May 16, 2005

In all the time I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I never drove a Humvee, but in Maine of all places I finally got behind the wheel of one.

We went to Limestone, almost at the Northern end of Route 1 near the Canadian border, for a story on a former Air Force base that's now home to a Humvee rehab facility. It's a combination assembly line and scrap heap, with thousands of before-and-after Humvees spread across the grounds.

The facility is huge, but the base is far bigger, and much of it still looks deserted. The company rehabbing the Humvees is called the Maine Military Authority, which was started back in 1997 by a local long-time National Guardsman named Gary Cleaves. He hired nine mechanics to help out after he won a contract with the Guard to rebuild 25 Humvees for half-a-million bucks. Today he has close to 500 employees who completely re-do hundreds of vehicles every month for the Guard and U.S. Army.

Each Humvee takes about 250 man-hours to rebuild and costs roughly $25,000 (new ones from the factory would be three times that amount). The Guard contract is not-for-profit, but MMA makes money on the Army trucks, and it's taking on more vehicles as the company grows. The state owns the land and gets a cut, and the locals are enjoying the economic boost, although it's apparently still a fraction of what the base used to provide back in the day.

It was cool being in Maine again (I don't think I've been there since summer camp almost 30 years ago), but it was cooler still to drive a Humvee. These aren't Hummers or H-2's — the ones sold out of GM showrooms. These are the original military models, much more Spartan and rugged, with 6.5 liter diesel engines, no radio, and usually no AC. I expected a stick shift, but the Humvees are automatics, and you don't need a key to start 'em up. Just a flick of a switch, and a short wait till the ready light comes on, and then another flick of the switch and the big block kicks in. MMA does a good job, based on the topless model I drove. It ran well. The steering was tight, and the ride smooth, with plenty of power under my foot. Of course, I was in a parking lot, not a desert, and I'm very, very grateful for that.

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[Ed. note: Click the video tab in the upper right to watch Leventhal's reports.]

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