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Rumsfeld Handles Tough Questions at Town Hall Meeting

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2004 – Some soldiers headed for duty in Iraq took the secretary of defense at his word in Kuwait today when he encouraged them to ask him tough questions at a town-hall meeting.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was in Kuwait to visit U.S. troops at Camp Buehring, a military compound about 40 miles south of the Iraq border. The camp is a staging area where troops headed for Iraq receive training on tactical convoy operations.

In his opening remarks, Rumsfeld told the troops that the American people "are deeply grateful" for their efforts and that they were doing "a superb job." The secretary also noted that local maintenance soldiers had fitted "some 6,000 vehicles" with supplemental armor.

After his remarks, Rumsfeld encouraged the troops to ask "tough questions" in the question-and-answer session to follow.

Rumsfeld first fielded questions on troop rotation issues, noting U.S. military forces would stay in Iraq "as long as necessary, but not one day longer."

Conditions on the ground, Rumsfeld said, will ultimately determine how long American troops remain in Iraq. The upcoming elections in January, he added, should convince Iraqis "they have a stake in the future" of their country.

Rumsfeld said the Iraqi government will begin to assume additional responsibility for security matters, eventually obviating the need for American and coalition forces.

Spc. Thomas Wilson then asked Rumsfeld why soldiers in Kuwait awaiting deployment into Iraq "have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles? And why don't we have those resources readily available to us?" Following Wilson's question, applause erupted among the 2,000 or so troops attending the event.

Rumsfeld replied that senior military leaders have told him that all efforts are being made to acquire and increase production of supplemental vehicle armor kits.

Acquiring more up-armored kits for military vehicles destined for service in Iraq isn't a matter of funding, the secretary noted, but a question of production and capability.

"You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want, or wish to have, at a later time," Rumsfeld pointed out.

Since Iraq war began "the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary," the secretary said, "at a rate that they believe - it's a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously - but, at a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment."

Senior Army leaders, Rumsfeld said, "are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that it would be desirable for it to have" and are working the vehicle armor issue "at a good clip."

Even armored vehicles, Rumsfeld pointed out, don't guarantee troop safety from enemy attacks. "You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up," Rumsfeld observed, noting that up-armored Humvees, too, are vulnerable.

"The goal we have," the secretary said, "is to have as many of those vehicles as is humanly possible with the appropriate level of armor available for the troops."

Even some up-armored military Humvees previously used for security duties around Washington, D.C., have been deployed for duty in Iraq, he noted.

Rumsfeld then described his Dec. 7 visit to Afghanistan to witness the inauguration of newly elected President Hamid Karzai.

"It was a breathtaking, thrilling moment to be there," the secretary said, noting he'd been told that thousands of Afghans had braved Taliban threats to cast their votes. "That says something about the power of freedom," he added.

U.S. military members who have helped to unseat a vicious dictator and continue to fight to establish a free, democratic Iraq believe in their mission, Rumsfeld said. "I can tell you they're of proud of what they've been doing, they know what they're doing is important, they believe in what they're doing, (and) their families believe in what they're doing," the secretary said.

Saddam Hussein's killing fields and mass graves, he added, have given way to 25 million Iraqis having renewed hope in the form of reopened schools, clinics and hospitals, and rejuvenated commerce, Rumsfeld noted.

Handling other questions, Rumsfeld said efforts are being made to ensure that troops likely to be going into combat in Iraq whether active, Guard and Reserve -- receive the newest equipment.

A military chaplain asked the secretary if he'd take the assembled troops on his aircraft and fly them to Disneyland. After a cascade of soldiers' cheers and applause, Rumsfeld replied, "The answer is sorry; we've got more important things for you to do. And we appreciate it."

Another soldier, from Pennsylvania, asked Rumsfeld if Pittsburgh Steelers' fans deployed in Iraq and other Middle East locales would be able to watch their team win the Super Bowl on television. "I can't answer the question about outcomes," the secretary replied, "but you'll have access to the television. You're going to have to figure out a way to encourage" the Steelers to get to the Super Bowl, he added.

An Army lieutenant colonel asked Rumsfeld if he could help 150 deployed soldiers get paid thousands of dollars of travel pay they've been owed since July, which has caused their families financial duress. Rumsfeld asked military officials to obtain details about the soldiers' pay situation.

"That's just not right," Rumsfeld said, noting "folks who've earned money and are due money ought to be able to get the money and they ought not have to put their families under stress while they're waiting for the money."

A soldier from Fort Bragg, N.C., asked Rumsfeld how much longer the military would use the "stop-loss" program to help maintain overseas troop strength. Stop-loss requires some volunteer military members to serve beyond originally agreed-to lengths of service.

The military has used stop-loss for years, Rumsfeld said, noting it "is something that you'd prefer not to have to use in a perfect world." However, he said, stop-loss maintains unit cohesion, a valuable commodity in wartime.

"It will continue to be used," the secretary said.

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

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