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Ignoring the Penn. Guard in Iraq

Gary Caruso | Friday, September 8, 2006

Somewhere in Indiana grieves an American family, still mourning the loss of a loved one in Iraq who served in the Guard last year. He is also missed by close comrades who include my good friend, a Pennsylvania guardsman from my hometown. The unpleasant story of this loss is one ultimately caused by a command failure within the Pentagon.

According to my friend, it is but one of many deadly command policy miscues in Iraq. The Pennsylvania guardsman recalls that last year the Indiana youth died from a wound under his arm, a vulnerable exposed area between the front and rear armor issued to him upon arrival in Iraq. This death was unnecessary, a result of a negligently chaotic U.S. military system that refused to issue any of its readily available side armor to our soldiers … that is, until this death.

My hometown of Canonsburg, Pa., is a suburban community 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Primarily a coal and steel town in the early 1900s, it was the final destination for various immigrant groups who settled in the United States. Today it maintains many ethnic enclaves as second and third generation Americans continue to love and serve America in the family traditions of their forefathers. Neighborhoods are friendly, patriotic and as broad-minded as any true melting pot society.

During the July Fourth holiday, I ventured home for the largest parade in Western Pennsylvania and activities that have been advertised as “the finest in the nation.” Our local guardsmen and women who recently returned from Iraq were prominently honored. The day’s political feature included both U.S. Senate candidates – incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and challenger Democrat Bob Casey.

I questioned my friend who had served an 18-month tour in Iraq with the guard. His firsthand account of conditions on the ground affecting our troops is a tale of travesty that would chill both supporters and dissenters of the war. His hollow stare reached well beyond me as he recalled the command’s senseless refusal to initially issue side armor to him and his fellow guardsmen. He said ironically, “And to think people here thought Cher was crazy for buying armor for us.”

Most guardsmen support the war effort as one of the supply and maintenance personnel. Initially, my friend obtained parts for his vehicular repairs by crossing the river for assistance from the Marines at their warehouse. Unfortunately, when the six-month rotation sent Marines who refused to assist the Guard, my friend resorted to buying parts on the black market. His frustrations may be typical of any war zone, yet in our modern, technologically advanced age, the command at the Pentagon should know better and foster cooperation between service branches. My guardsman friend said, “It was as though we were on different sides of the war.”

Our military spends unthinkable amounts to transport the exact vehicles with which the troops initially trained in the United States. Barring drastic equipment differences, it seems wasteful to transport each vehicle according to assignment rather than deploy them from a central overseas facility on a first-come, first-serve basis. We learned that as early as World War II when General Patton’s success only relied upon tanks, not the exact tanks his troops trained with in North America. If Guard equipment today is inferior to the regular army’s, then the United States has no hope of waging an effective war effort.

My friend also tells how he survived his 18-month ordeal by using his wits and learning from others. Yet when the Marines replaced his unit, they refused the guardsmen’s attempts to debrief and advise those Marines on what we at home might call “best practices.” The Marines – being Marines – thought of themselves as full-time warriors prepared for any situation and ignored the “part-time” guard. Ten Marines were killed during their first two days in Iraq.

In July, the headlines reported on two captured American soldiers who were subsequently tortured and killed. My friend agonizingly recited the proper technique for establishing a security checkpoint with a tank at the side, machine gun perched above and initial barricade 200 meters away. Sadly, he concluded, they were among the dozens he had seen who did not follow procedures.

Each time our military torture, rape or murder, our torch of freedom dims. Each time our troops operate outside their training norms, they lose comrades and pierce the souls of loved ones back home. Yet for each uncharacteristic military moment, the finger of blame points to the highest levels of command within the services.

If we have no seamless military among our various services, the generals are at fault. If we have such a lack of discipline that soldiers will conspire with each other to rape and kill civilian Iraqis, it is our generals’ failures. Sadly, until accountability begins at the top, the Pennsylvania guard will remain ignored in Iraq. It is a deadly tragedy that no American family should ever endure.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a politcal strategist who served as a

legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at

hottline@aol.com

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.