WASHINGTON – The military's growing response to hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi will not hamper its ability to fight the wars in Afghanistan (search) and Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Tuesday.
While the Pentagon has accelerated the return from Afghanistan and Iraq (search) of more than 2,800 soldiers from Louisiana- and Mississippi-based units, Rumsfeld said troop deployment levels will meet the needs of the commanders.
"Let me be clear: We have the forces, the capability and the intention to fully prosecute the global war on terror while responding to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis here at home. We can and will do both," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
The military has set up a task force to coordinate the return of about 2,800 members of a Louisiana combat brigade, who are already beginning to arrive at Fort Polk, northwest of New Orleans. The unit had been scheduled to come home later this month, but its departure was hastened because of Hurricane Katrina.
Also, a few Mississippi National Guard infantry members are being sent home early, and any other service members who have close family or homes in the hurricane-devastated region may request emergency leave from their unit commanders.
"We're working to reunite the men and women in uniform that are deployed overseas with their families here at home," said Rumsfeld. "A number of the families that are stationed in that area obviously lost all their possessions."
There are still more than 300,000 Army National Guard and Air National Guard personnel available to help if needed, he added.
Meanwhile, the Navy, on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, awarded contracts worth nearly $250 million to charter four cruise ships to house evacuees. Three Carnival Cruise Lines ships and one ship from the Scotia Prince Lines are being chartered for six months and will be able to accommodate more than 8,000 people.
Rumsfeld was asked about criticism from some who say the commitment of large numbers of troops to the Iraq conflict, including National Guard soldiers from Louisiana and Mississippi, hindered the military's response to Hurricane Katrina.
"Anyone who's saying that doesn't understand the situation," he replied.
Rumsfeld also said the Defense Department was asked to fill disaster-response roles that should have been done by state and local officials, who in many cases became Katrina victims and were "in large measure incapable of functioning."
There are more than 60,000 active duty and National Guard personnel in the Gulf Coast region; about 43,000 are Army and Air National Guard troops from all 50 states.
In addition, more than 1,000 Army Corps of Engineers personnel are there, including nearly 50 from the 249th Engineer Battalion of Fort Belvoir, Va., who are working to restore electrical power in the region.
More than 19,000 active-duty Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel are either in the region on en route. The Navy has 21 ships assisting the effort, and the Air Force was sending in aircraft from the 147th Fighter Wing to use infrared imaging to locate survivors.
The Pentagon has about 140,000 troops in Iraq and about 20,000 in Afghanistan.
Both Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the speed with which the military responded to requests for help in the hurricane-damaged areas. Myers said that in some cases the military was prepared to provide more resources than were needed.
Earlier Tuesday, the commander of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division said paratroopers plan to use small boats, including inflatable Zodiac craft, to launch a new search-and-rescue effort in flooded areas of central New Orleans.
In a telephone interview from his operations center at New Orleans International Airport, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said his soldiers' top priority is finding, recovering and evacuating people who want to get out of the flooded city.
Caldwell, who arrived in New Orleans on Saturday night, said conditions are improving, including a gradual return of electricity.
He said he and his soldiers spend their days on the streets of Orleans parish and their nights sleeping on the ground at the airport, with no toilet facilities, no showers and only military packaged meals and water for sustenance.
Caldwell said that about 3,000 82nd Airborne paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C., are there now and another 2,000 were due to arrive Tuesday. They are in addition to about 1,400 soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division and about 600 from the 13th Corps Support Command arriving from Fort Hood, Texas.
The Pentagon has insisted for days that no more than 5,200 active-duty Army soldiers, plus 2,000 Marines, would be sent to help with Katrina relief, but Caldwell said he plans to have about 7,000 soldiers by Wednesday. That is in addition to other active-duty personnel responding to the region, including about 2,000 Marines who are heading to Mississippi, more than 7,000 Navy troops and 2,300 Air Force troops.