Doing Battle for the Grunts

Roger Charles runs
Roger Charles runs "Soldiers for the Truth," an advocacy group for the common foot soldier. (Larry Morris - Twp)

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By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006

Kids. That's what Roger Charles calls the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting what the Pentagon calls the Global War on Terrorism, the young grunts on their first tours of duty in combat zones. The green first-term officers who now must put theory into practice to stay alive. The cannon fodder. These kids are the reason that Charles runs an organization called Soldiers for the Truth from his unassuming home in Alexandria's Del Ray area.

For the average American, the name means little. But for many soldiers in the field, the group's Web site ( http://www.sftt.org/ ) and online newsletter (DefenseWatch -- The Voice of the Grunt) have been invaluable, giving the world a glimpse of the war from their vantage point. For defense reporters, it has been a source for the unvarnished, unspun truth about what's happening on the ground. And for the Pentagon brass, at times, a thorn in the side.

"We try to short-circuit the barriers to the truth," Charles said.

Soldiers for the Truth helped bring to light the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The organization also publicized that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had been using a machine-generated signature on condolence letters sent to the families of soldiers killed in action. He now signs them all by hand.

And, most recently, the group has stirred up controversy and debate on the failings of the body armor issued to Marines and soldiers, which led to reports in the mainstream media, including the New York Times, The Washington Post and major networks, and has resulted in congressional hearings.

"Our mission is simple," the soft-spoken Charles said. "We want the best available training, leadership and equipment for our kids. That's all our agenda is, the well-being of the grunts who are on the bloody end of the spear -- the ones kicking in doors in Fallujah, driving convoys from Baghdad to Basra and freezing on the plains in Afghanistan. The kids that do the heavy lifting, the fighting, the bleeding, the dying."

Charles, 60, sat at his family dining table recently to talk about his mission. In another room of the Alexandria house, crammed with computers, an ancient TV set and stacks of boxes and files and books and reports, he does his work for the soldiers.

"When we see abuses, things done that shouldn't be done, we let people know," he said. "The VFW and the Veterans Administration looks after vets once they've left the service. But these kids, no one on K Street represents them. No one's speaking out for them. "

Despite the speeches made by President Bush and Rumsfeld on down and the plethora of yellow "Support the Troops" bumper stickers at the Pentagon, Charles does not mince words on his view of senior officials' loyalty to the troops. "All these high-level people supposedly are looking out for the welfare of the troops," he said. "They're not."

The current debate over body armor is proof enough for him.

As Charles explained it, Nat Helms, a reporter for Soldiers for the Truth based in St. Louis, began getting e-mails from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan last fall complaining about the standard-issue body armor, the Interceptor Outer Tactical Vest, made by Point Blank Body Armor Inc. of Florida.

The body armor has two rigid ceramic plates, 10 inches by 12 inches, one in the front and one in the back, that are designed to stop a rifle round, such as from an AK-47, the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents.


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