a personal opinion at odds with the facts. Public affairs officers stressed his January study had not been reviewed by his immediate supervisor. The work was pre-decisional and did not reflect the views of the Marine Corps, they said.
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