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Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Father's Story: Donald Rumsfeld and the Families of the 172nd Stryker Brigade - by Rich Moniak

During a sunny Saturday afternoon, about 800 people gathered in the gymnasium at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska on August 26, 2006 for a one hour meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Almost all were family members of soldiers in the 172nd Stryker Brigade. Our obvious concern was the drawn out deployment of our loved ones, still in Iraq after their one year tour was extended at the last minute.

Rumsfeld was in Fairbanks for the weekend. On Sunday he participated in the dedication of a memorial for the World War II lend lease program, the primary reason for his visit. The families, given a mere hour, came second behind trying to project an image of a respected leader.

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The wounds of disappointment were still evident as soon as we arrived on base. Along a quarter mile on the road just beyond the main entrance, dozens of colorful welcome home signs clung sadly to a chain link fence. Many were personal greetings, a soldier's name spelled out as if seeing it on the banner could somehow bring him closer to the heart of the woman who missed him. Others expressed the obvious pride the collective family felt for the soldiers who were not only gone for so long, but stood tall among the daily dangers in faraway land. Like the spouses who hung them, the signs themselves didn't know why they were denied their day of celebration.

There was no ID screening of the audience as we entered the gym. The crowd filled the folding chairs spread out across the gym floor, then overflowed to the wooden bench grandstands on both sides.

The vast majority of the audience appeared to be wives. More than a few had children with them. Scattered among them were some older faces like mine, obviously parents or grandparents. Our needs were less personal than the wives, many with daily lives like a single mom but the added anxiety from the need to explain to a child that Dad was going to come home someday. A vague someday.

I was with Jennifer Davis, whose husband serves in the 172nd Stryker Brigade. We had driven 300 plus miles from Anchorage the night before, after my 1-1/2 hour flight from Juneau got in. We sat with Diane Benson, whose son lost his legs a year ago after a similar type of stop/loss holdover. We all met through the organization Military Families Speaks Out.

Reporters were expressly denied access by those hosting the meeting. Either the local military command, or Rumsfeld himself, made the decision and informed the news media before-hand that they would be barred from the building. So there were no reporters near the stage waiting with microphones to record for the nation how our Secretary of Defense would respond to the families whose lives he insensitively turned inside out. And no cameras for TV News stories. The photo op was Sunday.

A civilian administrator spoke first, explaining the house-keeping rules for the meeting. He introduced Colonel Dennis Dingle who set the underlying tone that seemed to subtly echo prior direction, telling the audience not to embarrass their soldiers. Only those who he had spoken with before might have understood what he implied after that, telling them they could ask difficult questions. How difficult? And what consequences were explicitly or otherwise implied in more private meetings between the brass and family members.

Photographs and video recordings were permitted. Many were brought out, and a few women moved to find better filming opportunities in the grandstand. I stayed out on the floor, nervously ready with my question, but hoping for a chance to speak. Diane had prepared one too, hoping to ask him if the draft was next.

Rumsfeld received generous applause when he was introduced. He told the audience he would explain the best he could the events that unfolded in the days leading up to the redeployment decision, then he would take the questions.

With smiles and a light hearted tone, he began with trivial observations, very much in command of the public persona that won the cheap affection of reporters around the country during the campaign in Afghanistan and the early stages of the war in Iraq. Then he shifted to his impressions of the highlights born from the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

He touted the efforts of the fledging Iraqi democracy as working diligently with our government. He touched upon the plans Iraqis have developed for a national reconciliation among the three primary religious sects.

Missing from this segment of his speech was the fact that during President Bush's visit to Iraq in June, President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi requested a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign forces. Missing were claims of the "free" Iraqi government expressed by their national security advisor that "the removal of foreign troops will legitimize Iraq's government in the eyes of its people". Missing was the fact that the 28 point plan presented by "free" Iraqi government was reduced to 24 points as they bowed to the will of the occupying nation.

Rumsfeld moved from the bigger picture of the mission to the personal issue on the minds of his audience. He gave a highly complimentary account of past successes that placed the Strykers on a tall pedestal of dedication to duty and success in their mission in Mosul. He offered positive news that the Strykers and Iraqi troops mobilized to Baghdad have significantly reduced the violence there in the brief time they've been on the ground.

Then his voice settled into a less charismatic level as he explained why the 172nd Stryker Brigade was denied the trip home that they were due. He portrayed that decision as being made only after careful consideration of a late developing need to address the rising sectarian violence in Baghdad. He admitted the difficulty of this mission given that our military is trained to fight armies of another nation, not terrorists or "insurgents" loosely formed around fanatical Islamic fundamentalists.

Then, in the classical manner that defines the weak heart of this administration that is afraid of losing control, he turned the fear card the other way, toward the families. The anniversary of September 11 was approaching. "I know that the people in this room all feel a sense of urgency. The thought of another September 11th, or a September 11th times 2 or 4 is not something anyone wants to contemplate...The fight has to be taken to the terrorists." He promised that when we look back in five, ten, fifteen years from now, the nation will recognize the worthiness of this cause.

Possibly hoping the fear he spoke to would tame the braver people in the audience ready to challenge him, he asked for questions. The first woman who spoke wanted her husband to get a vacation because this deployment extended his stay in Iraq from nine months to over a year, the magic number qualifying for time off. "He oughtta get it", Rumsfeld quickly answered with a smile followed by applause.

Next he was asked if he could guarantee that another brigade was being prepared so that if their mission wasn't complete in 120 days, the 172nd would be replaced and not extended again. Thunderous applause and foot stomping followed. Rumsfeld tried to diffuse the energy with humor, declaring his questioner hit one "out of the park". Then he proceeded with caution, failing to guarantee these people desperate to hear the certainty that it wouldn't happen again. The man in charge of the entire military role in the occupation could do no better than say he'd do everything possible to make sure they came home before Christmas. Why this effort had not yet been an order given with force to his subordinates didn't escape the crowd that responded with little to no applause.

Another difficult question was more of a courageous demand. Some of the brigade is without sufficient water resources to properly shower, a soldier's wife told him, and that was unacceptable. The audience again erupted. "A home run with the bases loaded" said the Secretary. He told her "we will find out what's going on and try to fix it". But the woman felt a need to reiterate the necessity to address this problem, revealing a lack of trust for the integrity of his word.

There was one more challenge to the rosy and hopeful picture that Rumsfeld tried to paint. Why, if the Strykers were there for their expertise, were they instead performing basic infantry functions clearing homes in the city?

Here Rumsfeld wandered around as if searching for an excuse for not knowing the answer, then placed the rhetoric of success in training Iraqi troops in contradiction to the necessity for the redeployment. "I could be wrong, but I would hope, that the actual task of house clearing, which is going on in Baghdad is being done at 95% by Iraqis, not by Americans."

It was the issue I wanted to challenge him on. How critical could the redeployment be with that kind of help from the new Iraqi soldiers? How could he have credited the Strykers as contributing to significantly reducing the violence in Baghdad if the Iraqi presence was that high? Why indeed was the 172nd needed in Baghdad? It doesn't add up. As his qualifier suggests, was he wrong? Or he been misleading us all along on the entire issue of training Iraqis that we always hear about?

About halfway through the meeting, Diane set aside her note pad and said "This is what he needs to hear, from the wives." Maybe she sensed my disappointment, but she certainly understood my feelings when she said "And from you too."

Rumsfeld took only 4 or 5 other questions. Some were of a personal nature. A few women made statements expressing unquestioning gratitude to the brass on base all the way up the chain. Only one person who spoke wasn't the wife of a soldier in the 172nd. A 12-year old quietly asked why her dad was in Iraq.

There were a few hands of other family members waving in the air. None of us were selected. But I also had a letter that Jennifer delivered with 5 others from wives who couldn't attend.

Rumsfeld played the charm card well, and America loves its actors. Donald Rumsfeld made himself a household name with a quick wit and smiling personality in the many press conferences he held during the days everything was going well.

The audience here was more difficult though than a room full of reporters competing to write stories of battles won. To them it was a job, whereas the war was personal to every person in this room, and the redeployment was not a story of success. We don't go home after the story is written. We are living a piece of the administration's failure every day.

The wives of the soldiers in the 172nd deserved their chance to question the Secretary. Still, the gymnasium was a friendly venue for him. Like all stage acts, it's easy to play the lead role when one believes the audience is not a room full of public movie critics professionally judging the performance and anxious to tell the world if he bombed.

After the meeting we attended a press conference organized by Military Families Speak Out. Several reporters from the national beat came, and we gave them the story our government wanted to deny them a chance to report on. We played a video tape of the meeting. It wasn't personal and private. That was a cheap and easy excuse to deny the press the freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.

Mr. Rumsfeld often speaks about the risks of cutting and running. That too is simple rhetoric to control the message and demonize those opposed to the administration's aggressive policies. But our civilian military leader practices the cut and run strategy every time he cuts short the list of venues he will speak at as he runs from the American public.

The rest of America deserves the chance to question our Secretary of Defense. I challenge Mr. Rumsfeld to stand before some his harshest critics, maybe a tenth the size of this audience, with the press present. There are a lot of real questions waiting, and all those who passionately oppose this war are Americans too. The stories we read that break the mold of noble purposes and promising progress aren't fiction dreamed up for a liberal cause. That they oppose the desires and impressions gleaned from the perspective of politicians isn't an opposite spin, but a wish to end all spin and deal with the full truth.

Stop running and hiding Mr. Rumsfeld. Show some political courage and hear our questions and grievances. Listen to our case in a public forum and then try to explain why the long occupation on the heels of an unjust war shouldn't end now.

Rich Moniak is a member of Military Families Speak Out from Juneau, Alaska. His son is a Staff Sergeant in the Army and was recently extended in Iraq with the 172nd Stryker Brigade. This is his second tour in Iraq.
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source:
A Father's Story: Donald Rumsfeld and the Families of the 172nd Stryker Brigade

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