GIs Lack Armor, Radios, Bullets
Two weeks ago, a group of Army reservists in Iraq refused a direct order to go on a dangerous operation to re-supply another unit with jet fuel.
Without helicopter gunships to escort them over a treacherous stretch of highway, and lacking armored vehicles, soldiers from the 343rd Quartermaster Company called it a suicide mission.
The Army called it an isolated incident, a temporary breakdown in discipline, and an investigation is underway.
But the 343rd isn’t the first outfit to be put in harm’s way without proper equipment, and commanders in Iraq acknowledged that the unit’s concerns were legitimate, even if their mutiny was not.
With a $400 billion defense budget you might think U.S. troops have everything they need to fight the war, but that’s not always the case.
Correspondent Steve Kroft talks to a general, soldiers in Iraq, and their families at home about a lack of armored vehicles, field radios, night vision goggles, and even ammunition – especially for the National Guard and reserve units that now make up more than 40 percent of U.S. troops.
In this report, Kroft also talks to Sen. John McCain about how pork-barrel politics have shortchanged troops on the ground.
Every couple of weeks Karen Preston gets a telephone call from her son Ryan who is serving in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard.
But Karen Preston has been worrying a lot ever since last summer when Ryan returned home on leave and showed her these photos of the unarmored vehicles his unit was using for convoy duty in Iraq.
Lacking the proper steel plating to protect soldiers from enemy mines and rocket propelled grenades, they had been jerry-rigged with plywood and sandbags.
“They were called cardboard coffins,” Preston says.
There have been more than 9,000 U.S. casualties in Iraq so far – more than 8,100 wounded and 1,100 killed. Nearly half of those casualties are the result of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs in military jargon. Yet the U.S. military still lacks thousands of fully armored vehicles that could save American lives.
Specialist Ronald Pepin, who serves in Baghdad with the New York National Guard, says, “They have no ground plating. So if you hit something underneath you, then it’s going to kill the whole crew, you know? And that’s just something you have to live with.”
Staff Sgt. Sean Davis from the Oregon National Guard was critically wounded last June when his unarmored Humvee hit an IED outside of Baghdad. He suffered shrapnel wounds, burns, and was unable to walk for six weeks.
Davis said his Humvee was armored with plywood, sandbags, and armor salvaged from old Iraqi tanks.
He considers himself lucky that he wasn’t killed in the blast. His friend and fellow guardsman Eric McKinley, who was riding in the same vehicle, wasn’t so fortunate. The 24-year-old Army specialist died of his wounds. His father Tom said his son was supposed to have been discharged from the Oregon National Guard a few months before his death, but was held over because of the war.
McKinley says his son would have stood a lot better chance of surviving had his vehicle been fully armored.
“Our troops need to be protected over there to the best ability that we can protect them and it’s not being done,” he says.
The Department of Defense denied a 60 Minutes request for an on-camera interview to explain the situation. But responding to a written question about vehicles traveling dangerous routes in Iraq being armored with plywood and sandbags, the Army told us, “As long as the Army has a single vehicle without armor, we expect that our soldiers will continue to find ways to increase their level of protection.”
60 Minutes went to a man more familiar with the problems facing the Oregon National Guard than anyone else – its commanding general, Ray Byrne. General Byrne was somewhat reluctant to talk when 60 Minutes showed him pictures of his men’s Humvees and trucks, armored with plywood and sandbags.
“If you have nothing then that’s better than nothing. The question becomes then again when – when are they going to receive the full up armored Humvees? And I don’t have that answer,” says Gen. Byrne.
“It distresses me greatly that they do not have the equipment. I don’t have control over it. The soldiers don’t have control over it. The question becomes, ‘When is it going to be available? When is it going to be available? When will they have it?'”
There are still no good answers to those questions. Most of the vehicles in Iraq arrived there without armor plating, because the Pentagon war planners didn’t anticipate a long, bloody insurgency.
But 18 months after President Bush declared an end of major combat, the Pentagon is still struggling to provide the equipment needed to fight the war.
Oregon Congresswoman Darlene Hooley, a Democrat whose district includes Gen. Byrne’s National Guard, complained to the secretary of defense. She says she thinks the vehicles are not fully armored yet because military planners didn’t anticipate an insurgency.
“We didn’t have enough armored vehicles,” she says. “They weren’t manufactured.”
Congress has appropriated additional money for armored trucks and Humvees, over $800 million in the current defense bill.
The Army told 60 Minutes they will have produced 8,100 fully-armored Humvees by March.
However, production is lagging behind the urgent need, and the Pentagon’s interim solution is shipping so-called “add-on armor” kits to Iraq, where they are being bolted on to thousands of vehicles.
But most of those add-ons don’t protect the bottom of the vehicle, leaving them vulnerable to an explosive device.
And it isn’t the only equipment problem facing soldiers in Iraq.
Oregon guardsman Sean Davis told us that his unit was short ammunition and night vision goggles, and lacked radios to communicate with each other.
He says guardsman were using walkie-talkies that they or their families purchased from a sporting goods or similar store. “And anybody can pick up those signals, you know,” he says. “And we don’t have the radios that we need.”
Gen. Byrne says stories about families in Oregon having to go out and buy for their sons and daughters radio equipment, body armor, GPS gear, computers and night vision goggles because they weren’t being issued are true.
He said some Guard units are also using Vietnam era M-16 assault rifles, which he calls adequate for state duty but not acceptable for duty in Iraq. There is also a bullet shortage for training, he says.
It bothers him, but “there’s nothing I can do about it,” he says.
“If I was making the decisions, I would readjust,” he says. “The soldier on the ground should be a focus. When that’s taken care of you can take care of other stuff.”
The Army acknowledged to 60 Minutes that there is a shortage of radios in Iraq and a shortage of bullets for training, and says both are in the process of being remedied. There have also been problems with maintenance and replacement parts for critical equipment like Abrams tanks, Bradley personnel carriers and Black Hawk helicopters.
Winslow Wheeler, a long time Capitol Hill staffer who spent years writing and reviewing defense appropriations bills, thinks he knows one reason why those shortages exist, after looking at the current Defense budget. Army accounts that pay for training, maintenance and repairs are being raided by Congress to pay for pork-barrel spending.
Wheeler says $2.8 billion that was earmarked for operations and maintenance to support U.S. troops has been used to “pay the pork bill.”
Wheeler, who has written a book called “The Wastrels of Defense,” says congressmen routinely hide billions of dollars in pet projects in the defense bill.
And buried in the back of this one, Wheeler found a biathlon jogging track in Alaska, a brown tree snake eradication program in Hawaii, a parade ground maintenance contract for a military base that closed years ago, and money for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration.
By law, these projects can’t be cut, so Pentagon bookkeepers will have to dip into operations and maintenance accounts to pay for them.
“They do all kinds of things that adds up to: ‘We’re basically eating our own young to support the war,'” he says.
According to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee who speaks out against pork-barrel spending, there is a total of $8.9 billion of pork in this year’s defense bill, which would go a long way toward upgrading all the equipment used by the National Guard.
“I don’t think that this war has truly come home to the Congress of the United States,” McCain says. “This is the first time in history that we’ve cut taxes during a war. So I think that a lot of members of Congress feel that this is just sort of a business-as-usual situation.”
“The least sexy items are the mundane – food, repair items, maintenance – there’s no big contract there,” says McCain. “And so there’s a tendency that those mundane but vital aspects of war fighting are cut and routinely underfunded.”
It is not a comforting thought for families with loved ones in Iraq, who lack armored vehicles, radios or things they need to stay alive. It’s on Karen Preston’s mind every time she talks to her son.
“He’s very pro-military, as am I,” she says. “I just want them to have the best equipment.”
Some armored vehicles have now been shipped to her son’s unit, but without protection on the bottom of the vehicle, an insurgent’s explosive is just as deadly.
Specialist Pepin on the New York Guard says, “It’s kind of like an act of faith. When you get in your vehicle, you just hope, you know. Say a little prayer before you go out.”
This weekend, Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee wrote to 60 Minutes saying, “The Army has made great strides in improving the capabilities of all units deploying to Iraq as the nature of the conflict has changed.” He noted the president approved spending $840 million to improve the armor on Humvees in Iraq.