Monday, August 28, 2006

Soldiers' families question Rumsfeld on deployment

Soldiers' families question Rumsfeld on deployment
By Kristin Roberts

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (Reuters) - The wives of soldiers whose duty in Iraq was extended to add troop strength to Baghdad peppered U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with tough questions, some that he could not answer, at a closed-door meeting in Alaska on Saturday.

Rumsfeld, who received a mixed reception from a crowd that offered more applause for the questions asked than the answers provided, praised the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He would not commit to a date for bringing those soldiers home, but told a 12-year-old girl in the audience, "I'd bet your daddy gets home before Christmas."

He also told the estimated 700 to 800 family members at the meeting in an Army gymnasium that what the soldiers were doing was necessary to ensure terrorism does not strike the United States.

"In five or 10 or 15 years, you'll all be able to look back and appreciate the importance of what's being done and the value of what's being done," he told the crowd.

Rumsfeld's meeting with family members was closed to the press, unlike other large events, such as "town hall" sessions with troops. But some wives taped the event and one shared the recording with reporters.

Afterward, Rumsfeld said it was a "terrific" meeting. He said he spent 45 minutes speaking with people one-on-one after the larger session.

"I'm enormously pleased that I came," he told reporters.

Questions from family members ranged from personal appeals for help on securing short-time leave for soldiers to broader issues, such as whether another brigade was being trained to replace the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team -- a question that received thunderous applause from the crowd and calls for a yes or no response.

The defense secretary said he could not give them a definitive answer.

"I wish I had a magic wand and the power to say, 'yes.' But I don't," he told them. He said he would do everything he could to make sure the brigade's tour in Iraq was not extended again.

The Pentagon decided last month to keep about 3,000 Alaska-based soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, extending their tours and returning more than 300 who had already gone back home. The move was part of an effort to boost security in Baghdad, where an escalation of violence has raised concerns even among top U.S. generals that the sectarian conflict could deteriorate into civil war.

U.S. commanders have said the soldiers whose tours were extended were well-suited to the Baghdad mission, in part due to their experience in Mosul. The security clampdown in Iraq's capital has reduced violence, commanders have said.

The extended deployment poses a hardship for both troops who have been sent to one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq, and their families in Alaska.

The delay has also put families and the U.S. Army on what one defense official called a "death watch" for soldiers who otherwise would have been on their way home if not already there.

Some family members gave Rumsfeld credit for spending an hour with them in Fairbanks, Alaska. But others said they were not satisfied.

"I think it was a show," said Jennifer Davis, the wife of one soldier in Iraq. She declined to give her husband's name.

Rumsfeld's visit to Fairbanks lured curious onlookers, one of whom yelled to the defense secretary to "get us out of Iraq."

"I know the feeling," he yelled back.