by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
Aug. 22, 2003
THE SHAMEFUL, SHABBY TREATMENT OF U.S. SOLDIERS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Just about every politician loves to wave the flag and say they support the troops. But the things we've seen so far in Iraq suggest otherwise.
A recent story in The Salt Lake Tribune detailed what happened to the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment of the Marine Corps Reserve when they were sent into battle.
The Utah-based 2/23rd, one of the top Marine Reserve units, thought they would be riding into Iraq in armored vehicles. Instead, they rode in trucks with sandbags as their only armor. They had to share night vision goggles and body armor because there wasn't enough for everyone. They had no spare parts to repair weapons, radios or vehicles. Their automatic chemical detection alarm was a pigeon named Speckled Jim. They had 75 grenades for 200 Marines when they needed at least six times that. They didn't have enough ammunition pouches, but then again, they were also short on the ammo that would have filled the pouches.
By the end of the first week of combat, they were down to one MRE (meals, ready to eat) ration a day and were reduced to begging food from passing Army convoys.
The day before the fall of Baghdad, one of the 2/23's companies found itself in a firefight against Iraqi forces. The Marines had no armored vehicles or heavy weapons. Without air support or artillery and armed with only their M-16s, the Marines fought off hundreds of Iraqis until they ran out of ammo and were forced to withdraw. Twelve Marines were wounded in that battle, some seriously.
Marines are used to doing the impossible with next to nothing. But when this nation is spending more than $400 billion a year on its military, the tale of the 2/23rd is shocking. No matter where your feelings lie regarding the current situation in Iraq, you have to ask this question - how can we send our men and women into a hostile situation without the resources to do the job?
The Bush administration, which so eagerly sent our soldiers off to battle in Iraq but did next to nothing to prepare for what happened afterwards - should be ashamed of what is happening to our troops.
Go to the Websites of Soldiers for the Truth (sftt.com) or retired Army Col. David Hackworth (hackworth.com) and read the e-mails, letters and faxes from the troops in the field in Iraq. The picture of the war you get from these letters is a lot different than what we're getting from the news media.
More than five months since the fall of Baghdad, many U.S. troops in Iraq are still subsisting on MREs and are limited to two 1.5 liter bottles of lukewarm, highly chlorinated water a day. They are living in dirt and filth unimaginable to the average American. Why? One reason, according to David Wood of the Newhouse News Service, is that much of the logistical support for the troops has been farmed out to private contractors, and many of them failed to show up in Iraq.
Wood reported that Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), the construction subsidiary of Haliburton, was hired by the Pentagon last fall to draw up a plan for supporting U.S. forces in Iraq. KBR, and other contractors, started assembling inside Kuwait and were ready to go once the shooting started - until their insurance premiums went up 300 percent and their civilian employees started having second thoughts. While soldiers have to be in a war zone, civilians tend to exercise their free will and stay away.
As a result, American soldiers are needlessly living in squalid conditions in Iraq. But in a way, you could say they're the lucky ones, compared to the soldiers in Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The Washington Post's two-part series, "The Soldiers of Ward 57," ran on July 20 and 21.
Hundreds of wounded soldiers have passed through Walter Reed in the last five months. The busiest place is Ward 57, the hospital's orthopedics wing. That's where the men who have lost their limbs in Iraq are being treated. It has been filled to capacity since April.
The soldiers there have been treated well and have gotten visits from all sorts of celebrities from Michael Jordan and Hulk Hogan to Sheryl Crow and Jennifer Love Hewitt. But one group of people have been conspicuously absent from Ward 57 - President Bush and the members of his administration. Not one of them have shown up to see the human cost of their misguided war.
The Bush administration and its GOP allies in Congress were gung ho to send men like Pfc. Garth Stewart (who had his left leg blown off by a booby trap), First Lt. John Fernandez (who became a double amputee after a mortar attack) and Pfc. Danny Roberts (who lost a foot to a land mine) off to war. But President Bush and the architects of this war don't seem to have the time to visit them now that they are back.
How much does the Bush administration and the GOP members of Congress really support are troops? Since the war began, they stopped a proposed increase in the death benefit paid to families of soldiers who die on active duty from $6,000 to $12,000. They are trying to roll back a recent increase in hazardous duty pay - it was raised from $150 to $250 a month at the start of the war - and have refused to consider tax relief for the soldiers' families back home. They have cut spending for medical treatment of veterans. And, as we've seen in Iraq, too little of the estimated $4 billion a month that we are spending to occupy and rebuild that country is being spent on the soldiers stuck with the dirty work.
Realistically, we can't expect a total and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. What we should expect is better treatment of our soldiers while they are there and more help for their families back home. The fact that neither seems to be happening is a disgrace.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).