Rebuilding Iraq during the raging insurgency was no easy task. It required ingenuity, courage and innovative ways to get the job done—sometimes with equipment that offered little protection from the car bombs and rocket attacks launched by America’s enemies.

For veterans of the Iraq war like Col. Kerry Kachejian, it was a life-changing experience to work on the unprecedented reconstruction project. As an Army Reserve engineer, Kachejian was tasked with restoring some of the most basic services for the Iraqi people as well as building schools, hospitals and police stations.

He did this work with a sport-utility vehicle, an automobile that lacked armored protection and was more suited for America’s highways than Iraq’s dangerous streets.

“The closest unit was organized, staffed, equipped, and deployed so quickly there was no spare military equipment for it,” Kachejian recalled in an interview with The Heritage Foundation. “We in the reconstruction side were precluded from buying anything. We could only lease. So finding a contractor that would lease us a combat vehicle in combat, we were striking out everywhere.”

Without armored fighting vehicles that could stand up to ambushes and attacks, Kachejian recalled how the SUVs were modified—ripping off the tailgate to make room for a gunner and hanging personal body armor out the window to stop or slow down a AK-47 round.

“Without armor, when you’re moving down an Iraqi road in a sport-utility vehicle, the one thing you have is speed,” Kachejian said. “So we would drive as fast as we could, sometimes 80 to 110 miles per hour. It was somewhat like a ‘Mad Max’ movie, rolling down the road in a sport-utility vehicle.”

Kachejian told his harrowing story in a book called “SUVs Suck In Combat.” It chronicles some of the war stories that Americans never heard about the readiness challenges facing our military. The Heritage Foundation chose to profile him as part of a three-part video series that will run during Protect America Month, which showcases why we must commit to protecting the United States in an increasingly dangerous world.

With budget cuts looming as a result of Washington’s misguided approach to defense, America faces an alarming national security risk, according to Heritage’s James Carafano.

“America’s military went into Iraq unprepared for the aftermath that followed because we had underinvested in defense for almost a decade,” Carafano said. “We took a peace dividend after the Cold War that cut too deep—compromised readiness and underinvested in the equipment and training our men and women in uniform needed.”

President Bill Clinton’s actions led to a situation similar to what played out in the Carter years and now could be repeated under President Obama.

The worst step the nation could take is repeat that mistake again.

“When you come out of war,” Kachejian said, “there’s always a risk because of potential budget cuts that you’ll cut too far. You don’t want to cut so drastically that we wind up with a situation that we would up with after Vietnam, where much of the Army had money to go out and do physical fitness training, to wash their trucks and paint rocks. … We’ve got to have a ready and relevant military.”

This is the first of a three-part series on the risks of budget cuts to America’s military. It was produced and directed by Will Lamborn. Brandon Stewart and Alison Meyer assisted with production. For more videos from Heritage, subscribe to our YouTube channel.