Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking in Kuwait yesterday to troops deploying into Iraq, got an earful of complaints about poor combat equipment, personnel policies that keep soldiers in the Army beyond their terms of enlistment, and other issues that reflect the strains the war in the Middle East is placing on the U.S. military.
In one of the exchanges during the town-hall-style meeting, Spec. Thomas Wilson complained that he and his comrades were rooting through junkyards to find improvised armor for their military vehicles to protect against bomb blasts and small-arms attacks.
U.S. troops about to head from Kuwait to Iraq attend a town hall meeting held by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
(Larry Downing -- Reuters)
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"A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon," said Wilson, an airplane mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard, according to a transcript of the meeting released by the Pentagon. "Our vehicles are not armored. We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up . . . picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper . . . vehicles to carry with us north."
Rumsfeld replied: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
He added: "If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up."
Another soldier, from a logistical support unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C., complained that she was being kept in the Army against her wishes by a Pentagon "stop-loss" order.
"It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world," Rumsfeld responded. "It's been used as little as possible."
When a third soldier, from the Idaho Army National Guard, complained that Guard units were being issued "antiquated" equipment inferior to that given to regular Army units, Rumsfeld said that the Army is trying to be equitable but that somebody has to get the older gear.
The one question that seemed to give Rumsfeld pause came from a lieutenant colonel who said that many of the soldiers in his unit are having trouble receiving all the pay due them, causing problems for their families back home who are being pestered by collection agencies.
"Can someone here get the details of the unit he's talking about?" Rumsfeld asked. "That's just not right."
As a whole, Rumsfeld's responses provoked a wave of criticism from congressional Democrats. Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) called Rumsfeld's remarks "callous." Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) termed them "contemptuous." Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) labeled them "stunning."
"When I visit Iraq, I ride around in an armored vehicle, and I am sure the secretary does as well," Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said in a statement. "If it is good enough for the big shots, it is good enough for every American soldier."
Some military experts agreed with the criticism. "Any problem mentioned, he's in denial," said retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
"Troop frustration is growing," especially as some soldiers head back to Iraq for their second occupation tour as the security situation there deteriorates, said another retired four-star general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Officers and senior sergeants are worried, he noted, because, in his view, "we are breaking a small, great professional force."