28 Oct 97
COMBAT READINESS DULLED BY DESKS
The Screaming Eagles keeps a rifle company on high alert, ready to board aircraft and be on it's way within two hours to any hot spot around the globe.
Behind these fighters sit two more rifle companies that are part of the Division Ready Force for the 101st Airborne Division, units that are followed by the rest of their infantry battalion.
If the flap is big, the complete division will roar out of Fort Campbell, Ky., just as they did for Vietnam and for the more recent dual in the desert with Saddam.
They're America's finest and they're locked and cocked.
But are they ready?
Recently a sergeant from the hot company told me that all six of his unit's machine guns were "down for maintenance." He said half of the follow-on rifle companies' guns were also out of action because of "no spare parts."
This proud and professional air assault leader said "If we don't go to war, we're all right."
If he and his company would have launched to a killing field, they would have gone without their most important weapon. They'd have been like a swordsman who arrived on the field of strife swordless.
In early 1951, when I was a machine gun squad leader in Korea, my two guns were M-1918 Brownings. They were as worn as a cobbler's shoes, and the Reds we were fighting had a far superior Soviet machine gun.
As a rifle company skipper in 1961, my unit was the lead company into Berlin when the Soviets started the Wall. We still were packing our worn out M-1918 machine guns -- that had by then seen service in three wars.
In 1965, when my 101st Brigade went to Vietnam, we toted the new M-60 machine gun. It performed well, gave the enemy fits and saved a lot of units from being overrun.
Thirty-two years later, the same M-60, now battered and beaten, is still being toted by the young men in the famed 101st. They no longer brag about it being a killer as their fathers did, they have no confidence in it and call it a "jammer."
When I covered Desert Storm as a reporter, our warriors there complained that the M-60 was a tired dog. Luckily, the enemy seldom decided to fight back.
A warrior who has no confidence in his weapon is in trouble. Especially the machine gun, which is the main fire power of a rifle company.
A lot of people are responsible for this criminal shortcoming.
If I were the Army chief of staff, I'd fly to Fort Campbell to see if this report is true. If so, I'd look at what the battalion, brigade and division commanders wrote in their most recent operational readiness report. If they reported these guns as functioning, then I would sack'em and drum'em out of the service.
Next, I would demand of my staff to know why my fighters have such an obsolete weapon when the U.S. Marine Corps has the most excellent M-240G machine gun. A gun an enterprising Marine lieutenant colonel scrounged from surplus U.S. Army armored vehicles and modified for Marine grunts for a pittance.
Congress is responsible too because they have failed in their oversight responsibilities.
Defense Secretary Bill Cohen is also responsible because he allowed one of his assistants, Louis C. Finch to suppress such bad readiness news and permits such abuses to continue -- abuses that will end up killing young men.
Cohen looks the other way while his generals waste critical defense dollars on luxury items such as fancy desks.
A USAF memo slipped to me recently says, Maj. Gen. Andrew J. Pelak, 2nd Air Force commander at Keesler Air Force Base, is extremely unhappy with his new office furniture -- a large executive desk, a credenza with bookshelves and a cabinet -- which cost the taxpayer a cool $5,600.
It's "traditional walnut" reads the report and the general says, "It is too dark." He rejected it and wants a new set.
Let's see $11,200 would buy four of the new M240G machine guns.
And what's more important? Machine guns for fighters or fancy desks for perfumed princes?
When I told this story to Tom Willard, a 101st Vietnam vet, he said with a hard bite in his voice, "If nothing else, the troopers can throw rocks."