U.S. military says it does its best to keep equipment in good order
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Blowing sand. Blistering heat. Shrapnel-spewing roadside bombs. The U.S. Army says it does its best to keep its hard-pressed vehicles and helicopters running despite these conditions, but soldiers say Iraq sometimes trumps their best efforts.
Now maintenance is at the heart of the controversy over an Army Reserve unit that refused to carry fuel along one of Iraq’s most dangerous stretches of road.
Last week, the Army announced it was investigating up to 19 members of a platoon from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in Rock Hill, S.C., after they refused to transport supplies from Tallil air base near Nasiriyah to Taji north of Baghdad.
The unit’s members complained that the fuel trucks they were to drive lacked the armor needed for the dangerous mission, and were in bad shape. The U.S. military said Monday no decision had been made on whether to discipline the reservists.
U.S. officers say the refusal to carry out the mission last week was an isolated incident. Still, it’s no secret that convoy duty is one of the most perilous jobs in Iraq.
Across the country, the brutal conditions can be seen on the Humvees on patrol with smashed or cracked windshields or punctured doors where chunks of shrapnel have blown through.
The Army’s fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, which dates as far back as the late 1970s, requires lots of maintenance to keep flying. The helicopters’ engines and rotors suffer from blowing sand and the heat, and the craft are in higher demand than ever to ferry passengers trying to avoid Iraq’s ambush-prone roads.
“Most of the problems we’re having are from dust. Most of the bearings are open bearings, it gets in there and wears them out quicker,” said Sgt. Amos Ritter of Allentown, Pa. “It’s not making it to the point where we can’t finish a mission. But it’s a problem we need to work around.”
Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq from mid-2003 until this summer, sent a letter to the Pentagon in December 2003 complaining that a shortage of supplies was hurting the troops’ ability to fight, The Washington Post reported Monday.
Sanchez told top Army officials in the Dec. 4 letter there was a serious lack of key parts for vital equipment, and the problem was so severe that “I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low.”
U.S. military officials have said maintenance has improved. Maintenance bays are better stocked now than they were earlier in the war. Still, it’s a tough job, said Marine Maj. Jay Antonelli, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
“The environment in Iraq, which consists of heat, blowing sand and other extreme conditions, to include combat operations, is a difficult place to maintain aircraft and vehicles,” Antonelli said.
On Sunday, the commanding officer of the 13th Corps Support Command, Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, ordered the South Carolina Reserve unit that refused the supply run to undergo a two-week “safety-maintenance stand down,” during which it will conduct no missions as its vehicles are refurbished and armored.