President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld today moved to allay soldiers' concerns about the safety of their vehicles and other issues, pledging that the government would do all it can to protect troops deployed in Iraq.
In brief comments to reporters at the White House, Bush said concerns about a lack of armor on some U.S. military vehicles bound for Iraq "are being addressed," and that he did not blame soldiers for raising the issue.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is greeted by Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee in the backdrop of the North Block that houses government offices, in New Delhi, India, on Thursday.
(Larry Downing - Reuters)
The Post's Tom Ricks talks about the impact of Wednesday's question and answer session between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and soldiers.
Bush said he has told the families of service members that "we're doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones in a mission which is vital and important."
He was responding to a question about a town-hall-style meeting yesterday in Kuwait in which soldiers preparing to head into Iraq complained to Rumsfeld about inferior equipment, personnel policies that extend their tours of duty and difficulties receiving their pay.
One complaint in particular -- about a shortage of "up-armored" vehicles -- seemed to strike a nerve in the administration, which had fended off criticism over the issue from Democrats during the recent election campaign. Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry and other politicians had charged that soldiers were being sent into Iraq without adequate gear because of poor planning and mismanagement by the Bush administration.
The complaint continued to reverberate today, prompting a flurry of comments from the administration and the military aimed at reassuring the public. Rumsfeld discussed the issue again today during a stop in New Delhi, India, telling reporters that the Pentagon was working hard to safeguard the troops. But he also said some vehicles "don't need armor" and suggested that a soldier who raised the matter did not have all the facts.
After Rumsfeld invited "tough questions" at a U.S. base in Kuwait yesterday, one of the assembled soldiers, Spec. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee Army National Guard, asked, "Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?" Other soldiers applauded the question.
Noting that many troops were preparing to move into Iraq soon, Wilson added, "Our vehicles are not armored. We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us north."
Rumsfeld said the problem was "essentially a matter of physics," with production of armored Humvees taking time to catch up to demand. "You go to war with the Army you have," he said. "They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." In any case, he said, "all the armor in the world" is sometimes not enough to keep even a tank or "an up-armored Humvee" from being blown up.
A Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter who is embedded with the Tennessee National Guard unit now in Kuwait wrote in an e-mail to his paper that he had played a role in the question to Rumsfeld. The e-mail, written Wednesday by military reporter Edward Lee Pitts, was published today on the Internet by the Drudge Report.
"I was told yesterday that only soldiers could ask questions so I brought two of them along with me as my escorts," Pitts wrote. "Before hand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have." He said he also made sure a sergeant in charge of the microphone "knew to get my guys out of the crowd."
During a photo opportunity in the White House today, Bush was asked whether he knows how widespread the problem of inadequate armor is and what the government is doing about it.
Bush said, "The concerns expressed are being addressed, and that is, we expect our troops to have the best possible equipment. And if I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I'd want to ask the secretary of defense the same question, and that is, are we getting the best we can get us? And they deserve the best."
In a press conference in New Delhi, India, today, Rumsfeld said he was "not surprised at all" by the complaints he heard in Kuwait, which he said came from a few of the more than 2,200 service members who attended the gathering.
"In the meeting when a couple of the issues came up that were specific, I asked people that work for us there to talk to those people, get their names, and to do something about it," Rumsfeld said. "And certainly, we intend to see that the people who raise those kinds of questions get responses."
Regarding the armor shortages, Rumsfeld said today the need for better protected vehicles has arisen as the insurgents in Iraq have changed their tactics, employing more roadside bombs and suicide car bombs against U.S. military convoys.
"Now, does everything happen instantaneously as the brain in the enemy sees things and makes changes? No, it doesn't happen instantaneously," Rumsfeld said. But the Pentagon has been adapting "pretty rapidly," he said. "We are doing a whole host of things with respect to these explosive devices, whether they are roadside or vehicle-borne, and we have teams of people in Washington who have been working on it for months and months and months. We have put a lot of money behind it, and we have developed different ways of dealing with it and had varying degrees of success -- in some cases considerable success."
He added, "With respect to the armor, if you think about it, some vehicles go from where they are to where they are going and they don't need armor because they are going to be in a compound, stationary, or fully protected, and they tend to be carried on other vehicles between their point of departure and their point of arrival."
As for the soldier who asked him the question about armored vehicles yesterday, Rumsfeld said, "I don't know what the facts are, but somebody is certainly going to sit down with him and find out what he knows that they may not know, and make sure he knows what they know that he may not know. That's a good thing. So I guess it is a very constructive exchange."