The U.S. Army – read active Army, National Guard and reserves – is carrying the heaviest part of the load in Iraq and will continue to be the Defense Department’s Top Gun there until the powers that be find a face-saving way out of the tar pit. Which is why this overstretched fighting force gets top priority on my Santa Wish List.

Wish No. 1 is to get rid of the M-16 rifle, which has been a disaster from the get-go. In 1963, Gen. Pat Cassidy – an old pro who led a parachute battalion into Normandy, then fought again in Korea – handed me a rifle that looked like a Mattel toy. “Test it,” he said. “Let me know if it can replace the M-14. If it does half what the Pentagon claims, it’ll be an ideal assault weapon for our paratroopers.”

When I put the rifle through its paces, firing thousands of rounds amid the dirt, mud and snow of Fort Campbell, Ky., that sucker did only one thing well: It jammed. Consistently.

I reported back to Cassidy that – as opposed to the M-14, a first cousin to the reliable M-1 rifle our soldiers packed for 20 years while punching holes in millions of Germans and Japanese, and Reds in Korea – the M-16 was a combat warrior’s biggest nightmare. Unless the rifle’s working parts were surgically clean at all times, it misfired.

Cassidy sent the jammer back to R & D and told them we’d be sticking with the M-14. But when he left the 101st Airborne Division, he was replaced by one of the forerunners of today’s Perfumed Princes. A year later, my 1/101st Brigade was ordered to Vietnam as one of the first units sent to that swamp. And along with the deployment order came instructions to swap the rugged M-14 for the M-16 widow-maker.

Everyone fought this lousy order, from the brigade commanding officer down, even though we didn’t have a prayer without a two-fisted guy like Cassidy backing us up at the Head Shed.

As anticipated, the M-16 failed miserably. From 1965 to 1973, the Pentagon’s wonder weapon was responsible for thousands of U.S. casualties in Vietnam. And after 40 years of costly modifications, it’s still a jammer the troops can’t count on in battle. Just ask our grunts in Iraq – who keep paying for it in blood and want it gone with a passion.

Wish No. 2 is to return the black beret to its rightful owners, the Army Rangers. Making it part of the uniform was the $25 million brainchild of former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. A dumb idea ordered up by a pretty smart guy. An Air Force chief did something similarly foolish when he suited his people up like commercial pilots – but at least the next chief up shot this fiasco down as soon as he took over.

Just as a rifle must be GI-proof, headgear and all other soldier stuff should always follow Frank Lloyd Wright’s rule that form follow function. Which is why black berets don’t exactly hack it in the bright sunlight in Iraq, where our warriors wear either their Kevlar pots or traditional visored field caps.

Wish No. 3 is for the Army to follow the Marine Corps’ time-tested maxim: “Anyone who wears combat boots is first a rifleman.”

When I took basic training in 1946, an officer kicked my arm until it was squarely under my piece. A bit over the top? Roger that. But so is kill-or-be-killed close combat. And from that day on, I never failed to take up a perfect firing position. As I learned from these World War II veterans, “You get it right in training or you die.”

Basic and advanced initial training have gotten progressively softer since Vietnam because of congressional interferences, politically correct senior officers, mixed-gender training and the wrongheaded belief that if a soldier isn’t a grunt, he or she doesn’t have to be a shooter and a field soldier first. Ask Jessica and her 507th mates about the consequences.

So, Santa, please do whatever you can to protect and inspire our kids in Iraq. They need all the help they can get.

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