“Find out why they didn’t have their goddamned MRAPs yet.”
That’s what Defence Secretary Robert Gates angrily told his staff on March 16, 2009 when he learned four military service members riding in a Humvee had been killed by an IED in Afghanistan.
In his book, “Duty,” Gates describes his “war on the Pentagon” to deliver the up-armoured, mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles to troops overseas, jumping through bureaucratic hoops to provide critical support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It wasn’t cheap — the Pentagon spent an estimated $US45 billion on MRAPs from 2007 to 2012 — but it saved more than 2,000 American lives, according to an estimate by USA Today.
Climbing aboard the plane carrying the remains of the fallen in 2009 — Army Sgt. Christopher Abeyta, Specialist Robert Weiner, Pvt. First Class Norman Cain, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Bowles — Gates writes, “Alone with them, I was overwhelmed. I knelt beside each for a moment, placing my hand on the flag covering each case. Tears flooded my eyes. I did not want to leave them.”
This sensitive outlook helped Gates, who held the office from 2006 — 2011, improve relations with the military following the rocky later years of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who by the end had a number of retired generals calling for his resignation.
The contrast is clear in Rumsfeld’s response in 2004 to a soldier’s complaint about the lack of adequate armour, which set off a firestorm of criticism in the media and grumbling among troops.
“As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” Rumsfeld said at the time. “You can have all the armour in the world on a tank, and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armoured Humvee, and it can be blown up.”
Gates doesn’t specifically call out Rumsfeld’s shortcomings, but he makes clear the importance of the change.
Here’s his account of what happened after the MRAP quote:
A month later I was visiting wounded at Walter Reed. I walked into one room where a soldier was sitting on his bed holding a copy of that day’s Washington Post with a story about my March visit to Dover, including my intemperate question about why those four service members had not been in an MRAP. He read aloud from the story what I had demanded of my staff, and then he began to cry as he told me, “Your MRAP saved my life.” I managed to keep my composure — barely. I didn’t fully appreciate at the time the emotional toll my duties were taking on me.
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