War is not the answer!
By ROBERT BURNS, AP
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait (Dec. 8) - In a rare public airing of grievances, disgruntled soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.
Rumsfeld speaks to soldiers at Camp Udairi in Kuwait.
"You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld replied, "not the Army you might want or wish to have."
Spc. Thomas Wilson had asked the defense secretary, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Shouts of approval and applause arose from the estimated 2,300 soldiers who had assembled to see Rumsfeld.
The defense secretary hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.
"We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north," Wilson concluded after asking again.
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Wilson, whose unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee Army National Guard, is about to drive north into Iraq for a one-year tour of duty, put his finger on a problem that has bedeviled the Pentagon for more than a year. Rarely, though, is it put so bluntly in a public forum.
Rumsfeld said the Army was sparing no expense or effort to acquire as many Humvees and other vehicles with extra armor as it can. What's more, he said, armor is not the savior some think it is.
"You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can (still) be blown up," he said. The same applies to the much smaller Humvee utility vehicles that, without extra armor, are highly vulnerable to the insurgents' weapon of choice in Iraq, the improvised explosive device that is a roadside threat to Army convoys and patrols.
U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq are killed or maimed by roadside bombs almost daily. Adding armor protection to Humvees and other vehicles that normally are not used in direct combat has been a priority for the Army, but manufacturers have not been able to keep up with the demand.
Rumsfeld dropped in to Camp Buehring - named for Lt. Col. Chris Buehring, who was killed in a rocket attack on a downtown Baghdad hotel while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying there in November 2003 - to thank the troops for their service and to give them a pep talk. Later he flew to New Delhi for meetings Thursday with Indian government officials.
In his prepared remarks in Kuwait, Rumsfeld urged the troops - mostly National Guard and Reserve soldiers - to discount critics of the war and to help "win the test of wills" with the insurgents.
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Wilson and others, however, had criticisms of their own - not of the war itself but of how it is being fought.
During the question-and-answer session, another soldier complained that active-duty Army units seem to get priority over National Guard and Reserve units for the best equipment used in Iraq.
"There's no way I can prove it, but I am told the Army is breaking its neck to see that there is not" discrimination of that kind, Rumsfeld said.
Yet another soldier asked, without putting it to Rumsfeld as a direct criticism, how much longer the Army will continue using its "stop loss" power to prevent soldiers from leaving the service who are otherwise eligible to retire or return to civilian life at the end of their enlistment.
Rumsfeld said this condition was simply a fact of life for soldiers in times of war. Critics, including some in Congress, say it's proof the Army has been stretched too thin by war.
"It's basically a sound principle, it's nothing new, it's been well understood" by soldiers, he said. "My guess is it will continue to be used as little as possible, but that it will continue to be used."
On a lighter note, an Army chaplain said he had been persuaded by his unit to ask the defense secretary if he would "put us on your aircraft and take us to Disneyland."
"The answer is, 'Sorry, we've got more important things for you to do,"' Rumsfeld replied with a grin.
Asked later about Wilson's complaint, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer, said in an interview at Camp Buehring that as far as he knows, every vehicle deploying to Iraq from Kuwait has at least "Level 3" armor protection. That means it has locally fabricated armor for its side panels, but not bulletproof windows or reinforced floorboards.
Speer said he was unaware that soldiers were searching landfills for scrap metal and discarded glass.
In his opening remarks, Rumsfeld stressed that soldiers heading to Iraq should not believe those who say the insurgents cannot be defeated or who otherwise doubt the will of the U.S. military.
"They say we can't prevail. I see that violence and say we must win," Rumsfeld said.
12/08/04 13:45 EST
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