Nervous breakdown


Asked last week about the lack of armor on U.S. military vehicles in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave an explanation that included this: “If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up.”

For those who find Rumsfeld’s remarks confusing, here is a basic rundown on the equipment problem:

HUMVEE ARMOR: Specialist Ronald Pepin, who serves in Baghdad with the New York National Guard, told CBS News last Halloween that his unit’s Humvees “have no ground plating. So if you hit something underneath you, then it’s going to kill the whole crew.” He added, “And that’s just something you have to live with.”

In June, Staff Sergeant Sean Davis of the Oregon National Guard suffered shrapnel wounds and burns and couldn’t walk for six weeks after his Humvee hit a homemade bomb near Baghdad. Davis said his Humvee, which came with no armor, had been fortified with plywood, sandbags, and armor salvaged from old Iraqi tanks.

SPARE PARTS: General Ricardo Sanchez, senior commander on the ground from summer 2003 to summer 2004, wrote to top army officials, “I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with [readiness] rates this low,” The Washington Post reported on October 18. In a letter to army units, he wrote that the army was “struggling just to maintain . . . relatively low readiness rates” on such key combat systems as M-1 Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, anti-mortar radars, and Black Hawk helicopters. Units had to wait more than a month to get critical spare parts, which 40 percent of the army depots didn’t even have.

There have even been problems with parts for ordinary vehicles. Six reservists, two who had received Bronze Stars, were court-martialed for scrounging equipment to keep their unit going, the Chicago Tribune reported over the weekend. One of them, Darrell Birt, said his unit didn’t have enough vehicles to haul the equipment it would need, so three men in the unit grabbed two tractors and two trailers left in Kuwait by units already on their way to Iraq. Later, they scavenged a five-ton cargo truck for parts. “We could have gone with what we had, but we would not have been able to complete our mission,” Birt told the Tribune. “I admit that what we did was technically against the rules, but it wasn’t for our own personal gain. It was so we could do our jobs.”

BODY ARMOR: In notoriously short supply, body armor is on many soldiers’ Christmas lists. Some scrounge it from armor left by Iraqi soldiers; others ask their families to buy armor and send it over.

RADIOS: As I wrote on October 12, a marine report found severe communications problems. Titled Operation Iraqi Freedom: Lessons Learned, the report for the Marine Corps Reserve Forces said, “Convoys as large as 100 to 150 vehicles had only two or three military radios for long-range communications and virtually no capability for intra-convoy communications.” To stay in touch, the reserve units on their own went out and bought short-range handheld radios.

AMMUNITION: Soldiers of the army’s Third Infantry Division marched into Iraq in the beginning of the war without enough ammunition to fight, according to published reports. Division commanders asked months ahead of time for more ammo for frontline units, but couldn’t get enough. “Every attempt to gain the ammunition assets resulted in some agency or another denying requests, short-loading trucks, or turning away soldiers,” the report said. “The entire situation became utter chaos.”

CLOTHING: Soldiers couldn’t get proper footwear. “Days before we flew out from North Carolina to Kuwait,” one soldier recalled, “some Marines were still not being provided with the correct size desert boots. There were extra boots left, but none that would fit. The unit was allotted only a certain number of boots for each size. Still, others were issued two pairs of boots . . . the older type and a new type just released. The Marines without boots had to pay for cabs to bring them outside of the base to a military surplus store in town, where they could buy desert boots that actually fit.”

Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti.