Transcript: Are U.S. Troops in Iraq in Good Shape?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, March 26, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.




JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Our troops busy at work in Iraq today as they are every day. But as the mission enters its second year, a few U.S. troops are making waves. There's some concern about a high suicide rate among the ranks and a new survey says morale might be low. And a handful of soldiers charged with abusing Iraqi POWs. Business as usual in the theater of war or signs of a bigger problem?

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (search), a retired U.S. Marine and host of Fox News' "WAR STORIES" is here with us now. Colonel North, the big question — are U.S. troops in good shape in Iraq?

RETIRED MARINE LT. COL OLIVER NORTH, HOST OF FNC'S “WAR STORIES”: I've been over there a couple of times and have been with the troops that have come and gone out of Afghanistan as well as Iraq. I was just a few weeks ago out at Camp Pendleton in California with the Marines who just got back and now Marines going back to Afghanistan. And I've been with soldiers and sailors and airmen as well, because that's my job. I have the best job in the business. All I do is hang around with heroes. Bottom line, the best indicator of morale since the winter of 1777-78 is the reenlistment rate. You can walk up to anybody, John, you and I both know you can walk up to anybody and say the weather outside is lousy.

This place really stinks, doesn't it? You know what? They'll all agree with you. And then you can turn back to the camera and say, see, troop morale is suffering wherever you are. You can do that in New York City, you can do it at Fort Stewart (search), you can do it at Camp Pendleton. The fact of the matter is, that reenlistment rate has never been better and those military units across the board, army, navy, air force, marines and the Coast Guard that are committed to this war. And on top of that, the enlistment rate has gone up for all of the services.

GIBSON: Ollie — all right. But why am I reading that National Guards is having trouble getting those guys to reup?

NORTH: The National Guard (search) is a separate issue. The National Guard is a problem for two reasons. Number one, there is a force disparity and the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, General Schumacher has said we have to address it and they are, primarily in the army. And that's because military police, civil affairs and engineer units are predominantly in the Guard reserve. Those are the units most heavily committed to this war at this point. So, a restructuring is ongoing within the army to get more combat brigades and realign those units so that the National Guard — the guys in the National Guard ...

GIBSON: Doesn't carry all the time.

NORTH: Doesn't carry all way. And didn't expect to be gone 18 months at a shot. In the Marine Corps, it is a little different because when you sign up for the Marine Corps, you know you're on the travel plan.

GIBSON: All right, what about this suicide rate, which seems to be above normal for the military?

NORTH: And it does appear that way at first blush. And for the military, for the military, in the United States Army, and in some Navy units, it is a little bit higher in those units than it has been in the past. Marine Corps has been steady state. And I actually looked into this thing, John. I just talked a few minutes ago to a Marine down at the headquarters. For the Marine Corps, it is steady state the way it has been. But across the board in the armed forces, the suicide rate for males in the armed forces of the United States is actually three points lower than it is for the national average. So, the rate for males walking down the street up here in New York City is actually higher than it is for a unit committed to combat in Iraq, or Afghanistan or anywhere in the theater fighting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

GIBSON: OK, but what about these charges of mistreating POW's? That's usually a sign of some stress, if it's true.

NORTH: Well, let's a first of all — I know I'm going to get cross threaded here because I know a lot of our fans, a lot of folks who watch Fox felt very strongly about Colonel West. And I used to go on — when I would be invited to talk about it, I would tell them you have to remember two things. We have a uniform code of military justice to ensure that the rules are abided by everyone. Not just colonels, not just privates, everyone. Second, charges like that need to be investigated. These charges are now being investigated. Nobody has been court-martialed. There's only been six charges. The good news is those cases will be properly adjudicated, if crimes were committed. And, John, beating a prisoner is a crime. And we subscribe to that uniform code of military of justice because we've signed treaties saying we are going to abide by the standard. And that standard was established in 1947 in the Geneva Conventions.

We cannot have Americans mistreating others if we expect to be treated properly ourselves, even though we know it's rare American prisoners would be improperly treated. Bottom line, these cases will be properly investigated. Those who have committed crimes will be prosecuted and there will be a just sentence. Here's the bottom line overall on crime — 11 days after Normandy, Dwight David Eisenhower prosecuted members of the 101st Airborne Division, arguably the best in the United States army, for rape and looting. You know how many charges there have been for rape and looting in this war? We have been at war since October of 2001. Zero. Not one. That tells me the quality of these troops is extraordinary.

GIBSON: OK. One of the other things that's rare is an appearance here on this program by Oliver North because he is usually so busy. But it is good to see you, Colonel North. And don't forget "WAR STORIES," Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Thanks a lot, Ollie.

NORTH: Thanks, John.

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