Dec. 9, 2004 — -- It was an unusually blunt question publicly posed by a U.S. soldier, and a day after Spc. Thomas Wilson grilled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of armored vehicles in Iraq, Rumsfeld is trying to quell the firestorm over "hillbilly armor."
At Camp Buerhing in Kuwait on Wednesday, Wilson -- known as "Jerry" to family and friends -- asked Rumsfeld why the U.S. Army requires its soldiers to "dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal" to bolster armor on their vehicles.
His question was met with shouts of approval and applause from the estimated 2,300 U.S. soldiers at the "town hall" meeting at the transit camp for troops heading into Iraq.
At a news conference in India today -- his latest stop during a Middle East and south Asia trip -- Rumsfeld was once again forced to address Wilson's question. "I don't know what the facts are, but somebody certainly is going to sit down with him and find out what he knows and make sure he knows what they know that he may not know," he said.
Rumsfeld, however, maintained he was pleased to hear an ordinary soldier's complaints. "That's a good thing," he told reporters. "So, I think it's a very constructive exchange."
But the substance of the exchange -- especially Rumsfeld's response to Wilson -- was criticized by U.S. Army Reservist Paul Rieckhoff on "Good Morning America" today. Rieckhoff is the founder of Operation Truth, an advocacy group for U.S. soldiers, and a former platoon leader in Iraq.
Responding to Rumsfeld's statement that, "you can have all of the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up," Rieckhoff maintained that properly protected vehicles were critical in Iraq today.
"Mr. Rumsfeld really doesn't understand the reality on the ground that the troops are facing," said Rieckhoff. "All Rumsfeld keeps giving us is excuses. We don't want excuses. We want solutions."
As casualties in Iraq continue to mount, U.S. soldiers have been warning that trucks and transport vehicles that lack sufficient armor leave them vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
According to the Pentagon, there are 19,000 armored Humvees in Iraq -- some were built with additional armor, some had it added on later. That's 2,000 short of what commanders had requested, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said.
Some $1.2 billion has been included in the defense budget to pay for armored vehicles, Di Rita said. The Pentagon, however, admits it won't meet its own goals for fully armored Humvees until April.
Wilson, an airplane mechanic whose unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee Army National Guard, is scheduled to drive from Kuwait into Iraq, publicly aired a problem that has bedeviled the Pentagon during the U.S. occupation.
But rarely has it been so forthrightly put by a U.S. soldier in a public forum that was picked up by TV cameras and broadcast around the world.
A day after Wilson's question, his former spouse, Regina Wilson, told "Good Morning America" that she was not at all taken aback. "I wasn't surprised by his question," she said. "Because Jerry is the type of person that speaks his mind."
Wilson's comments about soldiers searching landfills for scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass sparked a controversy at Camp Buerhing, when Maj. Gen. Gary Speer told The Associated Press that he was not aware that soldiers had to scrounge for materials to armor their vehicles.
However, Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, adjutant general of the Tennessee Guard and Wilson's commander, disputed Speer's remarks. "I am surprised by General Speer's statement that he was not aware of the soldiers using scrap metal and used ballistic glass to up-armor the vehicles," he said in a written statement. "I know that members of his staff were aware and assisted the 278th in obtaining these materials."
Regina Wilson said she had complete faith in Wilson's claims. "Anybody that knows him, knows that he would never say anything if he didn't have any kind of facts to back it up," she said. "He obviously feels strongly enough about the issue to bring it to somebody so high in command that it's apparent to me that it's a real issue that he feels needs to be addressed."
For his part, Rumsfeld has given no indication that Wilson would face any kind of disciplinary action for speaking up. And speaking to reporters at the White House today, President Bush said the issue was being addressed and he indicated that he understood Wilson and his comrades' concerns.
"The concerns expressed are being addressed, and that is, we expect our troops to have the best possible equipment," he said. "And if I were a soldier overseas, wanting to defend my country, I'd want to ask the secretary of defense the same question."
Speaking on "Good Morning America" today, Regina Wilson said that while the idea of some sort of punishment did initially "cross my mind," she maintained that, "with all the media coverage, there's really not much they [the Pentagon] can do."