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Iraq isn't for tourists

Posted By David Hackworth On 12/02/2003 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

George Bush hit the mark when he visited our troops in Iraq on Turkey Day. He’s the Main Man, and his daring and dangerous trip told our warriors he cared and was with them all the way.

Commanders – and especially the commander in chief – inspire soldiers, and it’s their duty to beat feet to the front whenever they can. But not senior staff weenie wannabe-warriors back in the rear with all the gear – straphangers who are into cluttering up battlefields such as Iraq mainly for the braggin’ rights.

Such visits usually balloon into a bloody waste of commander and staff time, as the folks running the combat show are ripped away from their primary purpose of leading their units to lay on fancy briefings that inevitably involve rehearsals, pre-inspections and visits to subordinate units. We’re talking literally hundreds if not thousands of soldiers setting war-fighting aside to jump through irrelevant, costly, got-to-get-things-shaped-up hoops.

Not to mention the misuse of critical assets needed to hunt down guerrillas – helicopters and airplanes assigned to move the VIPs around, as well as the soldiers and combat gear seconded to secure the stops along the scenic route.

Staffers in every fighting division in Iraq have complained to me that there are just too many visiting firemen sashaying around Iraq these days on ego-driven trips that accomplish nothing except to put our troops at additional risk and interfere with their ability to perform critical combat jobs.

Take, for example, the November visit to Iraq of the Army’s top Pentagon lawyer, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig, accompanied by three personal staffers. According to the Pentagon, the purpose of his trip was “To assess the provision of legal services, look at integration of RC (Reserve Component) soldiers in our operations, talk with commanders, look at both traditional and nontraditional legal issues, gather lessons learned … and check on the status of our soldiers and our equipment.”

Sounds cricket. But lawyers can always figure out the right words to fit almost any agenda. Romig’s case for his trip to a guerrilla battlefield was that he had “nearly 400 JAG (legal beagles) personnel – officer, enlisted, warrant officer, both active and reserve component – in Iraq.”

With senior generals in both the Pentagon and Iraq blessing the mission, the Army’s top judge slipped on his combat gear and flew off to play at war games to the sounds of real guns.

But on Nov. 7, Romig’s combat mission turned into a nightmare when one of the two Black Hawk helicopters transporting him and his posse was blown out of the sky. Romig’s assistants Chief Warrant Officer Sharon T. Swartworth and Sgt. Maj. Cornell W. Gilmore were killed along with the entire Black Hawk crew – Capt. Benedict J. Smith, Chief Warrant Officer Kyran E. Kennnedy and Sgts. Paul M. Neff and Scott C. Rose.

The deaths of these fine soldiers demand answers to the following questions:

  • Was this trip necessary, and who exactly approved it at the Pentagon and in Iraq?

  • Why was the helicopter that got shot down flying in a straight line at an altitude of about 250 feet over an area known to harbor rocket-toting guerrillas?

  • Why did Romig require two Black Hawks for his party of four when one can carry 10 combat-loaded grunts?

When a Pentagon staffer tried to equivocate and told me it was “to spread the risk,” I couldn’t help laughing out loud.

“Spread the risk, my butt,” I told him. “And stop trying to BS me. The second chopper had a warrant officer and a sergeant on board, not two more generals.”

Then I told him what I’d already heard from my sources – that “the general required two choppers because he and his staff had so much baggage.”

Well, my bet is Maj. Gen. Romig will be toting the baggage from this disaster for the rest of his life. After all, he and the generals who approved his boondoggle – and who should know better – are responsible for six soldiers dying.

Iraq isn’t a Disneyland Middle East fun destination for high-ranking tourists looking to play paint ball.

As George Bush reminded us on Thanksgiving by the extremely cautious way in which he went about his rightful duty, Iraq is presently one of the most perilous places in the world.


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