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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution
GIs Grumble About Leaders
By RON MARTZ
July 18, 2003
Fallujah, Iraq --- As an end to the fighting in Iraq continues to elude the Bush administration, soldiers in harm's way are beginning to openly question the president's top decision-makers, especially Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Many soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) from Fort Stewart privately express their displeasure with current policies but are reluctant to speak publicly.
They know disparaging remarks about the civilian leadership of the military could bring a career-ending reprimand or even a court-martial.
Some soldiers are speaking publicly despite the risk. Not since Vietnam have soldiers been so vocal about government policies in a conflict in which they are the targets.
"If weapons of mass destruction are found, I'd have a different feeling about this, but I'm wondering what I risked my life for," said Sgt. Daniel Pyle, 26, of Clayton, Del.
First Sgt. Jose Mercado, a 22-year veteran of the Army, said he is used to complaints from soldiers, but not expressed as openly as they have been recently.
"I've been through two wars and haven't seen anything like this before," said Mercado, 40, of Quebradillas, Puerto Rico.
From Vietnam until the current war in Iraq, the Pentagon kept the news media at arm's-length from soldiers doing the fighting. This time, the Pentagon decided to embed journalists in units going into Iraq.
A result has been a closer view of the conflict for the public. One of the unintended consequences has been that soldiers are freer about expressing their opinions in front of reporters.
The discontent of 3rd Infantry soldiers is widespread in the enlisted ranks and is even evident among junior officers. It stems from what they believe has been a string of broken promises from the military's civilian leadership regarding their redeployment from the war zone.
Members of the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade Combat Team say they have been told at least three different times they would be going home in just a few weeks, only to have their departure delayed.
The most recent promise, they say, came July 7, when Gen. John Keane, acting chief of staff of the Army, came to Fallujah to congratulate the troops and hand out awards. The awards included a Silver Star for bravery in combat for Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz of the brigade's Charlie Company, Task Force 1-64.
Soldiers say they were told by Keane they would be returning home in a few weeks.
"When a general at that level gives his word, it's like the word of God," Mercado said.
But just a few days later, Rumsfeld reneged on that promise, saying troops in Iraq would have to serve one year before redeployment.
The 2nd Brigade may have to stay at least until mid-September if that policy is carried out.
'Our professional code'
The Defense Department tried to deflect some of the criticism from Rumsfeld in a news conference Wednesday at the Pentagon with Gen. John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command.
Abizaid said he and two other generals told Rumsfeld "that it would not be prudent, in our estimation, to bring force levels down below the six division-plus equivalents that were in the country."
Currently about 160,000 coalition troops are in Iraq, about 148,000 of them Americans.
Abizaid also said soldiers were not supposed to criticize their civilian leadership.
"None of us that wear this uniform are free to say anything disparaging about the secretary of defense or the president of the United States. We're not free to do that. It's our professional code," Abizaid said. But Abizaid also said that because of the dangers soldiers face every day and the hard work they are doing, "every now and then we've got to look at our young people and understand why they said what they said and then do something about it."
Soldiers in the 3rd Infantry say they believe Rumsfeld has problems dealing with Army brass and that they are bearing the brunt of the animosity.
Mercado said he was more concerned about the families who are suffering than he is the soldiers, even though eight members of his brigade have died.
"How much sacrifice do they want us to make?" he asked. "We're not only sacrificing soldiers and time, we're sacrificing our families now."