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Marines in Iraq
02.11.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS, America's military is looking for a few good menů actually, more than a few. Some call it the "back door draft," and it's a shock for many who'd thought they'd left the military behind.

HOWELL: The exact statement was, "I don't care about your personal problems. You will go where the hell I tell you to go and you will do what the hell I tell you to do."

BRANCACCIO: And from the war zone, an insider's look at training Iraqis to beat back the insurgency.

MCELHONE: You're not going to win a gunfight by hiding, you need to be proactive. Quite literally if you hear gunfire, you have to run to it.

BRANCACCIO: Several angles on our over-extended military.

ANNOUNCER: And now on the banks of the Hudson River, Public Broadcasting's David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome.

"Over There." It was a song in World War I, with a new, special edge again given the 150,000 troops in Iraq. "Over there" at this stage — across this river — is the United States Military Academy, West Point. That's where the Army trains its future leaders. The question now is, where will the Army find the troops for those new officers to lead.

Winning the peace in Iraq is now requiring three times as many sets of boots on the ground than the Pentagon originally thought. Since no one is talking d*r*a*f*t at this stage, instead the administration intends for Iraqi security forces to take the place of our soldiers.

What is it like for our troops on the ground, and those Iraqi forces they're training? Correspondent Bill Gentile spent part of last month with a Marine platoon based outside the city of Iskandariyah.

ARCHBELL: Hey, give me the radio and come here get down and find some cover.

BILL GENTILE: A squad of Marines scrambles for cover on a country road. They hear fire from across the river and radio other patrols in the area.

ARCHBELL: Timberwolf, Timberwolf, Tomahawk 1 3, be advised sounds like on the left side of the river break there might be some mortar launches and a little bit of machine gun fire.

BILL GENTILE: These men belong to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They are part of one small success story in the fight against Iraqi insurgents.

I spent two weeks with First Platoon, Alpha Company to see how they've battled rebels to a standstill and whether Iraqi forces are up to the same challenge.

LT. PATRICK MCELHONE: Do you want to take that side, check under the pylons and see whether they tried to do anything?

BILL GENTILE: First Platoon falls under the command of this man, 23-year-old New Yorker, Lt. Patrick McElhone. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy.

LT. PATRICK MCELHONE: Someone probably wanted to blow this bridge here but never got around to wiring them up.

BILL GENTILE:

Today Lt. McRlhone and his men recover artillery shells frequently used to make improvised explosive devices, are or I.E.D.'S. I.E.D.'S are the insurgents' current weapon of choice.

Since arriving here last July, 1st Platoon has patrolled day and night in an area about 35 miles south of Baghdad. The area is referred to as the Triangle of Death.

The Marines say their aggressive tactics have been working. They say they have killed dozens of rebels and captured hundreds more.

This jail in the nearby town of Iskandariyah is packed with suspected insurgents on their way to Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad.

The Marines tell me that insurgent attacks have decreased. That rebels are afraid to engage them face to face. But rely almost exclusively on remote-controlled I.E.D.s detonated from a safe distance.

"This is where you got hit?"

LANCE CORPORAL DAVIS: Yes, sir, me and Lance Corporal McCaffery, up there, are the only two that are still with the squad. After we hit it, we rolled down this hill and we had one with a broke back, one that's got shrapnel in his calf. The leg, he's back in the States.

BILL GENTILE: The Marines have been here six months and their Humvees are tattered testimony to the battles waged. If the razor-sharp metal shrapnel from I.E.D.s can do this to solid steel, imagine the damage to the flesh and bone of a 19-year-old Marine.

Success has come at a high price. Of the 40-odd men in Lt. McElhone's platoon, 15 will be awarded Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat. That's a nearly 40 percent casualty rate.

LANCE CORPORAL DAVIS: We got lucky here the last few weeks. Hopefully it'll stay that way.

BILL GENTILE: In this area, insurgents have recently changed strategy and are now attacking mostly soft targets, like blowing the oil pipeline that caused this fire near the Marine base.

Lt. McElhone has a theory why the attacks on military targets have tapered off. He thinks the rebels are waiting for the Marines to leave.

LT. MCELHONE: Marines are so able to so overwhelm an area with force that there are times where the enemy will make a separate peace with a seasoned unit to some extent. It's possible that what we're seeing here is more the enemy trying to recover and wait us out.

BILL GENTILE: The test of fire of these Marines is nearly over here.

LT. MCELHONE: It is a safer place, I would not necessarily say it is a less hostile place.

BILL GENTILE: By the end of this month, McElhone, 1st Platoon and the entire 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will be back home in Camp Lejeune.

MARINE ON TELEPHONE: We crashed our Humvee into a bomb crater and ripped the front tires off it. It was crazy.

BILL GENTILE: These troops are now short-timers.

MARINE ON TELEPHONE: I love you, too. I miss you.

BILL GENTILE: As the Marines leave, Iraqi forces prepare to fill the void. These Iraqi National Guardsmen are some of the replacements.

Many of the Iraqi Guardsmen cover their faces because they fear insurgents might identify and kill them and their families.

All these Iraqi troops, 120,000 of them, are being trained from scratch because the Bush administration disbanded Saddam Hussein's army.

Now America is betting — and hoping — that these Iraqi troops can take on the rebels and win. If they can't America's exit strategy from Iraq might fail.

Tonight, the Marines are on a joint mission to capture suspected insurgents. They are working with the Iraqi National Guard.

The operation yields some ammunition and materiel that might be used to build an I.E.D. But, after watching this operation, I'm not convinced that the Iraqi National Guardsmen could have conducted the raid without support from the Marines.

The Iraqi police force is the other group that America hopes can ease U.S. troops out of this country. This police station in Iskandariyah is a busy, chaotic place, most of the time dark for lack of electricity. Outside, U.S. Marines guard the police station. A mosque wails out morning prayers.

Many of these policemen also prefer not to show their faces, for fear of reprisals. And that fear is well-founded. Insurgents have repeatedly attacked the police. They make softer targets than do the Americans. For now these policemen are safe with 1st Platoon, behind protective barriers at this station.

LT. MCELHONE: You are not going to win a fight by hiding, you need to be proactive, you hear gunfire, quite literally, you hear gunfire, you run towards it.

BILL GENTILE: But the key to America's departure from Iraq is not how well the Iraqi police and National Guard perform with U.S. forces helping them out — but how well they perform without the Americans.

Can they stand up to a tenacious, resilient insurgency willing to use any level of violence to intimidate — or to eliminate — its opposition?

After my stay in Iraq, I find it doubtful the Iraqi troops could stand up to the rebels, at least for now. And it's not just their training. They don't have the equipment.

Like this high-tech remote-control robot. I watched Marines use it to detonate an I.E.D. planted on a heavily-traveled road.

For me, this episode illustrated the gap in technical skills and equipment between the Marines and their Iraqi counterparts.

It also exemplified the gap between the hopes and the realities of this war.

BRANCACCIO: With the number of troops in Iraq now at record highs, the strain it's putting on the U.S. military has radically intensified a debate heard from Korea to Kosovo: should the United States be the world's policeman?

Already, the Pentagon's efforts to field the troops needed for the war have raised serious questions about the fairness, legitimacy and the hardship caused by the military's staffing policies. Bryan Myers produced our report.

Old soldiers may never die, as the saying goes, but these days, they're finding it hard to fade away. Just ask Rick Howell of Cottondale, Alabama.

During the late 1980's and much of the 90's, Howell was an Army helicopter pilot. His duties took him around the globe, everywhere from patrolling the DMZ in Korea, to fighting drug traffickers off the coast of Central America. But after nearly ten years behind the controls, Howell wanted to move on with his life.

RICK HOWELL: I mean, I wanted to have a family, a wife, and a home, and a little baby. I had always dreamed of having a little baby.

And when you are in the military as a Black Hawk pilot, I mean, you are gone three, 3.5 weeks a month out of every month. So there is no way I could have been married, let alone have a child.

BRANCACCIO: So in 1997, Howell left the Army. Soon, his dreams came true. He met his wife Tina. And last year, they celebrated the arrival of son Clayton.

Today, Howell has a successful career as a manager for a local freight company. It's been eight years since he's put on a uniform. So imagine his surprise when, several months ago, Tina opened a letter the Army sent him.

RICK HOWELL: She read it and you know, I guess after the first couple of lines, it said, you know, "effective such and such date, you have been recalled to active duty." You know, she started crying uncontrollably, and I said, "Now look, I will be home in just a minute. I mean, it's just a mistake, don't worry about it."

BRANCACCIO: Howell assumed he was retired — he had separation papers from the Army. So Howell called up the Army's personnel office outside Washington DC. They told him to look at those exit papers again.

RICK HOWELL: The problem is, on your exit document, it says, "service member incurs an additional service obligation in accordance with AR such, such, and such, in you know, fine print, like at the bottom of a used car contract. Nothing against used car salesmen, but at the bottom of that contract is some real fine print.

BRANCACCIO: As it turns out, Howell was on a list of soldiers known as the "Individual Ready Reserve," or IRR. When soldiers leave active duty and re-enter civilian life, there's a period of several years in which the army has the right to call them back. Former officers like Howell — he was major — can be on the hook until age 60. For a family man that far along in life, that can cause real problems.

TINA HOWELL: Financially, I would have to quit my job and stay at home and basically take care and raise our child on my own.

RICK HOWELL: It will literally be impossible to do this. So it could financially devastate us.

BRANCACCIO: What the Army told Howell next made his blood boil.

RICK HOWELL: The exact statement was, "I don't care about your personal problems. You will go where the hell I tell you to go, and you will do what the hell I tell you to do."

BRANCACCIO: Rick Howell is not the only former soldier to be so rudely awakened. Over the last several months, the Army has called up thousands of Individual Ready Reservists. The Army maintains it has the right to do so. But the fact that they're going after people like Howell is a symptom of a larger problem: the Army is short of troops to fight in Iraq, and they're resorting to all sorts of stop gap measures to find them.

Consider Howell. Even he admits he's pretty much the bottom of the barrel. You see, Howell's a disabled veteran.

RICK HOWELL: While I was in the military, I had an accident. My right elbow, when I hit the ground, my right elbow was crushed. It's cut from here all the way down to here. I still have two rods in it, and pins that go in it. I literally can't lift more than, say, 25 pounds.

BRANCACCIO: Howell sent 70 pages of medical records to the Army. They told him to report for duty anyway.

RICK HOWELL: So if they expect me to pick up a weapon, it's not gonna happen. If they expect me to run anywhere, it's not gonna happen. If they expect me to stand more than 20 minutes, it's not gonna happen.

BRANCACCIO: Lt. Colonel Pamela Hart is an army spokesperson.

LTC PAMELA HART: People who serve in the IRR, are indeed soldiers. They may not be serving actively, but they are still soldiers who signed a commitment and have a mandatory service obligation.

BRANCACCIO: Colonel Hart says accusations that the Army is treating members of the IRR unfairly are false. There are more than 100,000 eligible individual ready reservists on the Army's list, yet less than 4000 of them have been called up for the Iraq war. And furthermore, she says, the Army has excused from service many of them because of family situations.

A person's gotten out of the Army could be years that they're raising a family, and they get this letter without warning that says, you've got six weeks to show up and do some of this again.

HART: We realize that it's a lot to ask for a soldier to come back on to active duty. And it's equally, if not more so, hard on families that we're asking these soldiers to come back.

BRANCACCIO: Rick Howell asked for an exemption-it was denied. The Army even told him he could be declared a deserter if he didn't show up.

The shortage of troops also has the military taking a hard line towards soldiers already on active duty. The Pentagon has issued what's know as a "stop/loss" order. Under stop/loss, soldiers are forced to remain in the military beyond their specified enlistment period. Over 40,000 soldiers and Marines have already seen their tours extended.

After four years on active duty with the Marines, Michael Hoffman was only two days away from leaving when he got nabbed for an extra six months.

MICHAEL HOFFMAN: My final physical was done and I had a completed checkout packet in my hand when my first sergeant called me into his office in the morning and just said, "I'm sorry Hoffman, but a stop/loss order has been signed. Nobody's going home. You're going to Iraq with the rest of the unit."

BRANCACCIO: Several of Hoffman's Marine buddies also got the stop/loss order. He says it weighed heavily on the whole unit.

HOFFMAN: Imagine one of your best friends is supposed to go home. Next thing you know, he's killed in a fire fight or by an I.E.D. or something like that. And all these guys around him, all his good friends are left thinking, "Wow, he was supposed to go home." It hurts everyone's morale.

BRANCACCIO: Hoffman's since left the Marines, and now works for an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War. He hears from a lot of soldiers upset over stop/loss.

HOFFMAN: You get yourself all set to leave the military. You've got plans. You've got a family. And then suddenly they say, "I'm sorry, but everything's on hold. You're not leaving the military. You're going to Iraq for an indefinite amount of time." Which is what it's turning into with the extensions.

JIM KLIMASKI: It's involuntary servitude. He's become a slave of, military soldiers have just become slaves.

BRANCACCIO: Attorney Jim Klimaski represents a group of soldiers currently suing to overturn the Pentagon's stop/loss order. Fearing reprisal, all of those soldiers have chosen to remain anonymous-except this man.

Specialist David Qualls is a National Guardsman from Arkansas. He says he was hoodwinked by the Army. Qualls joined the National Guard under a program called "try one"-a program that was designed to give recruits a taste of guard life for just one year.

DAVID QUALLS: I tried my one. And you know, I completed and served that one year. Actually, I've served five months past my one-year obligation. And I feel that it's time to let me go back to my life.

BRANCACCIO: But thanks to stop/loss, Qualls was forced to stay in the military. In fact, just days after this press conference last December, Qualls was shipped out to Iraq.

He's since given up on the lawsuit, but the other unnamed soldiers are still suing, and the case is now working it's way through the courts.

JULES LOBEL, ATTORNEY: The Army has a duty to disclose to people that this could happen.

BRANCACCIO: Colonel Hart says there's nothing sneaky about the Army's stop/loss policy — it shouldn't be a surprise to any recruit who's read his enlistment contract.

HART: When a soldier enlists in the Army, he signs a contract. And it's two, maybe a three page document that's very clear and concise, and doesn't have fine print as there has been led to believe in the public.

BRANCACCIO: We took a look at the Army's standard enlistment contract. Sure enough, the Army reserves the right to extend tours of duty without a soldier's consent in time of war or national emergency. Colonel Hart says there's an important reason.

BRANCACCIO: What would you say to a soldier who said, well, it's not fair? I thought I was about to get out?

HART: The policy is for unit cohesion. So that soldiers who train together don't have someone coming in who they don't know, who hasn't trained with them, don't know the standard operating procedures of how that unit works.

BRANCACCIO: And the Pentagon has floated yet another plan to keep troops in Iraq.

In testimony before Congress just last week, General Richard Cody, the Army's number two man, said it may do away with an age old policy: it may keep soldiers in combat zones for more than 24 months without a break.

GEN. RICHARD CODY, ARMY VICE CHIEF OF STAFF: Right now, we have 650,000 soldiers on active duty executing missions worldwide, and many of them have hit their 24 months cumulative time, so we'll have to address this.

BRANCACCIO: So just how severe is the Army's troop shortage? And how did it get so bad? We asked one person who should know.

Tom White was the Secretary of the Army when the Iraq war started in march of 2003. Before the war began, White, along with several high ranking generals, warned that it might take hundreds of thousands of soldiers to secure Iraq. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld brushed that estimate aside.

DONALD RUMSFELD: My personal view is that it will prove to be high.

BRANCACCIO: Soon after, White resigned from the Pentagon at Rumsfeld's request.

BRANCACCIO: In the preparations for Iraq, broadly, what did we get right and what did we get wrong?

THOMAS WHITE, FMR. ARMY SECRETARY: Well, I think we got the military campaign, the initial combat phase of it, right. Everything after, I think, could qualify as being wrong. We didn't have near the size force necessary to secure the country and we basically have not corrected that problem to this day.

BRANCACCIO: So personnel levels, boots on the ground, that's key to understanding what went wrong?

WHITE: I think so. Mind you what the task was. The task was a country of 25 million people that had a history between the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds of not getting along terribly well, spread out over a geographical expanse bigger than the State of California. Any reasonable person looking at that would say it's going to take a very large force to properly secure this.

BRANCACCIO: So what do you make of the current system where people are having their service extended. Is that system fair?

WHITE: Well, whether it's fair or not is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. The question is, can you sustain a force with that level of operational tempo. Remember, these people are volunteers, and sooner or later, they will come home. And sooner or later, they will have the option to vote with their feet about whether they think the system is fair.

BRANCACCIO: Are these personnel policies almost becoming desperate?

WHITE: Well, I think it reflects the critical nature of the times. We're at war. The war is lasting a lot longer than anybody thought it would when we started. It's requiring a lot more force than anybody thought that it would. So I think the manpower equation of the Army you could probably consider to be in crisis.

BRANCACCIO: One measure of that crisis: The army itself has admitted soldiers coming home from Iraq have walked away from the military. Over the last four months, the National Guard has been running 24% below enlistment goals — the Army Reserve, down almost 20%.

LARRY KORB, FMR. ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We may have already gotten ourselves into a situation in which there's no good answer.

BRANCACCIO: Lawrence Korb says we're facing an even bigger challenge. Korb's been thinking about military manpower for two decades since his days as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan.

He says that not only does the Army need to overcome its enlistment problems, the size of the Army even needs to be bigger. It currently numbers about half a million soldiers. He believes it should add more. How many more?

LAWRENCE KORB: What you need right now, give the situation we're in, when I crunch the numbers, I came up with the number of 86,000.

BRANCACCIO: Korb believes that could be accomplished without a draft, through more aggressive recruiting. And there's growing support for a bigger Army on Capitol Hill, but not at the White House. While the administration's new budget calls for a huge increase in defense spending, none of that money is for a permanent increase in the size of the army.

KORB: For every 10,000 people you add on active duty, it's about a billion dollars. So let's say we add 100,000. Okay, that's 10 billion dollars a year. You're spending more than that on a national missile defense, which doesn't work and probably is not needed. You're buying the F-22 when you've already got the best fighters in the world.

In this new challenge we face against these radical jihadists, you're gonna need a lot of ground forces. And they should get the priority.

BRANCACCIO: All of this plays into a bigger debate over what kind of military America wants, and how aggressively we want to serve as the world's policeman. One well-known Republican senator recently said, "it's always the uniformed military that has to bear the brunt of bad decisions. They do the dying and the suffering." [Senator Chuck Hagel Dec. 20, 2004].

The Bush administration has said it will not revive the draft. But to former Black Hawk pilot Rick Howell, it sure feels like that's what's going on.

RICK HOWELL: I have not been to a single day of military training in eight years and they want me to go back and be on active duty when I get, like, a two hour block of training on improvised explosive devices. And then, boom! I'm off to Iraq.

BRANCACCIO: The Army has told Rick Howell, the man we just heard from, that he has to report for duty March 27.

BRANCACCIO: Next week on NOW, we'll turn to an issue at the heart of democracy. Local communities, local control. Who decides?

FRED WALLS: There's 5,600 and some odd citizens here. If this corporation is more important than 5,600-odd citizens, then I'm not sure democracy stands much of a chance.

BRANCACCIO: That's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

Connect to NOW, online at pbs.org

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