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Troops Question Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about Armor

December 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The war in Iraq has followed the defense secretary to India.

As Donald Rumsfeld met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi today, he was dogged by the fallout from the town hall meeting he held yesterday with U.S. soldiers in Kuwait.

Rumsfeld sought to downplay his blunt exchange with a national guardsman over the lack of properly armored vehicles.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The military makes judgments about what types of vehicles with what types of armor should be used. They have priority list in terms of the pace at which they are adding armor.

For the person who asked the question, someone has to sit with him — find out what… I have heard three different things about that comment on his part.

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, and that’s a good thing.

So I think it’s a very constructive exchange.

RAY SUAREZ: The soldier who sparked the controversy yesterday was Specialist Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard.

SPC. THOMAS WILSON: We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that has already been shot up, dropped, busted– picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles go into combat.

We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us North.

DONALD RUMSFELD: As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

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.

RAY SUAREZ: The military uses armor plating and ballistic glass to bolster lighter vehicles against the Iraqi insurgents’ weapon of choice, the roadside bomb, or IED– Improvised Explosive Device– in military jargon.

In Washington, President Bush thanked Rumsfeld for visiting with the troops, and said the soldiers deserved answers.

Democrats in Congress had harsher words for the way the defense secretary responded to the questions in Kuwait. Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd:

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: This has been an ongoing question since the very outbreak of the conflict in Iraq. It’s as old as the conflict, going back when we learned that the Humvees that were going over there were not adequately armored.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in 2004, the NewsHour visited a National Guard brigade as it prepared for deployment to Iraq.

The unit was in the process of being converted from a heavy armor brigade to a Humvee-dependent infantry outfit. Sgt. Chris Wells was worried.

SGT. CHRIS WELLS: That the Humvees we have, the IED’s, that the mines that we’re going up against, there’s a definite sense of vulnerability there.

The Humvees we have now, they don’t have enough protection against certain IED’s, and the reports that we’re getting are that they’re getting bigger and better.

RAY SUAREZ: Those bigger and better IED’s are detonated with lethal regularity along supply routes and roads. They have killed hundreds of American troops, Iraqi forces, and civilians.

Today, the commander who hosted Rumsfeld in Kuwait, Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb, held a videoconference in response to the questions Specialist Wilson raised about up-armoring of vehicles bound for the combat zone.

LT. GEN. STEVEN WHITCOMB: What the commanders ask is we really look at what additional armoring we could put on vehicles. This is not something new. It’s not a revelation.

It started back, as I said, in 2003, and as the enemy has changed his tactics and techniques and procedures for attacking our forces, we’ve done the same.

But we’re not lacking at this point for our kits, our steel plating to fabricate the level 3 kits, or the personnel to apply those kits.

That’s going, I mean, it’s hard work, our soldiers and our soldiers in slacks, our civilian work force, as can you see behind me, are working hard to do it. But it’s not for lack of material.

And it’s not for lack of vehicles to put it on. So we’ve got a well planned and orchestrated schedule and a plan to do this, we’re sticking to it, and we’re on a good track to in fact accomplish that mission in that respect.

I’ve got enough metal, I’ve got enough folks, and I’ve got enough time to meet our schedule that ensures that no combat unit in a wheeled vehicle goes into Iraq now that is not in an armored vehicle.

So I don’t need necessarily more stuff. Can I use it? Y’all send it and we’ll figure out how to use it.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Whitcomb said commanders in Iraq have requested over 8,000 up-armored Humvees, and that to date, 6,000 have been provided.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on this issue, we turn to retired Marine Corps Gen. Michael De Long, who was deputy commander of central command, the headquarters for U.S. forces in Iraq from 2000 to 2003.

He’s now with Shaw Group, which has construction contracts in Iraq. He is the author of the book “Inside CENTCOM.”

Paul Rieckhoff was an army first lieutenant and platoon commander during the Iraq war and first months of the occupation.

He is now the founder and executive director of Operation Truth, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of the troops.

And, Paul Rieckhoff, was this problem, or what was identified by the soldier as a problem and a shortage of armored vehicles, something that was well-known and identified as a problem in the ranks when you were in Iraq?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Absolutely, sir. I spent just under a year in Iraq in central Baghdad, and commanded 38 soldiers on the ground who were poorly equipped.

We did not have armored humvees; we were reduced to duct taping old flak jackets to the side of our Humvees to provide protection.

We put sandbags in the floors of our vehicles. We were not sent into Baghdad and while we were there we were not provided with adequate equipment, and it cost soldiers their lives and it wounded soldiers as a result, and it was absolutely inadequate.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. De Long, would you say that the brass identified this as a problem and understood it needed to be addressed?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Well, it’s really a longer story than that. When we first went into Baghdad out of Kuwait, the issue was speed.

The only way we could get there was with wheeled vehicles and vehicles with tread. So in order so the soldiers wouldn’t walk, everything that we had that rolled went to Baghdad early on.

And as you heard Gen. Whitcomb earlier, what’s happened is, we didn’t expect, and the Iraqis we had talked to, the expatriates, also told us once we took Baghdad, once we took Saddam, this would be a fairly orderly takeover. That didn’t happen.

Now they have these exploding devices, they have rocket propelled grenades, all the weapons in the U.S. inventory both Army and Marine Corps weren’t armored; they weren’t supposed to be armored.

Five-ton trucks weren’t armored. The fuel trucks weren’t armored. Part of the Humvees were armored, some were not.

What’s the government doing about it; that’s the issue. What the soldier said is correct.

What some of the weapons over there that are exploding are really large, and so what they’re trying to do is put extra stuff on — some of it on armored vehicles.

The government is also going around the world, bringing all the armored vehicles that are available over to Iraq.

Also the leadership inside Iraq is, they’re prioritizing, if they’re going on a road that has a possibility of having these exploding devices and RPG’s, they’re putting armored vehicles.

And they’re using inside the green zone the other vehicles that are unarmored. Is it perfect? Probably not, but that’s what’s going on right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, General, you say the response you were getting on the ground changed in effect, the battle that was being fought wasn’t the one that you planned to fight, but once Iraqi irregulars started using these Improvised Explosive Devices, did the Department of Defense respond and start providing vehicles that would respond to that threat?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): The answer is yes. But the issue is, as Gen. Whitcomb said, how fast can you get the stuff there.

Right now they’re putting armor appliqués on some of the vehicles, they’re even putting steel plates on some of the fuel trucks over there that were never supposed to be armored.

But it’s a nice thing to do. So as soon as the word got out that this is what the enemy was doing, they started getting stuff over there. Does it take a while? Sure it does. I’m not giving an excuse.

But it took a while, the stuff is getting there now, and they have enough steel over there to put on the vehicles until the regularly made up-armored Humvees get over there.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Rieckhoff, you heard Gen. De Long just now and perhaps you heard Gen. Whitcomb’s comments from earlier today.

Did the Department of Defense respond to this problem and fix it?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: They’ve started to respond, but with not nearly the quickness that they needed to. From the outset, when we first got to Iraq, we understood that the threat was different than what we had planned for.

And what you saw in Washington is a failure to plan properly, a failure to accommodate and equip our soldiers properly, and a failure to adapt.

And still now you see with Secretary Rumsfeld, he fails to understand the reality of what’s going on, on the ground.

A specialist, E-4, just four levels from the bottom, has to embarrass him publicly for us to get a reaction from the White House.

This war is almost two years old. Why has this taken so long? We know there are widespread problems, especially in the National Guard and reserves, which now make up roughly 45 percent of our forces in Iraq.

They’ve been neglected and under-funded for decades and this all goes back to a poorly executed plan, and someone needs to be held accountable. We continue to hear excuses from Washington, and we need solutions.

Today the armored holding company out of Florida, which is one of the sole providers of armor plating to the military said they had submitted to the Army or the Department of Defense that they could increase their production levels by the 22 percent.

This was over a month ago, and they hadn’t heard back. That’s inadequate. And somebody at the military, somebody at the Department of Defense is dropping the ball and someone needs to be held accountable, because these mistakes for us mean our lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. De Long what about that, was the response quick enough?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Well, if you didn’t get the stuff over there fast enough, it got over as fast as it could get over there. I’ve been over there seven times in the last six months, as a civilian. I just got back the day before yesterday.

And I’m out traveling around, and every vehicle that’s on the road that was outside the green zone was armored.

All the Humvees were armored. Like I said, I even saw armored, they’re armoring the buses over there now.

They’re armoring the fuel trucks. So is it perfect? No. But that’s – but it’s working.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I guess it’s really an argument over the speed of the response, isn’t it?

I mean, the question as you look back over the last 18 months has to do not with today and what appears from Army reports to be an almost complete armoring of the wheeled fleet, but whether once the new tactics were adopted by the people fighting you, you had an answer for them.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): The issue is timing, and the stuff got over there, I mean, again I’m not giving an excuse. The stuff got over there as fast as they could get it over there.

And the soldiers adapted. I think the young Spec Four that was talking to the secretary said “I’ve got to go to junkyards and bring this stuff out.”

Well, that’s what soldiers have been doing for years.

A lot of it is they’re not even happy with the armor they do have and because these exploding devices are serious.

When I drive around over there, I drive around in a beat up old vehicle that I have put inside, it’s stuff that we found in a junkyard and it works. So I’m not saying that — that is not a bad alternative until the other stuff is available.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Rieckhoff, let’s take a closer look at the response that Secretary Rumsfeld gave to that guardsman from Tennessee. Was that a proper response — that you go to war with the army you have, not the one you may want?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: No, I think that’s really a defeatist mentality, and I think that’s not what we want to project to our soldiers.

I think there are two versions of what really goes on here: there’s the version that the secretary of defense sees and the general sees when he goes over as a general or private contractor.

And then there’s the scene that the soldiers see every day, the E-4′s, the ones that are walking and driving in those Humvees and the ones who have suffered the most casualties. I think there’s really a detachment here.

Soldiers have been coming back for months now, repeatedly telling us that there are equipment shortages and problems, and the Department of Defense has continuously downplayed it.

It took over a year and a half into this war and a public embarrassment before they realized this. We’ve got hundreds of veterans in our organization who continue to bang on this issue, and we receive no response.

We’ve got a soldier whose mother had to send him a flak jacket through the mail because he didn’t have it. Forty-thousand troops went into operation Iraqi freedom without body armor, they had inadequate body armor. Who was held accountable?

In the military we’ve always been taught that we’re responsible for everything our units do and also everything they fail to do. We haven’t seen that level of accountability in Washington right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. De Long, the army you’ve got versus the army you want?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Well, I mean, I would ask the lieutenant if he was over there in Baghdad and he had 38 soldiers working for him, did he make it an issue to his leadership?

Well, just let me finish here. Did then if you did, nobody ever heard it before. So, I mean, that’s part of the issue. It’s one thing to say that the Department of Defense did or did not do something.

I will tell you that there isn’t anybody that — they love the troops, you talk to 98 percent of the troops over there and they’re very happy with — or 99 percent of the troops.

So you’re hearing a perspective from the lieutenant and I’m sure it’s all true. But it’s a small portion of the troops over there also.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the response –

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Can I respond to that?

RAY SUAREZ: Yeah, go ahead, Paul Rieckhoff.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I think no matter how small it is, this is not a small segment of whining soldiers; they’re not crying about their beans being cold.

They’re talking about survivability; they’re talking about being able to accomplish the mission and return home safely.

We’ve got the most powerful, well equipped military in the world and there’s really no reason we should be riding around Baghdad looking like the Beverly Hillbillies; it’s inexcusable.

And soldiers do take it up through their chain of command, and the chain of command themselves are working, but this is much bigger than the army even.

We understand that they’re just not providing the speed and the resources that they need.

I don’t know if it’s complacency, negligence or indifference, but there’s something wrong here, sir, and we need to fix it because our troops’ lives are at stake, and if they support the troops, it’s time for them to step up and put their money where their mouth is and affect the situation on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: General, you asked Lt. Rieckhoff whether he made it clear to his superiors whether there was a problem. Are the lines of communication open in that way?

Do lieutenants feel bold enough to speak to captains and captains to majors and so on about these kinds of things at ground level?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Well, I was in the Marine Corps for thirty-six years and four months, and every time I go over there, in spite of what was the lieutenant said, I’m down with the troops, out in the field, talking to them, see what they’re eating, see what they’re driving.

I’ve talked to thousands upon thousands of young enlisted people from all the different services. And they’re not afraid. This is a volunteer service.

We’ve got the best quality people in the world right now are working for us. So I’ve heard different complaints, good and bad, from troops all other the world.

RAY SUAREZ: And do you think enlisted men on the ground in Iraq feel that their gripes, such as they are, whether they’re about big things like armored vehicles or small things like rations, are being heard and taken seriously?

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Yes, I do; in fact, this young Spec Four had the guts to bring it up to the secretary.

I mean, that’s healthy. Should it have been brought up before? Sure it should have.

RAY SUAREZ: And Paul Rieckhoff, same question, do you feel that those lines of communication are open?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I think they are open, but I think it’s a bigger picture issue again. You have to recognize that again the National Guard and Reserves have been under funded and neglected for decades, decades.

And you can’t fix that in a year and a half. They’ve tried to make some band-aid solutions to fix it, but, you know, there really is a bigger problem in play here.

And the soldiers are going through their chain of command, but it’s above captains, it’s above majors and it’s often above generals.

You can’t fix this thing in a year and a half, and when you rush to war and you don’t have an adequate plan, these are the types of things that are going to come out.

And it’s a troublesome issue that we need immediate resolution in addressing from Washington right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Rieckhoff, Gen. De Long, gentlemen, thank you both.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Thank you.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL DE LONG (Ret.): Thank you, sir.