The 81st Brigade is rated as a combat-ready fighting outfit. But when it came time for this federally activated Washington state National Guard unit to ship out to Iraq, the high brass ruled that it was nowhere near ready to rock ‘n’ roll down where the bullets fly and people die. The brigade’s foxholes, in one of the most vicious contemporary killing fields in the world, were filled instead by regular units from the combat-worn 82nd Airborne.
Wait a minute! Isn’t the 81st one of the U.S. Army’s 13 “enhanced” National Guard brigades? Haven’t millions of dollars and platoons of our best-and-brightest regular officers and noncoms been detailed to these special brigades for almost a decade in yet another ill-conceived Pentagon scheme to try to turn part-time citizen soldiers – who drill an average of 40 days a year – into full-time centurions?
When the 81st deployed last year for annual training, its skipper reported that the brigade was all-the-way combat-ready-to-go, with 100 percent personnel. Except that when it was activated last November to play hardball down where the body bags are filled, the brigade’s strength and deployment status had mysteriously plummeted to the low 80s.
Brigade soldiers report that at least another 10 percent of their comrades are now not deployable overseas because of past injuries, bad teeth, failure to qualify with their individual weapons – even after three trips to the firing range and with scores “improved” by instructors – or the inability of some of the brigade soldiers to wear a flak jacket or a helmet, let alone pack a 7-pound rifle.
One company had every senior sergeant fall out during a two-mile run, and in another line unit, troopers had to be “carried off on stretchers” halfway through a training exercise. Yet these unfit soldiers – who’d be guerrilla bait on the actual battlefield – are still on the good-to-go-to-Iraq list.
All of which sounds like another case of virtual reality: books being cooked with Ghost Soldiers who show up only on paper and readiness stats sharpened with a pencil rather than actual sweat on training fields. A drill that’s sadly – and dangerously – become all too standard in many regular, Reserve and Guard units.
Most of the soldiers in the 81st are good troopers. But it’s impossible to take a conventional Guard combat unit, which trains no more than a month and a half a year, and expect it to be fighting fit after a mere few months of accelerated combat training. Desert Storm and the pre-emptive war in Iraq proved that even our regulars could have used more training before crossing the Line of Departure.
But strong and experienced leadership, from squad level up to those sporting stars, is also crucial to success in combat. So while the 81st Brigade general is no doubt a smart guy – he’s got a master’s degree in criminology, apparently a key asset for commanding a 4,600-strong armor-motorized brigade these days – it’s relevant that he’s never commanded a combat unit on active duty. Unfortunately, Brig. Gen. Oscar B. Hilman’s active-duty experience was more than 30 years ago as an enlisted finance clerk and a medic. Resume-wise, he probably weighs in on a good day at a tad below a regular lieutenant.
Would you like this man to lead your kid through the Sunni Triangle’s bloody maze? Would you allow a doctor who practiced only a few months a year and had never slit open a belly to take out your son’s or daughter’s appendix?
Reserve and Guard soldiers make up about 30 percent of the casualties in Iraq. They probably were rushed to the Middle East before they were ready for Freddy because a bunch of Pentagon clowns didn’t get that quality wins fights, not quantity.
SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, reputedly a hard-nosed efficiency expert, needs to determine whether Pentagon pork to states such as Washington is worth putting fine kids in the middle of a red-hot frying pan when they’re far from ready. He should also ask why a regular parachute unit is now doing double combat duty because the 81st wasn’t up to snuff.
Hopefully, Rummy will conclude that one regular Army brigade is better and more cost-effective than 10 so-called enhanced brigades.