Story Highlights• The U.S. military is working to neutralize the threat of roadside bombs
• Military wants to get troops more up-armored Humvees, armored security vehicles
• Family of specialist killed in Iraq may have pressured National Guard to help
By John King
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BALAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The sound of mortar rounds in the distance draws the attention of the visitor in the Humvee backseat. The threats and potential threats much closer have the attention of the three members of Bravo Company taking CNN along for the mission.
Potholes. Piles of trash. Dead animals. All places where improvised bombs can be hidden, and almost from the moment we leave base, there is shouting and swerving to avoid things in the road that just don't look right. Or look different from the last time through.
It is high-stress work to say the least, and as we tagged along for a night, it was worth remembering that these troops spend three or four nights a week on such harrowing duty.
Taking the convoy road was not on our itinerary in Iraq, but it was something we wanted to do from the moment we landed at Balad. With a little help from our CNN Baghdad bureau, producer Laura Bernardini was able to negotiate the trip as we navigated a heavily scheduled military tour of facilities critical to supplying troops at the warfront.
While our storyline would take several turns over the course of a few months, we were there primarily to get a firsthand look at what the military says is a success story amid all the frustration in Iraq -- progress in getting more and more up-armored Humvees to troops who run the most dangerous missions.
And there is progress in plain sight: In Baghdad and Balad, we visited facilities were Department of Defense civilian workers and contractors were assembling and attaching the armor kits that for so long were in short supply in Iraq.
David Stewart, an Army veteran of the initial Iraq invasion, runs the Baghdad operation -- as a civilian now. His bottom line is simple: "Every time we turn out 30 vehicles, that is 30 soldiers that have the chance of going out the gate and coming back alive. That's what that means to me."
Of course, even an up-armored Humvee is vulnerable -- it was never designed as a combat vehicle. Safer vehicles are in short supply still, though we had what you might call a moment of serendipity when the Army took us out to show us some of the new armored security vehicles -- troop carriers with a V-shaped passenger cab that is more resistant to blasts from improvised explosive devices.
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Just ask Spc. Ryan Martens, who was in an SUV that was blasted by such a bomb.
"This is just a better form of protection for some troops who are lucky enough to get them," Martens told us.
His accent gave him away -- he's from Wisconsin, which became another destination for this report on roadside bombings.
Stephen and Kay Castner, whose son, also named Stephen, was killed by an improvised explosive on his third day in Iraq, have a farm in the town of Cedarburg. Martens was from the same Wisconsin National Guard unit.
Several members of the unit said they were surprised when a Guard unit received some of the new armored security vehicles and some other armor and equipment upgrades. They suggested it had something to do with the pressure Castner's father was putting on Congress and the Pentagon by raising questions about the unit's training and the vulnerability of the Humvee to attacks from improvised explosive devices.
We posed the question when we returned from Iraq and sat down with the commanding general of the National Guard, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum.
"I would say there is some veracity to that," Blum told us. "Stephen may have saved other people's lives, and if it gives him some solace that his loss may have prevented the loss of some other soldiers down the road ... then I would say that he did not die in vain, even though it will never take the pain of the loss away from the family. It never will. It never will."
The giant lot called the boneyard at Balad is chilling: Lines of Humvees and fuel tankers and other trucks destroyed in roadside bomb attacks. The ballistic glass shattered. The metal burned and twisted.
Some of the most damaged vehicles are covered with tarps; the military does not allow pictures, saying the images would help the enemy with targeting.
Critics say the military is trying to keep Americans from seeing just how vulnerable the troops are to the crude but effective weapons they encounter on Iraq's perilous roads.
You won't settle the debate walking through the boneyard, past the bombed-out shells, the seats half ripped from the floor, the steel charred and seared by flames.
But you are likely to cry.
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