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Fresh US machinery too late for many Afghan casualties

The Pentagon is now sending special vehicles to help protect its soldiers, but some are asking why it has taken this long.

A top US general has warned military success in Afghanistan is likely to take longer than it did in Iraq, after the troop surge there – and that violence is likely to increase in the spring.

General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, was testifying before Congress. He is the man in charge of overseeing the recently announced 30,000-strong troop surge.

Petraeus’ message was upbeat. He said the situation in Afghanistan is not hopeless and progress can be made.

One of the top threats to US soldiers in Afghanistan are roadside bombs, or “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs).

“The saddest acre in America”

Very few places in America are more honored than Arlington National Cemetery, where the 300,000 dead from every one of the nation's wars are buried.

Sitting on the corner of York and Halsey Drive, its neighborhood is considered “the saddest acre in America.”

Darrell Stafford, an internment supervisor at Arlington is astounded by the death of youngsters, buried in Section 60.

“The widows are a lot younger compared to some of the other sections. Some of them are 19, 20, 21,” Stafford says.

Sergeant Ryan Patrick Baumann would likely have been married to his high school sweetheart Lauren Smith, but after a fatal encounter with an IED, his body now resides in Section 60, Grave Number 8282.

Peace for Ryan Baumann's fiancée is found in old photos, the letters he wrote to her from his deployments and the few possessions he had.

“They were on Route Alaska which is – I don't even know if you would call them 'roads' – what they would call 'roads' in Afghanistan. They were on a mission. I know they were going downhill. Ryan saw the tripwire to the bomb and yelled at his driver to stop. And his driver did everything he could to stop. But, going downhill in an armored Humvee, you can't stop,” Lauren says.

“Ryan screamed ‘go to the left’. So, Ryan, being the man in charge of the truck, the driver listened to him and turned the wheel to the left. I believe he did it on purpose, as do all the other men in the truck. We all believe he said 'go left' so he would take the brunt,” Lauren says.

Asked what if he told him to go right instead, Lauren admits that she “wonders that every day”

The antidote for IEDs

The M-ATV, or Military All-Terrain Vehicle, is supposed to provide more protection and go virtually almost anywhere in the country. Built by a Wisconsin company, it is a mine-resistant type of armored vehicle known as an “M-Rap”. With a redesigned four-wheel suspension system, the M-ATV is much more nimble than any other armored vehicle.

“You can see how the hull sits down rather than being a flat bottom in an up-armored Humvee. The V-shape is designed to deflect the blast away from the occupants,” Brigadier General Michael Brogan explains adding that “There's far less infrastructure in Afghanistan. And the terrain itself is far more formidable than what we encountered in Iraq.”

More than 6,000 M-ATVs are on the fast-track to Afghanistan which comes as welcome relief: IEDs have caused at least 70% percent of US troop casualties this year, more than 40 deaths in November alone. Last year that number was just five.

Asked why the M-ATVs weren't in Afghanistan sooner, potentially saving lives, the Department of Defense responded that the threat of IEDs had recently grown and once it understood the threat, it moved very quickly to get them to Afghanistan.

Asked if their reasoning is enough for Lauren Smith, says: “You know… I don't know. I go back and forth. I have such mixed feelings.”