General's assessment tallies with story this soldier tells

October 19, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT FORT Bragg last year, on the way to the fighting in Iraq, Army Capt. Scott Walton got his first uneasy hint of the future. The army didn't have the full complement of body armor for troops. "Don't worry," Walton's unit was told, "you'll get the equipment when you get to Kuwait."

Uh-oh.

When they reached Kuwait, says Walton, everybody was told, "You don't have equipment? We don't have it here. Maybe they'll have it when you get to Iraq."

Uh-oh.

When they got to Iraq, Walton heard an echo between the bombs and the gunfire: "They sent you here without equipment? Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh" is not acceptable language in war. Yesterday in Columbia, home from the war since spring but still anguished at the thought of so many troops made so vulnerable by improper planning, Walton, a 15-year military veteran still serving in an Army Reserve unit, said, "Iraq wasn't Pearl Harbor. We chose the time and place to go in there. Everything should be working properly.

"That's basic planning: Do I need to take an umbrella on a rainy day? It's called worst-case-scenario planning. Maybe it won't rain, but it's insurance. Instead, too many people at the White House and the Pentagon went in with best-case-scenario planning. They were waiting for Iraqis to throw flowers at our feet, instead of bombs."

As it happens, Walton issued his complaints on the same morning that similar remarks were surfacing from Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, formerly the top commander in Iraq. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Sanchez complained to the Pentagon last winter that his supply situation was so poor that it threatened troops' ability to fight.

In an official document that has taken 10 months to surface, Sanchez complained that key spare parts for gear vital to combat operations, such as tanks and helicopters, was causing problems so severe that "I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations."

Sanchez also said his soldiers needed protective inserts, commonly called plates, to upgrade 36,000 sets of body armor -- which was precisely the point being made yesterday by Walton, who was unaware of Sanchez's remarks.

"When my unit reached the Iraqi theater of operations, we had no plates for our body armor," said Walton. It was April of last year. Walton was attached to the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad, assigned "to speak with the local populace, understand their concerns, and communicate the American message of good will. We spent 12 to 16 hours a day talking to the local Iraqis, any of whom could have killed any of my soldiers."

The ceramic body armor plates are important, said Walton, because, "without them, you can only stop fragments. With them, you can stop a round of fire, say a handgun or a small rifle. If everybody over there had the same equipment shortage, we'd have thousands more deaths."

Then there were Humvees, the high-mobility multipurpose vehicles. "They weren't armored," Walton said. "People were taking potshots all the time, and we're driving around in unarmored vehicles. Fortunately, half of the Iraqis can't shoot straight, but how do you safeguard yourself?"

Walton said U.S. troops sandbagged their vehicles to protect against the threat of land mines, "but roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades were the big threat. So we secured the services of local Iraqis to weld metal plates to the vehicles. We had nothing else to rely on."

Then there were uniforms. "We were sent into combat," said Walton, "with two uniforms. We were told to bring along a few pairs of our woodland camouflage uniforms and that the supply system would catch up when we got settled in-country. Ten months into our tour, we finally got two additional desert camouflage uniforms. I gave mine to members of a National Guard unit from Missouri who hadn't received any desert uniforms."

President Bush has consistently pledged "to give our troops everything that is necessary to complete their mission with utmost safety." The army says the situation is "substantially better" since Sanchez's complaints.

Over the weekend, a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey of America's military personnel and their families found almost two-thirds believe the Bush administration underestimated the number of troops needed for the mission in Iraq. Twenty-one percent believed active-duty troops were improperly trained and equipped, and 42 percent believed guardsmen and reservists were improperly trained and equipped.

Walton, who previously served in Bosnia and has been in the armed forces since he was 17, said, "When America sends its men and women to war, it makes a pledge to do what is necessary to support them. It takes more to field an army than simply wave a flag.

"We're sending our kids over there unprotected. We've got this massive military-industrial complex, and we can't keep our troops supplied? When you go to war, when you cross that line, your troops should have everything they need right then and there. You're equipped to go to war -- or you don't go. This administration isn't being honest with the American people when they say they're giving us the best."

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