Oregon Guard’s top officer says troops are left vulnerable

The Oregonian

Oregon Guard’s top officer says troops are left vulnerable
Better armored vehicles are needed in Iraq, according to Acting Adjutant Gen. Ray Byrne
Tuesday, November 02, 2004


The Oregon Army National Guard lacks the most effective armored vehicles in Iraq to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, the guard’s highest-ranking officer in the state said Monday.

In an interview, Acting Adjutant Gen. Ray Byrne said the military was not fully equipped to fight a grinding conflict with an insurgency that attacked convoys with powerful roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

Byrne’s comments were echoed by congressional representatives and Oregon’s governor, who said the short supply of steel-reinforced Humvees has left troops across Iraq vulnerable to attack.

The safest Humvees are those that are fully armored from the factory. But many soldiers still drive Humvees that are retrofitted, or “uparmored” with bolt-on kits. And some supply vehicles are unarmored, although they travel in convoys with armored vehicles.

“They just don’t have enough of the uparmored Humvees produced,” Gov. Ted Kulongoski said. As a result, he said, Oregon soldiers are in harm’s way with less than maximum protection.

The comments came on the heels of a Sunday night report on national television that cited equipment shortages in the Oregon Guard. The report, on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” suggested that Spc. Eric McKinley of Corvallis might have been killed in June because an improperly armored Humvee left him vulnerable.

Byrne said the report made some legitimate points about Armywide issues, but he called the focus on the McKinley case “a little misleading.”

The television network suggested that plywood-and-sandbag-reinforced Humvees, such as the one in which McKinley was killed June 13, still are used for patrols. It supported that suggestion with a picture of such Humvees, taken in early summer.

But McKinley’s death forced an immediate change of policy at Camp Cooke, now known as Camp Taji, where the 24-year-old guardsman was based. Soldiers were ordered in June to no longer use plywood-sided Humvees outside the base. The picture shown by “60 Minutes” was also taken at a different base, which also forbids the Humvees “outside the wire” on patrol.

During the Cold War, Byrne said, frontline U.S. troops received the newest and best equipment, and other units — including the guard and reserves — had to make do with older vehicles and gear. But as National Guard soldiers scrambled to deploy to Iraq last year, the Army “cross-leveled” personnel and equipment to get as much of the best equipment as possible to troops in the war zone regardless of active duty or reserve status.

If there are equipment shortages now, he said, they apply to full-time troops as well as the guard, and “it’s a congressional issue as far as I’m concerned.”

Lt. Col. Dan Hendrickson, who commands the Oregon Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry in Iraq, said by e-mail Monday that the televised report “was somewhat disappointing.” He said that even though each individual soldier may not have every piece of equipment he wants all of the time, “plenty is available mission by mission.”

“The armored (Humvee) issue is of course very real,” he continued. “We have received additional (fully armored Humvees) since we arrived, and I have no doubt we will continue to receive our fair share as they become available.”

Three Democratic members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have pressed the Army for the past 12 months to ensure that National Guard soldiers are fully equipped. They said Monday they were upset that the job isn’t finished.

“The Pentagon is awash in money,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Eugene, whose district includes the home armory for the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry. “I don’t believe this is a monetary issue. My understanding is that the procurement system is a mess.”

DeFazio and other members of the delegation were circulating a letter Monday in which they would demand a briefing from the Department of Defense about how well the National Guard is outfitted.

“I do have hope things will improve,” said Rep. Darlene Hooley, who represents the district that includes the Corvallis armory, home to McKinley’s B Company of the 2nd Battalion. “As we have brought up these issues, things have gotten better.”

Hooley cited the equipment shortages that were present during training of the Oregon Guard troops, from toilet paper to bullets. Before they went to Iraq, she said, guardsmen seemed to be at the back of the line for everything from bedding to body armor. National Guard soldiers were trapped by a monetary squeeze that occurred when they transitioned from state to federal control, she said.

Soldiers training in Texas before their deployment ultimately had to use state-issued credit cards to buy such staples as toothpaste and food, even though they had been transferred to federal control, Kulongoski said. “The absorption of the National Guard into the regular Army has not gone smoothly,” he said.

Oregon Guardsmen in Iraq still tell horror stories about the squalid and spartan conditions they found when they trained in stateside Army bases. But now that they’re in Iraq, most say, they get their fair share of equipment.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who said he has been raising this issue for almost a year, said he was “outraged” by the fact that troops in Iraq aren’t fully protected, when billions are being spent on missile defense and hundreds of millions on planning for next-generation aircraft.

“They have not placed a priority on the safety of our troops,” the congressman said. “It just makes my blood boil.”

Wars are always chaotic and deadly, Byrne said.

“Sometimes we forget that we’re fighting a thinking enemy,” he said. “They look for a weakness, and the weakness they found is our logistical tail.”

Troops need supplies, and they need to drive over unguarded roads to get them, he said.

“You can’t be 100 percent on everything,” he said. “You’ve got missions to run and you’ve got to do the missions.”

Mike Francis: 503-294-5955; mikefrancis@news.oregonian.com

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