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Rumsfeld: Pleased To Hear Gripes

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, center left, shakes hand with Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee in the backdrop of the North Block that houses government offices, in New Delhi, India, on Thursday December 9, 2004.
AP
A day after being challenged by a soldier on the Army's failure to provide adequate armor for vehicles used in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday he was pleased to hear the gripe and expects the Army to do its best to resolve the problem.

"I think that's good" that ordinary soldiers are given a chance to express their concerns to the secretary of defense and senior military commanders, Rumsfeld told reporters during a visit to the Indian capital. It gives the senior military leadership that has the responsibilities for these matters a chance to hear them and listen to these concerns."

President Bush also feels "it's important for those at the top of the chain of command to hear from those in uniform," spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday. CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer reports McClellan went out of his way to describe how more armored humvees and other vehicles are being made.

"It's necessary for the Army to hear that, do something about it and see that everyone is treated properly," Rumsfeld said, referring not only to the complaint about insufficient armor but also another soldier's statement about not getting reimbursed for certain expenses in a timely way.

Those complaints, and others, were aired on Wednesday when Rumsfeld held a "town hall" style meeting with about 2,300 soldiers at Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait, a transit camp for troops heading into Iraq.

There are some 10,000 soldiers at Camp Buehring heading for Iraq or on their way home from tours there. Many are reservists from Oregon, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Spc. Thomas Wilson had asked Rumsfeld, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Shouts of approval and applause arose from other soldiers who had assembled in an aircraft hangar to see Rumsfeld.

Wilson is an airplane mechanic whose unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee Army National Guard, is about to drive north into Iraq for a one-year tour of duty.

Rumsfeld hesitated and asked Wilson to repeat his question.

"We do not have proper armored vehicles to carry with us north," Wilson, 31, of Nashville, Tenn., concluded after asking again.

"You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld replied, "not the Army you might want or wish to have."

Asked on Thursday about that exchange, the defense secretary said he believed the session in general was "very fine, warm (and) enjoyable." As for Wilson's statement, Rumsfeld said it could be constructive.

"I don't know what the facts are, but somebody is certainly going to sit down with him and find out what he knows that they may not know," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld gave no indication that the soldier would face any kind of disciplinary action for speaking up. Indeed, the defense secretary said he found it healthy for soldiers to feel free to express their views.

He also said military vehicles that go into Iraq without full armor are used only inside U.S. compounds, rather than used on street patrols where they are vulnerable to roadside bombs. And he said those vehicles without full armor are moved into Iraq on transport vehicles rather than being driven.

More broadly, Rumsfeld said people should understand that the military has done all that can reasonably be expected to adjust to changing circumstances in Iraq as the insurgents have refined their tactics.

"That is the way war and insurgencies and combat operate," he said. "You go in, you have an enemy with a brain that does things, and then you make adjustments." He added, "Does everything happen instantaneously as the brain in the enemy sees things and makes changes? No, it doesn't happen instantaneously." But, he said, the Army has adjusted "pretty rapidly" to the evolving tactics of the insurgents, including the need to have more armor on vehicles like the Humvee.

Rumsfeld spoke in New Delhi after meeting Thursday with Indian Defense Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee.

Wilson's ex-wife, Regina, said she was not surprised he challenged Rumsfeld.

"It wouldn't matter if it was Bush himself standing there," she said. "He would have dissed him the same."

Wilson joined the National Guard in June 2003; previously, he had served about four years in the Air Force, beginning in 1994.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., told Rumsfeld in a letter Wednesday that his response to the question about armored vehicles was "utterly unacceptable" and that it was the duty of the government to provide safety equipment.

"Mr. Secretary, our troops go to war with the Army that our nation's leaders provide," he wrote.

The deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer, said in an interview at Camp Buehring that as far as he knew, every vehicle deploying to Iraq from Kuwait had at least "Level 3" armor protection. That means it had locally fabricated armor for its side panels, but not bulletproof windows or reinforced floorboards.

Speer said he was unaware that soldiers were searching landfills for scrap metal and discarded glass.

However, Maj. Gen. Gus L. Hargett, the adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard, disputed Speer's remarks. "I know that members of his staff were aware and assisted the 278th in obtaining these materials," he said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Larry Di Rita said production of armored Humvees had increased from 15 to 450 a month since fall 2003, when commanders in Iraq started asking for them because of insurgents' heavy use of roadside explosives.

Overall, there are 19,000 armored Humvees in the Iraqi theater. Some were built with additional armor, others had it added on later. That's, 2,000 short of what commanders are asking for, Di Rita acknowledged.

Military policy is that troops driving into Iraq in Humvees drive only in armored ones, Di Rita said. Some $1.2 billion has been included in the defense budget to pay for armored vehicles, he said.