WASHINGTON -- Army Reserve and National Guard troops getting shot at in Iraq sometimes wait for new bulletproof body armor while active duty Army soldiers get it first, according to Reserve and Guard soldiers.
Waiting for Interceptor body armor adds to concern among Reserve and Guard troops that they are treated like second-class citizens, even when it comes to lifesaving equipment. They say the treatment is unfair because enemy bullets make no distinction between Reserve and active duty.
Army Spokesman Major Gary Tallman said the Army does not intend to discriminate against Reserve troops as it hurries to hand out body armor. "That is not the intent or the philosophy," Tallman said. He said he is not familiar with the specifics of how the armor -- vests with bullet-proof ceramic plates front and back -- is being handed out.
The perceived discrepancy of treatment between active and Reserve troops includes access to medical care. United Press International reported last month that more than 1,000 troops have been waiting weeks and months to see doctors at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky. At Fort Stewart, many of the soldiers who served in Iraq were housed in aging concrete barracks without running water or air conditioning.
The perception by Guard and Reserve troops that they get the short end of the stick is driving experienced soldiers out of military service, according to dozens of interviews with National Guard and Army Reserve troops.
"They always give us the second-rate stuff. The regular Army has gone to the Interceptor body armor," said a soldier serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Tennessee National Guard's 1175th Transportation Company. "Naturally, the regular Army got it first." Like all the soldiers interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he fears retaliation.
The 1175th has served in Operation Iraqi Freedom for more than seven months. Just in the past few days, the unit began to get the first removable ceramic plates that go in the front and back of the Interceptor vests that are capable of stopping a 7.62 caliber round from an AK-47 assault rifle -- the weapon of choice by the enemy in Iraq. "We still don't have enough," the soldier said.
The unit has driven more than 1 million miles delivering supplies from Kuwait to Iraq. The last 40 miles into Baghdad are particularly dicey, and convoys have been shot at with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades and targeted with roadside bombs.
With two decades of service, that soldier said the disparate treatment would drive him out.
"This is just normal for the regular Army. They take care of themselves first," he said. "After this (service), I've had it. I'm out."
The Iraq war started with the Army issuing the body armor only to "the dismounted fighting soldier," but in June it decided to hand it out to all the troops when it became clear that there was no front line. That meant the Army suddenly needed 80,000 more pieces of body armor. The Army said it is now manufacturing body armor at maximum capacity of 25,000 units per month.
Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the Army would have body armor on every soldier in Operation Iraqi Freedom by the end of December.
"We see active duty Army and coalition forces with the new-style 'Interceptor' body armor," said a soldier serving in Iraq with the Army Reserve's 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion. The unit has been serving in Iraq since March, including the Sunni triangle, a dangerous stronghold of loyalists to ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"We also see units returning home that don't turn in their body armor over to soldiers needing it here. In fact, our coalition partners -- Polish, Spanish, Hungarian, Latvian, Ukranian, Italian, Mongolian, Dominicans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Koreans -- all have new body armor," the soldier said. He said some of it is coming from the U.S. military.
"Since March, members of this unit have been fired on with AK-47s, mortars, RPGs, rockets, missiles and have also been involved in mine strikes," the soldier said. "We currently have flak vests that don't stop any type of handgun, much less an AK-47 round. About 60 of my soldiers need this protection."
Some soldiers in the 323rd bought concealable ballistic vests with their own money before leaving for Iraq, at a cost of $1,000. The unit got another six vests from Special Forces units. Other reserve soldiers have fashioned metal plates to make up for the lack of ceramic plates.
The soldier in the 323rd said the unit expects to get body armor sometime in January.
In a Thanksgiving newsletter to families, Lt. Col. Tim Dunn, battalion commander of the 323rd, told family members that "work to obtain ballistic body armor for the battalion continues. ... The ballistic plates should be available from brigade on 15 December 2003. However, the number of plates available on 15 December 2003 may be limited. At the least, I expect to have enough plates to issue to the Tactical Team members who are most often in harm's way."
The perceived discrepancy of treatment between active and Reserve troops includes access to medical care. United Press International reported last month that more than 1,000 troops have been waiting weeks and months to see doctors at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky. At Fort Stewart, many of the soldiers who served in Iraq were housed in aging concrete barracks without running water or air conditioning. The Army has scrambled to improve the living conditions.
Many soldiers interviewed at those bases said they thought regular Army soldiers had better housing and access to medical care, which the Pentagon denied.
Last month, co-chairs of the U.S. Senate National Guard Caucus Sens. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked the General Accounting Office to investigate a possible discrepancy in housing and medical care. "A sizeable share of the soldiers interviewed perceived that the quality of care they were receiving was not the same as the care provided the traditional active duty soldier," the pair wrote to the GAO, which is Congress' investigative arm.
The perception of unfair treatment comes at a vexing time for the Army. Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker told a Senate panel last month that by early next year, 40 percent of the troops in Iraq would be from the Guard or Reserve.
The Boston Globe reported late last month that the U.S. Army fell short of its re-enlistment goals this fiscal year, "largely the result of a larger than expected exodus of career Reservists, a loss of valuable skills because such staff members are responsible for training junior officers and operating complex weapons systems."
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