WASHINGTON — Spc. Luis Herrera died during a routine training mission at Fort Bragg in April when the 23-year-old soldier’s Humvee tipped over.

His death was not an isolated incident. The Army and Marine Corps reported 3,753 tactical vehicle accidents in noncombat scenarios between 2010 and 2019, resulting in the avoidable deaths of 123 service members. Two-thirds of the accidents involved vehicle rollovers that often occurred in routine training missions on U.S. soil. And Humvees accounted for the majority of those accidents, given their ubiquity throughout the Army.

A 2021 Government Accountability Office report and a subsequent “60 Minutes” news feature detailing these findings caught the attention of the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, who is now leading a congressional push to make Humvees safer.

“We were trying to up-armor them to protect the soldiers, and unfortunately it created some stability issues,” Durbin told Defense News. “I want to make sure that moving forward we have those resolved.”

Humvees already have a high center of gravity, increasing the likelihood of rollovers. The military outfitted the vehicles with additional armor during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to protect them against improvised explosive devices. But the additional armor made the vehicles heavier, adding to the already high frequency of Humvee accidents.

Humvees manufactured within the last few years come equipped with anti-lock brakes and electronic stability controls to prevent these rollovers. The company that developed these brakes, Ricardo, has also designed a safety kit to retrofit older Humvees with the anti-lock brakes and stability systems.

Durbin said he began calling for the funds to install these kits on older Humvees after watching a “60 Minutes” segment in February, which featured the families of service members who died in preventable tactical vehicle accidents.

The lawmaker used his position on the Senate’s defense spending panel to earmark $183 million for retrofitting older Humvees with the safety kits in the fiscal 2022 government funding bill. This represented a significant increase over the Army’s $10.5 million FY22 request to upgrade 5,421 Humvees with the kits.

Congress passed the bill — with funding for the safety kits — in March. Ricardo’s defense division received a $20 million contract in September to continue retrofitting Humvees with the safety kits.

Upgrading a single Humvee with a safety kit costs $18,000, and the Army will be able to install approximately 10,400 kits with the $183 million Congress appropriated. The Army owns approximately 120,000 Humvees, and roughly 54,000 of the older vehicles need the safety kit retrofits.

The Army’s program executive office in charge of combat service support told Defense News it procured 5,218 safety kits in FY22, bringing its total number of kits to 7,106. Of that number, it retrofitted 1,159 Humvees with the kits in FY22, bringing the total number of upgraded vehicles to 2,071 so far.

“The Army is committed to providing this enhanced safety capability across all Department of Army components,” Rae Higgins, a spokeswoman for Program Executive Office Combat Support and Combat Service Support, told Defense News.

She noted that 40% of the procured retrofit kits are projected to go on active duty vehicles, with 20% for the Army Reserve, 35% for the National Guard and 5% for Army pre-positioned stock.

The Senate’s draft defense spending bill for FY23 includes another $61 million to speed up safety kit installation — a sizable increase over the Army’s $50.5 million request. Durbin’s office told Defense News the senator is working to increase — or at least maintain — this figure as Congress continues to negotiate final spending levels for the next fiscal year.

Durbin also added $10 million in funding to research air bag kits to prevent injuries in the event a Humvee rolls over despite the new anti-lock brake systems.

“The Army is also reviewing additional safety upgrades — such as air bags and restraint systems — that can further help save lives,” Durbin said on the Senate floor in April. “All of these critical investments must be made in parallel.”

His office noted the Army has improved its tactical vehicle training — a key recommendation in the Government Accountability Office report that first documented the high accident rate. The report issued nine total recommendations regarding vehicle training, staffing and hazard communication to the Army, Marine Corps and Navy. The Pentagon agreed with all of them.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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