FAIRBANKS, Alaska – In a lively but polite give-and-take, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fielded questions Saturday from wives and other family members of Alaska-based soldiers whose combat tours in Iraq were abruptly extended just as they prepared to return home this month.
“It is something we don’t want to do,” Rumsfeld told several hundred family members who gathered in a gymnasium at nearby Ft. Wainwright, home of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. The unit’s deployment to Iraq was extended by up to four months to bolster U.S. firepower in the Baghdad area.
“But in this case we had to,” he added, referring to the decision made in late July to extend the 172nd.
Asked whether the Army was preparing another brigade to take over for the 172nd in case the intended improvements in Baghdad are not achieved by mid-December, Rumsfeld said he could make no promises.
“I wish I had a magic wand and the power to say yes. I don’t,” he said. “I will do everything in the world I can do to see that they are not extended beyond the 120 days.”
Reporters, including five who traveled with Rumsfeld from Washington, D.C., were not permitted to cover his meeting with the family members, which lasted about an hour. But a wife who made a videotape of the event showed it to reporters afterward.
One wife asked Rumsfeld why the 172nd was doing house-to-house searches in Baghdad instead of the kinds of combat operations they are trained to perform. Rumsfeld disputed her assertion, saying that 95 percent of the house-clearing operations are being done by Iraqi troops.
In an interview during his flight to Fairbanks, Rumsfeld said he saw no reason for the soldiers or their families to be angry at him.
“I don’t put it in that context,” he said. “These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they’re doing because they want to do it. They’re proud of what they do. They do it very, very well.”
Asked why reporters would not be permitted to cover his meeting with the family members, Rumsfeld at first replied, “I don’t have any idea. I haven’t addressed the subject.” Later he said he makes it a practice to make all family meetings private.
A newly formed Alaska chapter of the Military Families Speak Out group issued a statement in Fairbanks saying it would make a public call for the Bush administration to bring home the 172nd and all other U.S. troops. It quoted Jennifer Davis, of Anchorage, whose husband is a member of the 172nd.
“I am totally frustrated, disappointed and heartbroken,” she said in the statement. “Just when I thought we were going to be able to resume a ‘normal’ life and when I thought the nightmare was over, the nightmare was extended.”