Anxious troops awaiting deployment to Iraq peppered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with questions during a brief visit to Kuwait yesterday, demanding to know why U.S. forces still were being...

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Anxious troops awaiting deployment to Iraq peppered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with questions during a brief visit to Kuwait yesterday, demanding to know why U.S. forces still were being sent into the violent country with what they said was insufficient protection.

Rumsfeld, who invited “tough questions” from the troops, got what he asked for as several also took him to task for the poor condition of equipment given to the National Guard and for the Pentagon’s “stop loss” policy that has kept thousands of troops on active duty beyond their discharge dates.

In one exchange during the “town hall” meeting, Spc. Thomas Wilson complained that he and his comrades were rooting through junkyards to find improvised armor to protect their vehicles against bomb blasts and small-arms attacks.

“A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon,” said Wilson, an airplane mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard. “Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up … picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper … vehicles to carry with us north.”

Reserved? Hardly

Reserve and National Guard forces make up more than 40 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq and may account for the public airing of grievances yesterday.

“The reservists and Guard troops are a little older and a little more accustomed to speaking their minds,” said John Pike, director of, a Virginia-based defense research Web site.

Regina Wilson, ex-wife of Spc. Thomas Wilson, would agree. In an interview with The Associated Press, the Chattanooga, Tenn., woman said she wasn’t entirely surprised to see Wilson challenge Rumsfeld.

“He is always like that,” she said. “I don’t think he understands the concept of biting one’s tongue. It wouldn’t matter if it was Bush himself standing there. He would have dissed him the same.”

Regina Wilson added that she was not impressed with Rumsfeld’s response.

“Rumsfeld’s answer seemed like he was sidestepping around the question,” she said. “If there is something lacking, perhaps that is why our death toll is climbing.”

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Rumsfeld replied: “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

He added: “If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.”

Another soldier, from a logistical-support unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C., complained that she was being kept in the Army against her wishes by a Pentagon “stop loss” order.

“It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world,” Rumsfeld responded. “It’s been used as little as possible.”

When a third soldier, from the Idaho Army National Guard, complained that Guard units had been issued “antiquated” equipment inferior to that given to regular Army units, Rumsfeld said the Army is trying to be equitable, but that somebody has to receive the older gear.

The one question that seemed to give Rumsfeld pause came from a lieutenant colonel who said that many soldiers in his unit are having trouble receiving all the pay due them, causing problems for their families who are being pestered by bill-collection agencies.

“Can someone here get the details of the unit he’s talking about?” Rumsfeld asked. “That’s just not right.”

As a whole, Rumsfeld’s responses provoked a wave of criticism from congressional Democrats. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, called Rumsfeld’s remarks “callous.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., termed them “contemptuous.”

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., later released a letter to Rumsfeld, saying he was “disturbed” by the secretary’s response to the question about vehicle armor, calling it “utterly unacceptable.”

“Mr. Secretary, our troops go to war with the Army that our nation’s leaders provide,” Dodd wrote. “Our military should spare no expense to ensure the safety of our troops.”

Some military experts agreed with the criticism. “Any problem mentioned, he’s in denial,” retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said.

“Troop frustration is growing,” especially as some soldiers head to Iraq for their second tour, said another retired four-star general who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The series of pointed questions shot at Rumsfeld reflect a consequence of the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on Guard and Reserve units to carry out the U.S. mission in Iraq. Almost 45 percent of the 130,000 Army troops in the country are drawn from the part-time components. Unlike active-duty troops, Guard and Reserve troops tend to be older and less deferential toward authority.

An Army Reserve unit already in Iraq made headlines in October when it refused to carry out a convoy mission it considered too dangerous. Eight U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait filed a lawsuit this week challenging the “stop loss” policy, which forces them to serve beyond the end of their term of enlistment.

Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, said the meeting was hardly unusual. “The range of questions was quite typical,” he said at a Pentagon briefing. “I thought it was a very standard event.”

He also said the question posed by Wilson, the Tennessee Guardsman, was misleading, in that it made it appear that soldiers are being sent into a combat zone in unarmored vehicles. Any Humvees — the military’s jeeplike light trucks — that lack armor are carried into Iraq atop flatbed trucks and, once there, are used only inside the relative safety of U.S. bases, he said.

The deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer, said, as far as he knew, every vehicle deploying to Iraq from Kuwait had at least “Level 3” armor protection — locally fabricated armor for side panels, but no 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 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.

Compiled from The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press.