TIME WE RECOGNIZED OUR REAL HEROES
26 February 2001

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

Soldiering is dangerous business in peace as well as in war.

If you don't think so, ask the aircrews who attacked Iraq's air-defense system last week. A pilot who flew that mission said, "Waves of Iraqi rockets and AAA would come up and explode ... then another wave would shoot all at once and light up the sky."

Ask the families of soldiers Robert L. Olson, George P. Perry, Gregory I. Montgomery, Thomas E. Barber, Bob D. MacDonald and Rafael Olvera-Rodriguez, who all recently died on a training exercise in Hawaii. The U.S. Army aircraft in which they were killed was almost 20 years old, and the pilots' flying proficiency -- reduced because of foul weather and night conditions in conjunction with flying-hour cutbacks over the past eight years - was far from the best.

Ask the families of the 17 sailors killed and the surviving crew members of the USS Cole if the Port of Aden in Yemen holds any fond memories. Our combat sailors were sent off in a warship to show the flag, following Rules of Engagement that didn't begin to protect them from being served up to terrorists like mincemeat on a twisted deck.

Or ask the loved ones of the 26 Marines who've died in V-22 Osprey helicopter crashes if they think their irreplaceable loved ones should have been aboard test aircraft that, over the past decade, have consistently done two things well: crash and burn. The political porkers and brass push the aircraft because it's good for them -- but it sure hasn't done well by our Marines.

But where's the moral outrage from the citizenry?

The public's plain switched off. "They're not our kids," say the movers and shakers with enough pull to make the politicians sweat. Why worry when their boys and girls made it into good schools and aren't in Kuwait or Bosnia. Or on dangerous ground with the 69th Air Defense Brigade defending Israel. Or with the Army divisions preparing to reinforce them when things get hotter and then punch through to Baghdad at incalculable risk to put an end to you-know-who.

The voices of the active-duty survivors are muted -- it's that or career suicide. Remember, if you're a regular, it's your job, and with 65 percent of the force married, it's the family's job, too. And complaints from the bereaved get little response and less results from the porkers in Congress, who clearly have their own interests and dollar-driven agendas.

The national media are not into soldiers' stories, either. There's higher-rated stuff to push: the Clinton serial pardons and pillages; civilians jammed into a sub's control tower distracting the crew and sinking a Japanese ship; or lights-out on Sunset Strip.

Or take the death of 49-year-old Dale Earnhardt. A hero to millions of fans, he regularly laid his life on the line. Maybe he deserved his millions, his private jet and other comforts -- auto racing is a dangerous game. But, hey, it's no more risky than that of our underpaid defenders -- and at least it brought him movie-star fame and fortune.

Most of those who die defending you and me are kids in their 20s who live in ghetto barracks or on-post quarters officially classified by the Pentagon as submarginal. They operate worn-out gear that's not good-to-go because misallocated defense dollars went to renovate a four-star general's quarters at Fort Monroe, Va., and the top admiral's pad in Hawaii -- at more than a million bucks a pop. Or it went to purchase millions of Ranger berets made in Red China and Arkansas to supposedly save the Army from self-destructing. Or to buy obsolete, gold-plated aircraft designed both to shoot down the long-deceased Soviet Union and pad some pockets.

Earnhardt dies, and from the president down, the nation mourns. Our professional airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers die protecting our freedom, and most Americans look the other way.

If we returned to the draft, and the children of the rich and powerful were taking risks and dying next to the disenfranchised, surely this callous disregard for today's defenders would be diminished. Then, too, our citizen-soldiers would be committed more carefully to trouble spots that have nothing to do with our national security -- and their absentee ballots just might be properly counted the next time around.