By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Bitching about the system is as much a part of being in the military as bad food and dumb non-coms. But the longstanding complaints by National Guard soldiers in Iraq that they're always the last to get the latest battle equipment are starting to assume a deadly reality.
"They always give us the second-rate stuff," one guardsman told a United Press International reporter last week, griping about being last in line to get new bulletproof body armor. There was the small matter of being in the line of fire against Saddam's finest. Picky, picky. The new body armor, which has been routinely issued to the regular Army, is the only protection against rounds from Iraqi guerrillas' AK-47 assault rifles.
Floridians from the 124th National Guard Regiment, which has been operating in central Iraq since March, have had troubling supply problems. Members of the Miami-Dade/Broward chapter of Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar group, claim their sons and daughters in the Miami-based First Battalion of the regiment were singularly ill-prepared and ill-equipped. "The National Guard soldiers are civilians, not active members of the Army," says MFSO member Maritza Castillo, whose son, Camilo Mejia, was activated in January, three months shy of earning a degree in psychology from the University of Miami. "They have never received training for combat in the desert. We know that they lack the adequate equipment."
Tailpipe recently received a copy of an October 4 memo from the First Battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Hector Mirable, that at least partially confirms Castillo's charges. Mirable, who in civilian life is a Miami police major, was remarkably candid about the tattered uniforms of his charges, the battalion's inability to get supplies for its combat vehicles, the untenable system for resupplying the unit with ammunition, and the maddening necessity to improvise. "I can only equate what is happening here to the movie Mad Max -- Thunderdome," he wrote, addressing questions raised by Gov. Jeb Bush's staff. "We are in Bartertown and getting damn good at bartering."
He also noted some huge morale problems in his battalion, whose 650 members had expected to be home by December but whose stay in Iraq has now been extended to dates as distant as May. "If this battalion retains 40% of the force when we arrive home, it will be a miracle," he wrote. "People feel they are getting shafted by the [secretary of defense], and as much as I try to calm them down, the arrogance exhibited by our leaders on TV only compounds the situation here."
Mirable, writing to an unnamed member of Bush's staff, addressed a series of questions. Shortages of munitions? "We do have a situation with the ammunition but not as grave as the soldiers may have portrayed it," Mirable said. There were, for the moment, sufficient 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds, though no prospect for resupply.
"The compounding problem is that the ammo re-supply is the 'pull' method, where we submit our [order forms] and then make an appointment with the [logistics unit] for pickup," Mirable said. "They then give us a date to pick up parts of our requests. I cancelled our appointment for 2 October since the only thing they would provide us were star clusters and green smoke [signaling devices]. Though those items are nice to have, the risk of sending a convoy on a 4.5 hour drive to Anaconda [munitions depot] through IED alley (Highway 1 through Baghdad and north for 1.5 hours to Anaconda) is greater than the measly reward."
Concluded Mirable: "Could we use more ammo? Absolutely! Is the lack of ammo supplied to this battalion a show stopper? Not yet. Is the lack of ammo placing soldiers in a high risk category? Not yet."
What about the shabby uniforms that many National Guardsmen wear on the front lines? "The soldiers were issued only two uniforms at Ft. Stewart, GA," Mirable wrote. "We have been in theater for six months, with an extremely high [level of hostilities] and high activity which caused the two uniforms to be torn/ripped/used up."
Though the Army began to offer replacements in September, after six months in Iraq, the resupply system was again so unwieldy that it became untenable. "The soldier with a used-up uniform must turn it into the supply sergeant, who then brings it to Al Assad (2.5 hours from our location), hands it to the Regimental Supply System, and they in turn provide a new uniform," Mirable wrote. "It takes one to two weeks for the uniform to be returned to the soldier. Some soldiers decide that they do not want to turn in their uniforms, because they don't get them back fast enough and have to use only one uniform for two weeks (which gets pretty bad around here with the sweat and dirt)."
"Going on the cheap on uniforms is not helping with the morale over here."
What about trying to get new tires to replace the old ones on the battalion's Humvees? "To tell you the truth, if UPS ran their fleet the way the Army runs the repair parts in this theater they would go bankrupt. We have done everything in our power to order the tires for our Humvees with dismal results. It is not necessarily the fault of our higher headquarters but the theater-level system. We just began getting regular ply tires (which we did not order but got as a replacement), but the logistician who decided to substitute this tire for the ones we ordered failed to realize that we would need a special ring to mount these tires on our Humvees."