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Pentagon still failing to protect the troops

THE THREE of us first met in November 2003 at Arlington National Cemetery when PFC John Hart was buried after being killed in an ambush of his unarmored Humvee in northern Iraq. We discussed the armor issue and how to resolve it, and we've been working together ever since to get the troops what they need as quickly as possible.

Unarmored Humvees had first come to our attention in August 2003 when Massachusetts soldiers serving in the Rhode Island National Guard were killed by roadside bombs called IEDs -- "improvised explosive devices." Our troops quickly learned that improvised armor protection was not effective against these improvised explosives. Soon we began seeing reports of anxious parents buying body armor, and even vehicle armor, and mailing it to their sons and daughters in a desperate effort to fill the gap.

So when Specialist Thomas Jerry Wilson questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Kuwait in December about why soldiers had to dig through landfills to find scrap metal to protect their Humvees, he was asking a question that should have been answered many months ago, when it first became clear that our troops were being sent out on patrol in inadequately armored vehicles.

Though media attention quickly fades, the problem isn't going away, and neither are the casualties.

We've heard from soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital who filled their Humvees with sandbags to protect themselves, only to lose their right legs because the one area that couldn't be protected was under the brake pedal and accelerator. Many soldiers hung flak vests inside their Humvee cab to provide greater protection than the thin canvas sides and tops on the standard vehicle. Families across the country have told heartbreaking stories of similar desperation to many members of Congress, expressing their righteous outrage that their sons and daughters had been reduced to scavenging in local dumps for what they called "hillbilly armor" to try to save their lives.

In congressional hearings, we repeatedly asked about ordering additional armored vehicles and adding protective armor to existing equipment. Generals, industry leaders, soldiers, Marines, and military families all told us that the need for greater protection was obvious, but the Pentagon procurement practices failed to respond by issuing timely purchase orders for such production. Month after month, the orders were not placed although the funds were available.

Rumsfeld's comment that "you go to war with the Army you have" was particularly outrageous because he had had so many months to get it right. It's as if the same mentality that predicted the war would be a cakewalk expected the insurgency to collapse tomorrow, and that it would be a waste of funds to beef up production lines to obtain additional armor. The result has been an unconscionable waste of lives.

Wilson's question and the heartfelt cheers of the troops that greeted it catalyzed the concern felt across the country. Responding to the public outcry, the Pentagon raised production by 20 percent a month -- but still did not increase the overall number of up-armored Humvees ordered. Consequently at the end of May, the manufacturing plants will wind down, unless additional orders are placed. We are deeply concerned that without timely additional purchase orders, our soldiers and Marines will still not get the armor they need in this grim conflict.

The insurgents are adapting their tactics to attack military trucks because few of our military trucks have any armor. They detonate roadside bombs by radio signals as well as by hard wires. The Army has armor kits that can be bolted onto trucks, and jammers that can prevent insurgents from detonating bombs, but the armor kits and the jammers are not getting to the field quickly enough. Nearly half of our military trucks in Iraq and Kuwait have no armor. An estimated $450 million is needed for additional vehicular armor contracts alone. Incredibly, the Pentagon hasn't even asked Congress for the funds. Shortages of jamming devices and armor needlessly expose our troops to harm.

No blizzard of Pentagon press releases can paper over the reality of the need. It shouldn't take another Specialist Wilson or further funerals to bring full attention to these problems. The number one priority of the Department of Defense this year should be to supply our troops with all the protection they need to get their job done and return safely home.

Edward M. Kennedy is a US senator from Massachusetts. Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford are the parents of Private John Hart. 

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