Ex-Seal building better armored vehicle

W. Thomas Smith:

Former Navy SEAL Chris Berman is building two versions of an armored combat vehicle competing for a piece of the MRAP pie.
MRAP is a U.S. Defense Department acronym for the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle design that soldiers want and contractors are bidding on to build in great numbers. Mr. Berman, who operates Granite Tactical and Granite Global Vehicles, is one such contractor. But he'll argue, it's not about money. It's about saving lives on Iraq's deadly highways.
On the morning of March 31, 2004, Mr. Berman -- then a SEAL Reservist and Blackwater security officer -- was driving in the south of Iraq near Umm Qasr when he received a satellite phone call that literally changed his life.
His friend, former SEAL Scott Helvenston, and three other Blackwater contractors -- Wesley Batalona, Jerko "Jerry" Zovko and Michael R. Teague -- were northwest of Mr. Berman's position escorting a convoy through the city of Fallujah. Driving in two unarmored thin-skinned Mitsubishi Pajeros (the same type of vehicle Mr. Berman was in), they were ambushed by insurgents.
The four men didn't have a chance. Their sport utility vehicles were riddled with small-arms fire then doused with gasoline and torched. The bodies were then dragged from the vehicles and mutilated. Two were hanged on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
The shocking attack led to a subsequent U.S. Marine-led assault on Fallujah.
Mr. Berman had originally been scheduled to be with the ill-fated team in Fallujah but was reslated at the last minute to another detail escorting civilians to Camp Bucca.
"That would have been me," he says. "Instead, it was Scotty and my other friends."
Mr. Berman escorted the remains home, flying all four bodies to Dover Air Force Base, Del. Before Mr. Helvenston's funeral in Florida, Mr. Berman stopped by a Ford dealership and asked to look at a Ford F-550. He then crawled beneath the truck for a peek at the heavy duty frame and chassis he thought might be used in the development of a fully armored vehicle. It would be a truck for service by defense contractors and perhaps U.S. troops in Iraq.
"I knew I had to try and save lives," he says.
Today, Mr. Berman operates Granite Tactical in North Carolina and Granite Global in Kuwait, two companies building three types of fully armored combat vehicles: One, "the Rock" (his original vehicle produced in Kuwait, which sells for $175,000 and is currently in Iraq service with private contractors and the Defense Department), and the other two -- "The Rock Security Vehicle" and "The Rock Mine Ballistic" (both produced in North Carolina, at $300,000 and $450,000, respectively).
Granite vehicles include heavy armor and a V-shaped hull for mine and blast protection; rocket-propelled grenade and nuclear, biological and chemical protection; ballistic glass; heavy twin machine-gun top-mounts for 360 degrees of fighting capability; interior space for eight to 10 armed soldiers with all of their equipment, and plenty of speed -- capable of cruising at between 65 and 75 mph with bursts up to 85.
Mr. Berman's vehicles have yet to be tested at Aberdeen, but they have been thoroughly tested in combat: Hit multiple times by improvised explosive devices and small-arms fire, no passenger has ever been killed or wounded by either in a Granite vehicle.
Berman's vehicles can probably be built cheaper than competitors in the long run, because he is starting with an existing chassis. His approach appears to be similar to that of Recreation Vehicle builders who start with an existing truck chassis and build the vehicle over it adding amenities with in the weight range of the chassis. His field testing should give him a leg up with competitors at the Aberdeen testing facility.


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