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Ft. Bliss Training Was Poor, Members of Guard Unit Say

Times Staff Writer

Members of a second National Guard unit that prepared for duty in Iraq at the Army’s Ft. Bliss compound have come forward with allegations that they were not adequately trained.

The soldiers said in interviews, e-mails and official documents that they were sent to war this year with chronic illness, broken guns and trucks with blown transmissions.

The unit’s M-60 machine guns reportedly were in such bad condition when the soldiers deployed in February that one sergeant -- in a section of a post-training summary sent to his commanders that was titled “gun maintenance” -- wrote: “Perhaps we should throw stones?”

The allegations come a month after another National Guard unit alleged that its training at Ft. Bliss was so poor that soldiers feared incurring needlessly high casualties when they arrive in Iraq early next year.

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Although the military has defended its troop preparedness, the willingness of units to go public with allegations suggested growing concern among National Guard and reserve members.

In the summary document obtained by the Los Angeles Times, the sergeant reported that some soldiers had arrived in Iraq without ever having fired some of the weapons they would use in war. Military commanders at the Ft. Bliss complex, which straddles the Texas-New Mexico line, had misread mobilization orders, costing the soldiers a month of training, the sergeant wrote.

“We have been called away from our homes and families for hostile operations. We are owed a chance to be trained properly and given the tools to obtain that objective,” the sergeant wrote.

Ft. Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said Wednesday that the base has trained and deployed -- and in many cases redeployed -- 40,000 soldiers in the last three years.

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“We have had very few issues,” she said. “This is quite a surprise. But I understand there will always be some units who have things that they need to talk about or work on.”

Lt. Jack Gaines, a spokesman for the Army’s 91st Division, which trains soldiers at Ft. Bliss, said: “The military takes care of its people.”

He said the soldiers’ concerns appeared to be related to the changing role of the National Guard and Reserve. “Citizen soldiers” now make up about 40% of the troops in Iraq -- and shoulder a large share of the front-line combat roles.

“The preparation for combat is very strict,” Gaines said. “It’s very frustrating for a civilian soldier to go through that. But the truth is, it makes you a stronger, more disciplined person in the end, and that will keep you alive when things go bad.”

Defense officials in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The allegations last month came from members of the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, a California Army National Guard unit activated in August. The new charges are from members of Company F, 425th Infantry Battalion, a unit of the Michigan Army National Guard that is scheduled to return to the United States within two months. Company F has about 140 soldiers on its rolls.

Both units trained at desert compounds in New Mexico that are part of Texas’ Ft. Bliss Training Complex.

The document in which the sergeant summarized his unit’s training is known as an After-Action Review -- or AAR -- and is fairly common in the military. This one was widely disseminated among Company F soldiers, five of whom came forward in e-mails to say the document accurately outlined concerns shared by the entire unit. The soldiers said the document was sent to commanders at Ft. Bliss and the Pentagon.

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The document was shown to The Times on condition that the name of the sergeant, who has extensive experience in the National Guard and the active-duty armed forces, not be used.

Among the document’s allegations:

* Petty restrictions were implemented during training. For example, soldiers -- many of them professionals in their 30s -- were required to turn in their identification cards before using the restroom, “destroying our last spark of morale.”

* Because of overcrowding, illness -- including strep throat and bronchitis -- “ran rampant through the ranks.” Nurses became so familiar with the problem that they nicknamed it the “McGregor Cough,” after the McGregor Range Complex where the soldiers did most of their training.

* The soldiers learned from memos written by comrades already in Iraq that they should study hand-to-hand combat before their arrival. The soldiers began using wrestling mats in a base gymnasium to do that, but the mats were locked up without explanation a week later, despite their protests.

* Days before deployment, the soldiers signed out the vehicles they had been assigned to use in Iraq. The vehicles had been labeled “good to go.” Nearly half developed problems within 10 miles. Many had blown transmissions. Most of the trucks were not fixed until the soldiers arrived in Iraq, they said.

* Weapons training was slipshod and incomplete. Many soldiers received only enough training to “check the box” -- to fill out forms saying they were ready to deploy -- without gaining some of the skills that might be needed in Iraq.

“Accomplishing the bare minimum is not an option when my soldiers are in the game,” the sergeant wrote.

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Military analysts said that care had to be taken to distinguish between typical soldiers’ complaints and legitimate concerns about the military’s preparation for war.

“When soldiers don’t complain, I worry. That’s when you know something is wrong,” said David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. He said he was not surprised that the soldiers’ weapons needed repair after the rigorous training but that it was distressing to hear that the weapons were still poor by the time the unit had deployed.


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