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07:20pm 08/12/2004

Soldiers en route to battle in Iraq grill Rumsfeld in Kuwait


Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told some 2,000 American troops at a "town hall" session in Kuwait on Wednesday that he wanted tough questions, and that's precisely what he got - an earful of complaints about some of the most difficult issues troops face.

One soldier said: "A lot of us are getting ready to move north (to Iraq) relatively soon. 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."

The military audience cheered.

The soldier's question and the audience reaction were remarkable because uniformed troops don't challenge their civilian boss in public. Their willingness to stand up and sound off indicates a growing bitterness about problems still unresolved after nearly two years of war.

Rumsfeld responded that he had talked with Army commanders about the pace of armoring vehicles for duty in Iraq. "I think it's something like 400 (vehicles) a month being done. It's essentially a matter of physics. It isn't a matter of money. It isn't a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It's a matter of production and capability of doing it," Rumsfeld said.

He added, "You go to war with the Army you have ... not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time ... and if you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up."

Rumsfeld added, to cheers, that last month he looked outside the Pentagon and saw six or eight armored Humvees on guard: "They're not there anymore. They're en route out here, I can assure you."

Another soldier asked Rumsfeld what the Defense Department and the Army, specifically, were doing to "address shortages and antiquated equipment that National Guard soldiers ... are going to roll into Iraq with."

The defense secretary said he had been told that the Army was doing its best to ensure that "the equipment goes to those that are in the most need and who are most likely to be using it ... and that varies among the Guard and Reserve and the active force. I believe them when they tell me that they have made a major effort to see that they're dealing equitably as between the forces. ... Yes, sir."

Iraq war veteran Paul Rieckhoff, founder of a soldier Web site called Operation Truth, said the complaints aired publicly in Rumsfeld's meeting were the same ones troops have been talking about all along. "That some troops decided to challenge the secretary publicly is proof that our men and women overseas are at a breaking point."

Rieckhoff said that Rumsfeld's answers "are not satisfactory" and that it is Rumsfeld's job "to make sure that we have the most ideal protection and planning possible before going into war, and not accept the status quo."

Other soldiers asked the Defense Secretary about the use of stop-loss measures that keep troops on active duty after their enlistments have expired and about unequal pay and benefits for National Guard and Reserve troops.


© 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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