Disgruntled U.S. soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Wednesday about the lack of armor for their vehicles and long deployments, drawing a blunt retort from the Pentagon chief.
"You go to war with the Army you have," he said in a rare public airing of rank-and-file concerns among the troops.
In his prepared remarks earlier, Rumsfeld had urged the troops — mostly National Guard and Reserve soldiers — to discount critics of the war in Iraq and to help "win the test of wills" with the insurgents.
Some of soldiers, however, had criticisms of their own — not of the war itself but of how it is being fought.
Army Spc. Thomas Wilson, for example, of the 278th Regimental Combat Team that is comprised mainly of citizen soldiers of the Tennessee Army National Guard, asked Rumsfeld in a question-and-answer session why vehicle armor is still in short supply, nearly two years after the start of the war that ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?" Wilson asked. A big cheer arose from the approximately 2,300 soldiers in the cavernous hangar who assembled to see and hear the secretary of defense.
Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.
"We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north," Wilson said after asking again.
Rumsfeld replied that troops should make the best of the conditions they face and said the Army was pushing manufacturers of vehicle armor to produce it as fast as humanly possible.
And, the defense chief added, armor is not always a savior in the kind of combat U.S. troops face in Iraq, where the insurgents' weapon of choice is the roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device that has killed and maimed hundreds, if not thousands, of American troops since the summer of 2003.
"You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can (still) be blown up," Rumsfeld said.
Asked later about Wilson's complaint, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer, said in an interview that as far as he knows, every vehicle that is deploying to Iraq from Camp Buehring in Kuwait has at least "Level 3" armor. That means it at least has locally fabricated armor for its side panels, but not necessarily bulletproof windows or protection against explosions that penetrate the floorboard.
Speer said he was not aware that soldiers were searching landfills for scrap metal and used bulletproof glass.
During the question-and-answer session, another soldier complained that active-duty Army units sometimes get priority over the National Guard and Reserve units for the best equipment in Iraq.
"There's no way I can prove it, but I am told the Army is breaking its neck to see that there is not" discrimination against the National Guard and Reserve in terms of providing equipment, Rumsfeld said.
Yet another soldier asked, without putting it to Rumsfeld as a direct criticism, how much longer the Army will continue using its "stop loss" power to prevent soldiers from leaving the service who are otherwise eligible to retire or quit.
Rumsfeld said that this condition was simply a fact of life for soldiers at time of war.
"It's basically a sound principle, it's nothing new, it's been well understood" by soldiers, he said. "My guess is it will continue to be used as little as possible, but that it will continue to be used."
In his opening remarks, Rumsfeld stressed that soldiers who are heading to Iraq should not believe those who say the insurgents cannot be defeated or who otherwise doubt the will of the military to win.
"They say we can't prevail. I see that violence and say we must win," Rumsfeld said.