The boys from Company B

By David Hackworth

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

As in the past, the platoons in Iraq are fighting upfront where it’s close, personal and always nasty. But if you get beyond a platoon command post – say, to company, battalion, brigade, division or all the way back to Gen. John Abizaid’s air-conditioned, cappuccino-serviced, computer-filled headquarters – you are in tall cotton. And the further back you go, the more luxe the living conditions. Sure, most of the folks who bring up the rear are vital to modern warfare – but when the sirens sound, they’re tucked into a maximum-security posture: in deep bunkers behind high berms, barbwire and dense security pickets.

My guess is that less than a third of the 141,000 American troops in Iraq are grunts doing death-duty drill on that devastated country’s killing fields. About 40 percent of these brave souls are part-time soldiers recently pressed into service because of the Pentagon’s negligent planning. And, unfortunately, many of these fine citizen soldiers are suffering needlessly because of poor leadership from platoon to brigade.

Five soldiers from Company B, 579th Engineer Battalion, out of the California National Guard – all of whom have asked for anonymity for “protection from people in our unit” – report as follows:

“We’ve already lost two soldiers because of bad leadership,” says Soldier No. 1. “Our leaders, mainly the officers, seem only concerned with making themselves look good. They do this by walking all over enlisted men. They’re quick to say ‘It was me’ when something goes right. However, they’re quick to blame others when something they did goes wrong.”

“Our company XO accidentally fired two grenades from a Mark 19 right in the middle of a town filled with civilians,” adds Soldier No. 2. “What the lieutenant was doing manning that weapon is beyond me. It’s normally a job for a grunt. The incident was covered up. No investigation. Nothing. Had a soldier done this he’d be in jail.”

“The company has a satellite phone, and each soldier is suppose to get 10 minutes per month to call home,” says Soldier No. 3. “But it sits there in the first sergeant’s office, and he and the company commander are the only ones who get to use it. The same is true with the company TV that’s set up in the supply sergeant’s living area for his personal use. He won’t let anyone else watch it.”

“Our leaders ask us to tell them what our problems are, and when we do, they get mad at us,” says Soldier No. 4. “They also repeatedly say they’re working on getting things fixed, but nothing happens. They also need to stop sugarcoating what they tell our families back home. The CO and first sergeant e-mail letters to the family support coordinator saying how great things are here. Why should they con our families? Our folks know everything’s not wonderful here even though they’re not told about the incoming shells and the many nights we get no more than three hours of sleep. And how we patrol and operate 18 hours a day and sometimes get only one meal a day.”

“Frequently we get patrol overlays from brigade,” says Soldier No. 5. “Most of the roads they want us to go down aren’t there or are impassable. Don’t our leaders go out and check them for accuracy? Like do reconnaissance like the good book says before sending us on foolish missions that can get people killed the way Lt. Tyson and Specialist McCaffrey were on 22 June when they were sent on such a fool mission?”

“McCaffrey always said that it was going to take someone getting hurt or killed before our leaders wake up and not run us into the ground,” says Soldier No. 5. “Now that he and the lieutenant got killed, I still see no upward learning curve from our officers.”

These warriors are members of the 81st National Guard Infantry Brigade. During their predeployment training at Forts Lewis and Irwin, I continually warned that they weren’t ready to meet the elephant, mainly because their officer leadership from platoon to brigade was incompetent.

But SecDef Donald Rumsfeld and a placid Army senior leadership have been into quantity, not quality, to fill the holes in Iraq. And as usual the kids – like the boys in Company B – are paying the hard price.