CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait [msnbc] - After delivering a pep talk designed to energize troops preparing to head for Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld got a little "talking to" himself from disgruntled soldiers. But a Pentagon spokesman characterized the exchange, about a shortage of armed vehicles, as "upbeat."
Army Spc. Thomas Wilson, for example, of the 278th Regimental Combat Team that is comprised mainly of citizen soldiers of the Tennessee Army National Guard, asked Rumsfeld in a question-and-answer session why vehicle armor is still in short supply, nearly three years after the war in Iraq.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Wilson asked. A big cheer arose from the approximately 2,300 soldiers in the cavernous hangar who assembled to see and hear the secretary of defense.
Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.
"We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north," Wilson said after asking again. Wilson's unit is about to drive into Iraq for a one-year tour of duty.
Rumsfeld replied that, "You go to war with the Army you have," not the one you might want, and that any rate the Army was pushing manufacturers of vehicle armor to produce it as fast as humanly possible.
Later, Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita said Pentagon policy is that no soldier goes into the battlefield in a vehicle without armor.
DiRita said Rumsfeld's remarks shouldn't be interpreted as dismissive. The tone of the meeting was "upbeat," he said, and Wilson will "certainly not" face reprisals.
During the question-and-answer session, another soldier complained that active-duty Army units sometimes get priority over the National Guard and Reserve units for the best equipment in Iraq.
"There's no way I can prove it, but I am told the Army is breaking its neck to see that there is not" discrimination against the National Guard and Reserve in terms of providing equipment, Rumsfeld said.
Though soldiers of all types have complained about equipment in Iraq, part-timers in the National Guard and Reserve say that they have a particular disadvantage because they start off with outdated or insufficient gear.
They have been deployed with faulty radios, unreliable trucks and, most alarmingly for many, a shortage of soundly armored vehicles in a land regularly convulsed by roadside attacks, according to soldiers, relatives and outside military experts.
After many complaints when the violence in Iraq accelerated late last year, the military acknowledged there had been shortages, in part because of the rapid deployments. But the Army contends that it has moved quickly to get better equipment to Iraq over the last year.
"War is a come-as-you-are party," said Lt. Gen. C. V. Christianson, the Army's deputy chief of staff for logistics, in an interview yesterday. "The way a unit was resourced when someone rang the bell is the way it showed up.
Before the 103rd Armor Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard left in late February, some relatives bought those soldiers new body armor to supplant the Vietnam-era flak jackets that had been issued.
The mother of Sgt. Sherwood Baker, a member of the regiment who was killed in April, bought a global positioning device after being told that the Army said his truck should have one but would not supply it.
And before Karma Kumlin's husband left with his Minnesota National Guard unit in February, the soldiers spent about $200 each on radios that they say have turned out to be more reliable - although less secure - than the Army's. Only recently, Ms. Kumlin said, has her husband gotten a metal shield for the gunner's turret he regularly mans, after months of asking.
Stop loss (They're lovin' it!)
[msnbc]Yet another soldier asked, without putting it to Rumsfeld as a direct criticism, how much longer the Army will continue using its "stop loss" power to prevent soldiers from leaving the service who are otherwise eligible to retire or quit.
Rumsfeld said that this condition was simply a fact of life for soldiers at time of war.
"It's basically a sound principle, it's nothing new, it's been well understood" by soldiers, he said. "My guess is it will continue to be used as little as possible, but that it will continue to be used." [A sound principle? Like sending a 55 year old woman who is 4' tall who hasn't served since the sixties.]
Unless, that is, you're gay, in which case, we don't want you...
Democracy Now reports:
Thousands of those soldiers have been prevented from returning home by the Army's stop-loss policy even though they fulfilled their agreed-upon commitment.
Now, eight soldiers stationed in Iraq and Kuwait are filing a lawsuit against the stop-loss policy.
And while the military is preventing thousands of soldiers from leaving, at the same time, soldiers who want to remain active are being forced out.
In another lawsuit, 12 former soldiers are suing against the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The plaintiffs were all forced out of the military because of their homosexuality.