Published April 15, 2007
According to Mark Thompson, writer for Time magazine, America's army is broken. While it can not be argued that the military can possibly maintain the same state of readiness in war time as it does in peace time, broken has a certain specific ring to it: incapable, demoralized and poorly trained.
Mr. Thompson begins the article — featured on the Drudge Report — with the story of Private Matthew Zeimer. Brave PVT Zeimer died within hours of his arrival at a Forward Operating Base in Iraq. Thompson describes PVT Zeimer's training before going on to make the case that the surge cut the young Private's training short. In Mr. Thompson's recounting of PVT Zeimer's tale, he essentially was killed because he had insufficient training.
"If Zeimer's combat career was brief, so was his training. He enlisted last June at age 17, three weeks after graduating from Dawson County High School in eastern Montana. After finishing nine weeks of basic training and additional preparation in infantry tactics in Oklahoma, he arrived at Fort Stewart, Ga., in early December.
"But Zeimer had missed the intense four-week pre-Iraq training-a taste of what troops will face in combat-that his 1st Brigade comrades got at their home post in October. Instead, Zeimer and about 140 other members of the 4,000-strong brigade got a cut-rate, 10-day course on weapon use, first aid and Iraqi culture. That's the same length as the course that teaches soldiers assigned to generals' household staffs the finer points of table service."
Mr. Thompson finds confirmation from Congressman Murtha: "The truncated training — the rush to get underprepared troops to the war zone — is absolutely unacceptable,' says Representative John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat and opponent of the war who chairs the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. A decorated Marine veteran of Vietnam, Murtha is experiencing a sense of déjà vu. 'The readiness of the Army's ground forces is as bad as it was right after Vietnam.'"
Sounds like a pretty solid case doesn't it? But something just didn't sit right with me. I immediately knew this wasn't the full story. So I used a journalistic research tool, possibly unavailable to Time, called Google.
You see, this article makes the brave young Matthew Zeimer sound like an infantry soldier. Infantry soldiers go to the Infantry Training Brigade for 14 weeks of intense training after completing basic training. How can it be he didn't go? Is the Army so bad off infantry soldiers don't go to Advanced Infantry Training anymore?
In my research, I found this article: "Soldier's last days at home memorable" at the Billings Gazette. The article tells the story of the brave Private's short military career as told by his family and friends. "Matthew had come home on leave Nov. 8, after more than five months of basic training."
Five months of basic training? What this article means is that he did nine weeks of Basic Training, which every soldier does, and then went for three more months of Advanced Individual Training in which a soldier trains on their MOS (Military Occupational Skill).
About.com explains the process well: "Individuals who enlist under the 13X Infantry option attend Field Artillery OSUT (One Station Unit Training), which combines Army Basic Training and Field Artillery AIT (Advanced Individual Training), all in one course."
But most civilians just think of it all as basic training. The point being, this is three more months of a 24 hour a day resident course, tough as nails training that Mr. Thompson has neglected to mention. Three months is a significant amount of training.
And it doesn't stop there. According to the Billings Gazette: "Staff Sgt. Thad Rule, with the U.S. Army Recruiting Office in Glendive, said Matt joined the Future Soldier Program at the start of his senior year of high school, shortly after he turned 17. He spent nearly 10 months learning some of the basics about the Army, preparing him for his training.
"Rule said Matt 'wanted to do a combat job' and couldn't wait to join the Army. To speed things up, he opted to undergo artillery support training rather than going into the infantry, a move that got him into the Army a month earlier," the article continues.
Not only did PVT Zeimer do three more months of training than Thompson lets on, he spent 10 months of training before he even went in the Army. While this certainly does not equate to training in an active duty setting, it is a training opportunity that most soldiers don't get. In real terms, this brave young man was ahead of the training that a typical artillery junior enlisted soldier received when I was an artillery officer in the mid-'90s under President Clinton.
So was this truncated training as Murtha called it effective? Was he really ready? The Gazette goes on:
"Matt was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed maybe 175 pounds when he went in for basic training. 'The kid came back and he was fit,' Rule said. 'I'd say his confidence was the big thing.' Tessa Hopper, Matt's former girlfriend, noted the same thing when she spoke Sunday evening during a wake service for Matt.
"'He was proud as a peacock when he came home for the holidays,'" she said. Damon noticed it, too. Matt had always liked to exercise, he said, but he got in excellent shape during basic training. 'He loved the way he looked when he came home from basic,' Damon said."
So according to PVT Zeimer's loved ones, he was fit, proud, motivated and anything but broken-down. He was a soldier damn it! Not a victim. Not a political talking point.
Mr. Thompson also tells us:
"The Army and the White House insist the abbreviated training was adequate. 'They can get desert training elsewhere,' spokesman Tony Snow said Feb. 28, 'like in Iraq.' But outside military experts and Zeimer's mother disagree. The Army's rush to carry out President George W. Bush's order to send thousands of additional troops more quickly to Iraq is forcing two of the five new brigades bound for the war to skip standard training at Fort Irwin, Calif. These soldiers aren't getting the benefit of participating in war games on the wide Mojave Desert, where gun-jamming sand and faux insurgents closely resemble conditions in Iraq."
Thompson tells us that the Army callously failed to train the young private in desert warfare (which is not a deployment requirement for U.S. Army soldiers anyway). His writing certainly makes Tony Snow appear flippant about the issue. But we learn this from the Billings Gazette:
"After leaving the U.S. on Jan. 13, Damon said, Matt went to Kuwait for additional training before shipping out to Iraq on Jan. 25."
Yet more training? Yes, and it was in the desert just like Tony Snow indicated. But what about that training in Fort Irwin at the National Training Center (NTC) that Mr. Thompson referred to in his article? Would that have helped the brave private? You bet. More training is always better. But at some point the training stops when the fighting starts (actually, it continues even in combat, but not at a training facility). And a better understanding of what the NTC training mission is makes this clear:
— Provide tough, realistic joint and combined arms training;
— Focus at the battalion task force and brigade levels;
— Assist commanders in developing trained, competent leaders and soldiers;
— Identify unit training deficiencies, provide feedback to improve the force and prepare for success on the future joint battlefield;
— Provide a venue for transformation;
— Take care of soldiers, civilians, and family members.
Joint, combined, battalion, brigade, these are all keywords which mean that the NTC is first and foremost a unit trainer. The individual soldier goes to NTC more by providence than by design. Nobody keeps track of your NTC rotations. It is not a training requirement for individual readiness. An individual unit may not be scheduled for rotation to the NTC for as long as two years. It is one facility and there are many brigades. The NTC is not and has never been a requirement for individual deployment.
What happens at NTC? A unit rotation lasts four weeks. The unit typically spends the first week in preparation and the last week in recovery. That means that the unit spends two weeks "in the box". While the training is valuable, and is the best two weeks of training a unit can get in the army, it is only two weeks after all.
While it certainly increases the skills of the individual soldier, you don't have to send a soldier to brigade level training to learn how to clean the sand out of your weapon as Mr. Thompson laments. And dealing with civilians on the battlefield can be taught anywhere.
Mr. Thompson's article also states: "Under cover of darkness, Sunni insurgents were attacking his new post from nearby buildings. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion, a blast suddenly ripped through the 3-ft. concrete wall shielding Zeimer and a fellow soldier, killing them both."
What Mr. Thompson doesn't tell the reader is than the soldier that was killed with PVT Zeimer was "Spc. Alan E. McPeek, a 20-year-old who had been in Iraq for 14 months" according to the Gazette. Of course, it's difficult to make a soldier appear to have died due to lack of training when the soldier who died next to him was a 14 month combat veteran, isn't it?
As disgusted as I am by the absolutely misleading nature of Mr. Thompson's article and how it affects the general public's perceptions, I am far more sickened by these vultures not explaining to the families of men like PVT Zeimer that their son was a hero, not a victim to be used in creating a political talking point for shoddy journalists and opportunist politicians. Army officials should explain what the standards of deployment training are to the families of our brave soldiers before rotten tomatoes like these convince them that heroes like Matthew died for lack of training.
God bless you, Private Zeimer.