Verbal shots on equipment for troops have familiar ring

December 14, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ROADSIDE bombs," Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was saying the other day. "We don't know who the enemy is over there. But we know that their best weapon is the roadside bomb."

Ruppersberger, newly returned home from his second tour of Iraq and Afghanistan, said this hours before another kind of bomb exploded last week. In Kuwait, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was sent reeling when U.S. soldiers lobbed questions that have official Washington ducking for cover.

George W. Bush loves to call America's military "the best-equipped in the world." During his re-election campaign, attempting to put everyone at ease over a war he initiated with an orchestration of fantasies, the president insisted that troops would have all the equipment they needed.

This, as it turns out, was one more fantasy.

In Kuwait the other day, soldiers questioned Bush's defense secretary about aging vehicles that lack armor for protection against roadside bombs, about soldiers needing to scrounge through landfills to dig up scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to bolt to their trucks.

"Why don't we have these resources available to us?" one soldier asked Rumsfeld.

What about "shortages and antiquated equipment?" another soldier asked a few moments later.

When the supportive cheers of other soldiers faded away, Rumsfeld tried to answer. On the TV videotapes, you can see him reaching for authority as murmurs drift through the crowd.

This time, it's all about bullet-proof armor for Humvees. Last time, Ruppersberger remembers, it was bulletproof vests.

"I heard this months ago," he was saying now. Last March, Ruppersberger went to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as part of a small delegation from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. This time, he was one of five who went.

"Six months ago," Ruppersberger said, "we kept hearing, `We don't know who the enemy is. They've got these roadside bombs, and we don't have vests for protection.' We were getting all these kids with injuries that could have been prevented. So now we have vests for them, but we don't have the kind of vehicles we need. All of this is supposed to be part of the planning process when you go to war."

But here we are, deep into conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the body counts rising, and Rumsfeld lamely declaring, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." This, from the folks who insisted Iraq would be a walk in the park, with grateful multitudes tossing flowers instead of bombs. This, from the same Rumsfeld who insisted on a lean, slimmed-down force.

"This is not a partisan issue," Ruppersberger said carefully. "This is about protecting our troops. That's our highest priority. We heard the complaints six months ago, and we heard them this time."

He returned in mid-November from an eight-day tour.

"What you learn," he said, "is that we need more boots on the ground over there. It is so different in Iraq than six months ago, a lot more dangerous now. Afghanistan is better than six months ago, but Iraq is worse. Coming to the airport in Bagdad, mortars were being shot in the air half a mile away. ... We went there as liberators, but we're still perceived to be invaders. We need to understand how we would feel if somebody came into our country.

"We know Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but are people's lives better now? The average person in Iraq would say `no.' They don't have jobs anymore. We're telling them what to do, we're telling them about democracy. But they don't understand what democracy is - they've never had it."

One hopeful moment: Ruppersberger, a Democrat, said Sunni leadership asked to speak with the congressional delegation, "a former general in the Republican Guard, some governors. Some top people. Remember, they were in power. They don't want elections because they'll lose power.

"I told them, `I understand where you're coming from. I used to be in the political majority, and now I'm in the minority. I don't like that. My goal is to get to the majority. But I'm an American first, and I'm at the table. I can build coalitions, I can develop relationships.'

"I told them, `If you boycott this election, you won't be at the table. You have an opportunity to help your children's generation, and your grandchildren's - but not if you don't come to the table.' They were nodding their heads. When it was over, they came up to me and said, `This is a point of view we hadn't thought about.'"

Last week, Ruppersberger went to Aberdeen Proving Ground as 42 members of the 1159th Medical Company Detachment bid loved ones goodbye and headed for Iraq.

"It was very emotional," he said, "particularly right before the holidays. I told them, `Your country is behind you, you have to know that.' But it was tough. And there was a young lady who came up to me whose husband was leaving. She had a 2-year-old child in her arms, and a little American flag. It turned out, the young lady went to Dulaney High School with my daughter. That made it even more personal."

What makes it worse is the thought of her husband - or any soldier - heading into trouble with Washington promising "the best protection" and falling short, and facing up to it only when a couple of guys in uniform finally challenge the secretary of defense in public.

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