CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – In a rare public airing of grievances, disgruntled soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) on Wednesday about long deployments and a lack of armored vehicles and other equipment.
"You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld replied, "not the Army you might want or wish to have."
Spc. Thomas Wilson had asked the defense secretary, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Shouts of approval and applause arose from the estimated 2,300 soldiers who had assembled to see Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.
"We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north," Wilson, 31, of Nashville, Tenn., concluded after asking again.
Wilson, an airplane mechanic whose unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team (search) of the Tennessee Army National Guard, is about to drive north into Iraq (search) for a one-year tour of duty, put his finger on a problem that has bedeviled the Pentagon for more than a year. Rarely, though, is it put so bluntly in a public forum.
Rumsfeld said the Army was sparing no expense or effort to acquire as many Humvees and other vehicles with extra armor as it can. What is more, he said, armor is not the savior some think it is.
"You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can [still] be blown up," he said. The same applies to the much smaller Humvee utility vehicles that, without extra armor, are highly vulnerable to the insurgents' weapon of choice in Iraq, the improvised explosive device that is a roadside threat to Army convoys and patrols.
U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq are killed or maimed by roadside bombs almost daily. Adding armor protection to Humvees and other vehicles that normally are not used in direct combat has been a priority for the Army, but manufacturers have not been able to keep up with the demand.
Wilson's ex-wife, Regina, said she was not surprised he challenged Rumsfeld.
"It wouldn't matter if it was Bush himself standing there," she said. "He would have dissed him the same."
Wilson joined the National Guard in June 2003; previously, he had served about four years in the Air Force, beginning in 1994.
Rumsfeld dropped in to Camp Buehring — named for Lt. Col. Charles Buehring, who was killed in a rocket attack on a downtown Baghdad hotel in November 2003 — to thank the troops for their service and to give them a pep talk. Later he flew to New Delhi for meetings Thursday with Indian government officials.
In his prepared remarks in Kuwait, Rumsfeld urged the troops — mostly National Guard and Reserve soldiers — to discount critics of the war and to help "win the test of wills" with the insurgents.
Wilson and others, however, had criticisms of their own — not of the war but of how it was being fought.
During the question-and-answer session, another soldier complained that active-duty Army units seem to get priority over National Guard and Reserve units for the best equipment used 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 of that kind, Rumsfeld said.
Yet another soldier asked how much longer the Army would continue using its "stop loss" power to prevent soldiers from leaving the service who are otherwise eligible to retire or return to civilian life at the end of their enlistment.
Rumsfeld said this condition was simply a fact of life for soldiers in times of war. Critics, including some in Congress, say it's proof the Army has been stretched too thin by 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."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., told Rumsfeld in a letter Wednesday that his response to the question about armored vehicles was "utterly unacceptable" and that it was the duty of the government to provide safety equipment.
"Mr. Secretary, our troops go to war with the Army that our nation's leaders provide," he wrote.
The deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer, said in an interview at Camp Buehring that as far as he knew, every vehicle deploying to Iraq from Kuwait had at least "Level 3" armor protection. That means it had locally fabricated armor for its side panels, but not bulletproof windows or reinforced floorboards.
Speer said he was unaware that soldiers were searching landfills for scrap metal and discarded glass.
However, Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett, the adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard, disputed Speer's remarks. "I know that members of his staff were aware and assisted the 278th in obtaining these materials," he said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Larry Di Rita said production of armored Humvees had increased from 15 to 450 a month since fall 2003, when commanders in Iraq started asking for them because of insurgents' heavy use of roadside explosives.
Overall, there are 19,000 armored Humvees in the Iraqi theater. Some were built with additional armor, others had it added on later. That's, 2,000 short of what commanders are asking for, Di Rita acknowledged.
Military policy is that troops driving into Iraq in Humvees drive only in armored ones, Di Rita said. Some $1.2 billion has been included in the defense budget to pay for armored vehicles, he said.