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."
So the battalion's supply officer learned to barter with other units, trading commodities for tires, Mirable said. "For now we use those Humvees with slightly bald tires for close-in moves (less than two kilometers) within our [area of operation] and with an escort."
For the record, Mirable, reached by Tailpipe last week by e-mail in Iraq, now insists that the battalion's problems have all been resolved. "The supply lines in this theater of war are now mature and working well," he wrote last week. "We receive all we need and then some...Each soldier has two new uniforms with the ability to direct exchange the two old ones for new ones. Humvee parts are coming in and we are very happy with the current supply of parts, ammunition is not a problem."
He said Gov. Bush and the Florida National Guard higher-ups "were instrumental in rectifying" his supply problems.
Castillo scoffs at this. "We think his superiors probably grabbed him by the throat and told him, 'Watch out what you say,' " she says.
Feedback from soldiers in another battalion of the 124th regiment, the Third, which is from the Tallahassee area, seems to confirm this: "The Guard is called on to do the same missions as the regular Army," says Steve Sumner, a Lynn Haven funeral director whose brother-in-law is on the front lines. "But they're left pretty much to fend for themselves."
Some Third Battalion families have been pooling their resources to send supplies to relatives in Iraq. Soldiers have been asking for everything from medical supplies and tools to winter clothing, Sumner says. "They need basic stuff like penicillin and antibiotics, because a lot of guys are getting dysentery over there," he adds. "They're bathing in contaminated water. They're not getting adequate medical supplies from the Army." Nor are the Third Battalion guardsmen being issued winterized Gortex jackets like regular Army troops.
Some Third Battalion guardsmen have been using tools sent from home to jerry rig their Humvees with panels of plywood and sheet metal -- "just to give them some sort of protection" -- because Humvee armor has not been available.
Sumner adds that, despite some assistance from Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, the families have gotten little response from military authorities. "The families have gone through all of the military channels we know of to voice our concerns," he says, "and they've been met with a stonewall."
"These [the National Guard soldiers] are no longer weekend warriors," Sumner says. "They're guys at the front, and they need to be taken care of just the way the regular Army guys are."
Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, public affairs officer for the Florida National Guard, responds that most of the supply issues have been addressed. Major Gen. Douglas Burnett met with family groups throughout the state in October to address their concerns. "He had people working on the issues," Tittle says. Now, however, the Florida guardsmen "fall under the flag of the active duty Army, which provides the leadership [in combat], the supplies, and all of that."
Neither Tittle's response nor Mirabel's new religion could quite erase the earlier, no-holds-barred description of his troops' bitter disillusionment. "We understand that certain generals are telling the Congress that morale is high among the National Guard troops," he wrote then. "I can only say that hopefully they can lift their veil of ignorance. We are glad to be performing a vital mission of combating terrorists and contributing to our country's national interest, but we definitely are not happy on the lack of planning that placed us in the situation we are in at this time. Morale is not high. The stress of being [attacked with homemade bombs], ambushed, shot at, etc. daily is getting so high that you can see it in the air."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.