- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

U.S. soldiers fighting a hunt-and-destroy war against Saddam Hussein loyalists say the Army is not doing enough to provide them better food, mail service and living conditions in Iraq.

The infantrymen say they realize the Army’s 5th Corps has launched major combat sweeps of towns west, north and east of Baghdad. Living conditions for soldiers under those conditions is always austere. But they say the Army could make improvements for units not in combat and ones resting up for the next raid.

“The 101st is burned out, plain and simple,” one officer, in an e-mail, said of the airborne division operating in northern Iraq.

An Army official at the Pentagon said they were aware of the problems with quality of life. The official said acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee was briefed yesterday on a comprehensive plan to improve daily life by shipping in facilities for showers, recreation and food preparation.

Army officials said in interviews that ongoing hostilities have made it difficult to bring in more permanent structures.

A major complaint is food quality. Soldiers lived on vacuum-packed meals ready to eat (MREs) during major combat operations. They say that in the two months since Baghdad fell, there has been little improvement. Few units receive hot meals, although the Army has mobile facilities that can transport and heat up precooked meals.

“Soldiers believe that the most powerful military in the world could provide more food variety and food supplements if a higher priority was given to soldiers,” said a 5th Corps officer.

The 5th Corps is headquartered near Baghdad’s international airport. The Corps is comprised of the 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions and the 1st Armored Division.

“They were willing to eat two MREs a day during combat, but they can’t understand that now that ammo doesn’t need to be hauled from the rear to the front, that food couldn’t be hauled up instead,” the officer said.

Soldiers say mail delivery is slow at best. Those field PX stores that have opened often feature empty shelves.

“Many soldiers have their T-shirts, socks and drawers wearing out after four months in country. Most lack access to field PXs and therefore even if the items were on the shelves, they could not replenish their requirements,” the officer said.

Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Army Personnel Command, said the military has chartered 747 jets to clear up the mail backlog.

“Unfortunately, some of the troops are moving, and you have to catch up with them,” she said. “It’s certainly not a perfect situation. The [Army] mail companies are working 24-hour operations to get mail out there. … Mail is definitely a morale booster.”

Army Col. Mark Storer of the Defense Department’s Military Postal Service Agency said deliveries should pick up once Baghdad’s airport is able to accommodate more cargo flights. “We certainly hope the service improves as the area continues to stabilize,” he said.

In central Iraq’s searing 120-degree heat, solders sleep in stuffy tents, in their vehicles or on the ground. Promised air-conditioned tents are slow in arriving.

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the extended combat is not degrading readiness. In a press conference Friday, he declined to say when Army units might be rotated out.

“I have units that have been over here far longer than 90 days. My own headquarters has been over here on and off for two years, through both Afghanistan and Iraqi operations,” he said. “I’m not worried about our units and our soldiers losing their combat edge. Their leadership will make sure that that does not happen.

“There does become a point in time where the equipment needs to be pulled out and regenerated, maintained. And there is a time where forces need to be rotated. We do have plans, but they’re all conditions-based. It depends on what the enemy does.”

A second Army official at the Pentagon said that because the 5th Corps’ operating area is still a war zone, it is difficult to ship in permanent improvements.

“It’s still a little volatile over there,” said the official. “They can’t go in and set up permanent things until it stabilizes a little bit.”

There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Marines are working in the south, where the Shi’ite population was generally anti-Saddam and has not mounted a resistance movement.

The Marine commandant has said the last Marine may leave Iraq by August. The Bush administration is trying to line up commitments from allies to send peacekeepers to Iraq, possibly to relieve the Marines and some Army forces.

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