In The Rear With Broken Gear

We depend on our troops to protect our shores—shouldn’t our troops be able to depend on their weapons? A look at 11 deaths attributed to bad equipment.

Eleven soldiers were killed when the 507th Maintenance Company came under attack on the road to Baghdad on March 23, 2003. Among the reasons for both the deaths and the command decision to surrender the survivors: the company’s weapons began jamming, en masse. The official army report on the matter says, ‘malfunctions may have resulted from inadequate individual maintenance.’ One of the 507th’s widows, Nancili Mata, puts this into plain English: ‘They are blaming the soldiers for not keeping their weapons clean.’

Mata finds this insulting, ridiculous, as does anyone who’s spent any time in the active-duty army. Nothing matters more to a soldier—whether an infantryman, medic, or clerk—than a clean weapon. Especially a soldier about to go ‘down range’ into a combat zone, a soldier whose life depends on that weapon. If you have a choice between breakfast or checking your rifle one more time, you skip the MRE and squirt some more oil into your M-16. This is instilled training, and common-sense survival; you could see maybe one or two idiots, perhaps—but a whole company, deep in the battle on the road to Baghdad, somehow forgetting to clean their weapons?

The El Paso Times, sniffing a world of wrong in the initial army report, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the paperwork on the company’s weapons. It seems, however, that all information on the age, manufacturer, and condition of the malfunctioning weapons has been lost.

No one who has ever served in an army support unit needs to see that paperwork, though. It is a myth that the government spares no expense to equip and train American soldiers. The first thing to know is what a good drill sergeant will tell you in basic training: ‘Never forget that your weapon was designed and manufactured by the lowest bidder.’ The second thing to know is when a Pentagon spokesman says something like, ‘all troops are completely and properly equipped’ by ‘all troops’ he means the cool Special Forces team that just put on a neat little bang-bang show down at the Ft. Bragg Officers Club.


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I served in the U.S. Army’s small boat field, nicknamed the Waterborne. The army’s boats fall under the command of the Transportation Corps—not one of the ‘combat arms’ (infantry, armor, etc.), so by definition a ‘combat-support’ unit. Like, for instance, the 507th Maintenance Company.

But in Haiti, our army boat (the LSV-1) had its ramp on the pier in the first hours of the operation’s first day, staring into the maw of Port-au-Prince while most of 10th Mountain Division was still on an offshore aircraft carrier. And in Kismaayo, Somalia (with the 710th Provisional Boat Company), there was no front line—or any kind of line—at all. When you stepped from your tent you were in it; whether on a mike boat 20 miles down the coast from the nearest American infantry company or simply riding in a truck going from point A to point B—just like the 507th Maintenance Company.

In Korea, in Vietnam, the story was the same: supplies had to arrive, generators had to be fixed, radios had to be monitored, mobile hospitals had to move. And if the truck racing to make all this happen broke down or came under attack—like the trucks of the 507th Maintenance Company—the sergeant driving and the PFC mechanic next to him had to hope their M-16 rifles weren’t too old, too used, too weak, or just plain too fucked-up to fire.

With all the U.S. Army’s recent rethinking and retooling, it still equips its soldiers as if we were fighting on a World War II—or Civil War—era battlefield After the first Gulf War, friends of mine contracted serious, documented Gulf War Syndrome symptoms without ever setting foot in Iraq. They spent the war on the coast of Saudi Arabia. But every night during the campaign, American Patriot missiles blew up Iraqi Scuds directly over their heads. And how did these fine soldiers protect themselves against the falling chemicals? Used, useless, only-for-training chemical protection gear. They had been in-theater for more than four months and still hadn’t received the basics for survival.

I deployed twice in four years—both times with plenty of warning, both times with training gear that would have offered me zero protection against a chemical attack, and an M-16 rifle probably older than me. With all the U.S. Army’s recent rethinking and retooling, it still equips its soldiers as if we were fighting on a World War II—or Civil War—era battlefield: with the support and combat-support troops scrambling to find working equipment.

Sixty-some years after the Battle of the Bulge was fought by cooks and clerks the Pentagon planners still haven’t realized that there is no rear anymore—on the modern battlefield, urban and guerilla, it doesn’t exist. The ‘rear’ is a 19th-Century abstraction embraced by bureaucrats to justify lowered standards. But you just can’t shrug about the budget and poorly equip a ‘rear-echelon soldier’; these days, the only rear-echelon soldiers are the ones who never leave the United States.

The old expression is that an army runs on its stomach. More, it runs on diesel and a properly tuned engine. The army put the mechanics of the 507th Maintenance Company toward the lead of the devastating order-of-battle for the invasion of Iraq because it absolutely needed them on the front lines. But what the 507th absolutely needed for their own basic survival was new, functioning weapons. The men and women of the 507th stood up when their commander called, but the Pentagon equipped them like third-rate soldiers.