By Edward Lee Pitts, Military Affairs
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait -- Members of the 278th Regimental Combat Team on Wednesday brought their concerns about a lack of armor for vehicles soon heading into Iraq directly to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The 278th's Spc. Thomas "Jerry" Wilson, 31, of Ringgold, Ga., asked Mr. Rumsfeld why, after nearly two years of war, soldiers are having to scrounge for rusted metal to weld onto vehicles heading into hostile Iraq.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Spc. Wilson asked.
The roar of cheers and "hooahs" from soldiers gathered here for a question-and-answer session forced Mr. Rumsfeld to ask Spc. Wilson to repeat his inquiry. Then Mr. Rumsfeld responded that the goal of the Army remains to get as many armored vehicles as possible to the front-line troops.
"It is a matter of physics, not money," Mr. Rumsfeld said of the problem. "It is a matter of production, not desire. The Humvees (with increased armor) have been brought from all over the world in places where they are not needed to here."
The Army has begun production of new Humvees with added armor designed to protect against the deadly roadside bombs common in Iraq. Similar armor upgrades also are available for other military vehicles such as trucks and wreckers.
Mr. Rumsfeld, speaking on a platform flanked by two desert camouflaged up-armored Humvees, said he recently saw six or eight of these Humvees patrolling in Washington, D.C., helping with homeland security.
"They are not there any more," he said. "They have been moved out here, I can assure you."
Responding to other questions, Mr. Rumsfeld told the troops the situation in Iraq is an "ugly and dangerous" one.
"There is a lot not right in Iraq," he said. "That is a fact."
Mr. Rumsfeld also asked Lt. Gen. Steve Whitcomb, commander of the 3rd Army and leader of all ground forces at Central Command, to answer Spc. Wilson's question about armor. Gen. Whitcomb said it came down to logistics.
"There is nobody from the president on down that is not aware this is a problem that we are working on," he said.
However, Mr. Rumsfeld said additional armor does not mean vehicles become indestructible against some of the more powerful homemade bombs now used by the Iraqi insurgents.
"You can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and the tank can still be blown up," he said. "You go to war with the Army you have."
After the session ended, and while hundreds of troops crowded around Mr. Rumsfeld to take pictures and shake his hand, Spc. Wilson said Mr. Rumsfeld answered a lot of the questions like a politician.
"He beat around the bush a lot," Spc. Wilson said. "The secretary must be misinformed. It sounds like he's been told we are cranking out the armor and have all the vehicles we need, when actually we are digging through landfills."
Spc. Wilson said he is not worried about having to go across the border soon inside vehicles with add-on scrap metal that the members of the 278th have dubbed "hillbilly armor." But he said he is relieved now that the concerns of hundreds of troops in his regiment have been brought to the attention of one of the nation's leaders.
"I figure (the) secretary of defense is about as high as I can take it," said Spc. Wilson, who was swarmed by members of the national media traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld.
Television stations and Internet sites across the world carried the story on Wednesday.
"I didn't know it would become such a big deal," said Spc. Crook, 24, a 278th member from Chattanooga who attended the question-and-answer session. "But something needs to happen."
Spc. Jaquan Farrior, 34, a 278th member from Clarksville, Tenn., said he did not accept explanations that the lack of armor is a logistics problem. The Army has known for months the 278th was coming to Iraq, he said.
"It is a joke that doesn't make any sense," said Spc. Farrior, who did not attend the Wednesday event. "They make sure the regular Army has it, but we have to go through junkyards to find armor to save our lives. We want to come home just like they do."
Mr. Rumsfeld spent 90 minutes at Camp Buehring. He thanked more than 500 soldiers crowded into an air hangar for serving their country before opening the floor to questions. Most in attendance belonged to other units stationed at the base because troops with the Tennessee-based 278th have been busy preparing for an upcoming convoy into Iraq.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who was in the region to attend the inauguration of Afghanistan's new democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai, pointed to the success of that country's election as proof that the United States eventually will succeed in Iraq.
"There are people who look at the violence in Iraq É and they say we can't prevail," he said. "I see that violence and say, 'We must win.'"
Mr. Rumsfeld told the troops that a world where "butchers and murderers" are in control couldn't prevail.
"The great sweep of human history is for freedom," he said. "And freedom is on our side."
When asked what will happen to the U.S. forces in Iraq after the scheduled Jan. 30 elections, Mr. Rumsfeld said American soldiers "ought to be there as long as necessary and not one day longer."
The Iraqi elections should create an environment where democracy can succeed, which will lead to a reduction of U.S. forces, he predicted.
"The people in Iraq will see they have a stake in that country and begin to take greater and greater responsibility for the security of their country," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
With more than 2.5 million active, reserve and National Guard components able to be called up, Mr. Rumsfeld said the Army is not spread too thin around the globe. But he acknowledged the Army has to do a better job of making sure more soldiers are being trained to do the jobs the military most needs.
"There are elements on the force that have been stressed," he said. "Some skill capabilities have been overused."
E-mail Lee Pitts at firstname.lastname@example.org