KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | Staff Sgt. Daniel Paul Rabidou nervously rubbed the sweat from his palms onto his Army fatigues.
The tall, well-built 24-year-old from San Bernardino, Calif., had already survived two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on convoys in the past six weeks, including one on the same road he was getting ready to traverse again from Forward Operating Base Ramrod near Kandahar to a small outpost in the heart of Taliban territory.
Since they arrived at the outpost on Sept. 13, the Blackwatch unit - Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, with the 5th Stryker Brigade - had lost three soldiers and two civil affairs officers. IEDs had destroyed three of their four Stryker vehicles. Overall, 21 of 350 Strykers have been destroyed since the 5th Brigade deployed in southern Afghanistan in July; more than two dozen Americans have been killed and nearly 70 wounded.
Soldiers call the Strykers “Kevlar coffins,” Sgt. Rabidou said.
“Lead vehicle always sucks,” he said, as the convoy set off with a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times in the first Stryker. “It’s usually the one to go first if there’s a pressure plate bomb. Sure you don’t want to get out now? It may be your last chance,” he asked half-jokingly.
The eight-wheeled Stryker, introduced a decade ago as a faster, more mobile alternative to tanks and other tracked vehicles, has had a controversial history. In theory, the Stryker’s speed and capacity — it can carry 11 plus a crew of two — makes up for its lighter armor. But critics say its vulnerability to IEDs make it unsuitable for duty in southern Afghanistan.
The Stryker is “essentially a paramilitary police vehicle,” said retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, a specialist on tank warfare. “It’s designed to transfer American light infantry down a road,” not to fight an elusive enemy in treacherous terrain.
Col. Macgregor said the U.S. Army would do better to follow the example of Canada, which has bought German Leopard II tanks for use by ground forces in Afghanistan.
“What you need in Afghanistan is tracked armor, off-the-road capability and a stable platform for large-caliber guns,” he said.
Many soldiers and officers interviewed by The Times over the past two weeks also questioned the use of Strykers in southern Afghanistan.
Taliban insurgents have become increasingly successful in planting IEDs, some as large as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. Since July, these powerful bombs have ripped apart 21 of the 350 Strykers in Afghanistan and destroyed one Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. In addition to more than two dozen Americans killed in action, scores have been wounded, many with severe injuries ranging from head trauma to loss of limbs.
The latest incident occurred Monday as a convoy headed out from Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
“We were heading into town to win over the hearts and minds,” said Sgt. Josh Gooding, 33, from Panama City, Fla., interviewed in a hospital bed at Kandahar airfield’s trauma unit.
A hand and his right eye had been damaged.
“We went out there to say, ‘Look, we’re not intimidated, and we’re not going anywhere,’ ” he said.