With welding tools and steel, Randall Menough saves lives.
SALEM -- When Randall Menough was a teen, he often ventured into his dad's Salem garage with his older brothers to weld bits of cars together.
It was fun shaping things: bonding meaningless pieces together to make something useful.
That fascinated the youngster.
He now considers this chance hobby preparation for life-saving work half a world away.
The 41-year-old chief warrant officer for the 669th Army Maintenance Company, based in California's Fort Irwin, has found a calling in the desert, making a welding castle on sand.
Menough runs a 90-man workshop in Camp Buehring Kuwait that designs, cuts and welds steel into armor for military trucks heading into dangerous Iraq.
He has saved a confirmed 20 lives.
A year ago, his shop didn't exist. It began in March, when Menough saw a shaken Army medic beseeching him for help.
"She was in tears," Menough said. "Everyone was going north [into Iraq] with nothing, nothing on their trucks."
Troops often traveled in unprotected trucks and humvees, exposed at every angle to a world of road-side bombs and salted with ambushes.
Menough, a soldier for 19 years, is in his second Middle East tour.
"I've been there," Menough said. "I've already been through the mine yard when I was driving my truck down the road."
A 'cottage industry'
So Menough huddled with a colleague, Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Kenney, on how to design a make-shift shield to protect the vehicles in the medic's unit. They snagged bits of steel left over from another armoring job. They cut and welded the pieces into a covering -- a vast improvement from the vehicles' previous breezy truck bed. That was the first product of Menough's and Kenney's cottage industry.
By the Army's count, between March and November Menough's workshop protected about 6,800 vehicles.
Through word of mouth, more and more units wanted vehicles protected by Menough's craft. He and Kenney were so busy they slept in the sand, the few hours a day they could. Menough grew so exhausted one night that he crept away from the welding, grabbed a tarp and threw it over his head to sleep. It hid him from Kenney -- part of the plan, Menough said.
Some days the men sought material to make the armor.
They scoured the country for metal and once seized the 80 sheets of steel a unit had abandoned before heading north. Now the Army has contracts with commercial steel manufacturers to supply the parts.
Not all the vehicles needed scrap metal. There are three levels of armory for trucks and humvees.
Some humvees arrive in the region with armor. Then there are the kits of slipcover truck beds and humvees. Menough and company bolt them into place.
But quite a few fall into a third category: vehicles Menough and the workshop armor from scratch.
The Army funneled more and more men into Menough's shop, and the number grew to 90.
"We have it all streamlined now," Menough said.
Menough's shop produces 300 to 400 armors a day. Shifts shrank to 12 hours. The work still is tiring; the dividends are rich.
As Menough stood in civilian clothing to board a plane out of Kuwait, a soldier recognized him and rushed up to thank him for saving his life.
"It just chokes you up," Menough said. "It reaffirms you are doing the right thing. We're in a fight, and my job wasn't to go out and get into the fight. My job is to be the person to keep our guys protected in the fight. They all have sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers."
Changing face of war
Pentagon planners didn't think they would need armor after the invasion stage of the Iraq war. The war has changed during the last year. Insurgent forces are elusive and, in some cases, more deadly.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that at least 1,371 members of the U.S. military have died since March 2003 -- 1,233 since President Bush declared that major combat operations in the country were over.
The insurgent's weapon of choice is cheaply built and road-side bombs that blast shards of metal into the air in explosions triggered by the truck's motion or detonation devices. The armor Menough makes protects them from this fallout and shields humvees from insurgents' gunfire.
"For one, the confidence in going up north [to Iraq] is greatly increased when you give them something that can protect them when they go into danger and [enemy] fire," Menough said. "They have something to hide behind. They are apt to be more aggressive. When they are more aggressive, they are more apt to stay alive."
Enlisted men grew so fearful of roadside attacks, one soldier questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on national television as to why the U.S. government didn't have more armored vehicles.
"It's a matter of physics, not money," Rumsfeld reportedly said. The military was armoring vehicles as quickly as it could, he said.
Rumsfeld specifically commended Menough's shop in that town-hall meeting Dec. 8. In a military publication, Major John Murillo, a support operations officer for the 158th Corps Support Battalion (the highest headquarters element for the 699th), praised the effort.
"There's not another maintenance company that compares to what they do," he told the publication.
The home front
Jerry Menough sat on a chair in his house on state Route 344 and had to gather his thoughts for a minute when talking about his younger brother. He finds it hard to say enough.
"I think he's just great, that's all," Jerry said. "I'm really proud of him."
He has waged an informal public relations campaign to let the community know about his brother's good works afar.
"He's kind of a take-charge kind of guy," Jerry Menough said.
Yong, Randall's wife, was curled up on the couch with a proud smile. She met Menough in Korea, and they have two daughters who miss him terribly.
"Everyday I pray for him so he comes back," Yong said. "He's got a job to do, and I support him in that."
Friends and family remember a kid who spent his time in a garage tinkering with everything metal and then going to a vocational school to refine the skill. When many welders were laid off as the steel industry in the Youngstown area declined, Menough joined the Army.
It was a perfect fit for a Salem kid wanting to spread his wings, Menough said.
Upon reflection as he surveys the snow-covered flats outside his brother's house, he sees his life come full circle. Tuesday, he heads back out to his workshop in the sand.
"This is the most important job I've ever done," Menough said. "It's probably the most important thing I've ever done in my life. I think my whole life has been preparation for this."