Armor issue echoes at war, home No Pa. Guard member will enter Iraq ill-equipped, an officer vowed. Bush said troops "deserve the best."

Posted: December 10, 2004

No Pennsylvania National Guard soldier awaiting deployment from Kuwait will be sent across the border into Iraq unless he has up-to-date body armor, a Guard commander said yesterday.

Lt. Col. Philip J. Logan, in charge of the 800-man Task Force Dragoon, made up of units from across the state, also said that any vehicle lacking armor plating would be towed into Iraq, rather than driven.

Logan and a large number of other Pennsylvania Guardsmen were in a Kuwait audience Wednesday when a reservist complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that some Iraq-bound soldiers were hunting for armor in dumps.

Yesterday, Rumsfeld said that the soldier's question in Kuwait could prove "constructive" in addressing the problem of armor shortages, which the military has been working for months to correct.

At the White House, President Bush echoed that, saying: "If I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I'd want to ask the secretary of defense the same question. And that is, 'Are we getting the best we can get us?' And they deserve the best."

Logan said in an e-mail interview yesterday that he was aware of "rumors" of scavenging. He said that no one under his command had had to do that. He said his humvees and other vehicles, most of them turned over by units leaving Iraq, were either fully armored or had been equipped with "add-on-armor."

It's true that not all have bulletproof glass. "Bottom line is: we will have the necessary armored vehicles required to do our mission in Iraq," Logan said. ". . . In fact, we are better equipped than the regular Army unit we are replacing. . . . We have the best equipment the Army can give us right now. Is it perfect? No."

Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Guard, said there was "no doubt" some of the nearly 2,000 state Guard troops now in Iraq or Kuwait, and 2,400 on the way next month, would use vehicles without full armor. But he said he did not think the Guard was getting better or worse equipment than others.

Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters while traveling yesterday to India, said vehicles without full armor were used only inside military compounds in Iraq, rather than on patrols where they are vulnerable to roadside bombs. These bombs were not a major problem when the United States overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime but have become a major weapon of insurgents.

He said the Army had adjusted "pretty rapidly" in putting more armor on vehicles, such as the humvee.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that only 15,000 of the 19,000 humvees used in the Central Command Area, including Iraq and Afghanistan, have any armor at all.

And of these, only about 6,000 have been equipped with the most up-to-date armor installed at a single factory in Florida that is turning out 450 "up-armored" humvees per month.

'Into battle'

Experts on Guard and Reserve forces, at a conference Monday in Philadelphia sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, reported widespread complaints among Guard and Reserve troops that their equipment was inferior to that provided to regular troops. But the experts said that might not be so.

Harvey Sicherman, the institute president, said the consensus of the experts was: "They may drill with second-rate equipment, but when they go into battle they go in with the same that everybody else gets."

National Guard officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey said their troops fared no better or worse than others in getting good equipment.

Lt. Col. Roberta Niedt, spokeswoman for the New Jersey National Guard, which has 1,700 troops in Iraq, said morale of those preparing to go to Iraq was "very good and they do feel they are prepared for the mission."

"In terms of equipment," she said, "I can't comment on that; I don't know the status over there. It wouldn't be fair to say what they will find."

Flak vests

Niedt said there had been reports from New Jersey soldiers that vehicles were not armored. But she added: "That was early on, and they were up-armoring equipment as time went on."

Today, she said, "about 75 to 80 percent of humvees and trucks are up-armored."

There were complaints early this year that some Guard and Reserve troops lacked even proper body armor - mainly, up-to-date flak vests.

A family member of a Pennsylvania Guard soldier in Kuwait complained recently to Guard officials that she had heard not all soldiers had body armor.

Logan, in an e-mail from Kuwait on Tuesday, said that was not the case for his men. "No soldier will leave Kuwait without [proper flak vests]," he wrote. "If they don't get them, they don't leave the country. Period."

The Pentagon plans to increase strength in Iraq from 138,000 to 150,000 troops. That is planned to coincide with the increased security needs of the Jan. 30 election. It has temporarily placed a higher demand on armored military vehicles, Pentagon officials said.

That has caused military planners to make "risk assessments" for missions, giving soldiers a higher priority for armored vehicles in hot spots over less dangerous areas.

Army Col. Tom Collins, deputy director of the Army Requirements and Resourcing Board at the Pentagon, which is responsible for providing for troops' needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, said yesterday that soldiers had enough armored vehicles for missions.

Soldiers formerly in Iraq told stories yesterday of having to do just the kind of scavenging that the soldier in Kuwait had described to Rumsfeld.

Among others, members of the Army National Guard's 253d Transportation Company, based in Cape May Court House, have said they sometimes used armor from disabled Russian-made Iraqi tanks to provide extra plating. The unit returned last spring after a year in Iraq.

"We scrounged steel plating from an Iraqi army base, but found out that the steel didn't stop bullets," said First Sgt. Michael Vey, 53, of North Cape May.

In an interview yesterday from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, New Jersey Guardsman Carl Oliver, 49, of Trenton, said that troops were assigned vehicles daily and that "sometimes you get an up-armored vehicle and sometimes you don't."

Oliver, a member of the 112th Field Artillery, was traveling with two other soldiers in a humvee when it was rocked by a roadside bomb. His two comrades died in the blast and he was seriously wounded.

"We had armored doors and windows," he said, "but the body wasn't armored and it wasn't armored underneath."

"Everybody uses what they get," said Oliver, referring to the humvee assignments. "I've seen the guys in the First Cavalry riding with a gun on the back of their truck surrounded by sandbags.

"They improvise. They try to protect themselves as much as they can. But they [enemy] makes some heavy bombs and I've seen them go right through up-armored vehicles."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Without armor plating, not much remains of this humvee after an April ambush. The Army is working to get more armor on them.

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