Lyndon Wilson remembers stacking sandbags in unarmored
military vehicles three decades ago to better protect against
enemy gunfire or land mines. His son bluntly asked Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this week why some troops now
are using scrap metal to fashion "hillbilly armor" for their trucks.
Lyndon K. Wilson left for Vietnam on Nov. 19, 1968. His son, Spc. Thomas J. Wilson, left to help fight the war in Iraq on Nov. 19, 2004. That coincidence of the calendar is not the only similarity in their military service, the father says.
Lyndon Wilson remembers stacking sandbags in unarmored military vehicles three decades ago to better protect against enemy gunfire or land mines. His son bluntly asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this week why some troops now are using scrap metal to fashion "hillbilly armor" for their trucks.
"It's like he's going right down the same trail I went down," Lyndon Wilson, 58, said by telephone yesterday from his home in Ringgold, Ga. The elder Wilson, who was wounded by shrapnel in Vietnam, added, "I hope [the similarities] kind of stop there."
The fallout from Specialist Wilson's uncommonly frank question to the defense secretary persisted yesterday, with Rumsfeld saying concerns about vehicle safety were being reviewed and addressed. At the White House, President Bush also sought to reassure military families that "we're doing everything we possibly can to protect your loved ones in a mission which is vital and important."
"If I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I'd want to ask the secretary of defense the same question - and that is, are we getting the best we can get us?" Bush said.
Specialist Wilson, a 31-year-old father of two, touched off the military's scramble on the question of vehicle safety Wednesday when Rumsfeld opened the floor to questions during a "town hall" style meeting with about 2,300 soldiers at Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Wilson asked, his question greeted by shouts of agreement and applause from other soldiers.
After pausing and asking Wilson to repeat the question, Rumsfeld responded that the military was sending more armored vehicles into Iraq as quickly as possible. He added: "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have."
Reporter claims credit
The exchange appeared to be an impromptu airing of a concern shared by many soldiers. But a reporter with the Chattanooga, Tenn., newspaper, the Times Free Press, claimed credit for fashioning the question in an e-mail published yesterday on a journalism Web site.
Edward Lee Pitts, who is embedded with Wilson's Tennessee National Guard unit, said in the e-mail that he worked on questions in advance of the meeting with two soldiers from the unit because reporters would not have a chance to question Rumsfeld. Pitts did not mention the arrangement in an article published in yesterday's Times Free Press about the soldier's questioning of Rumsfeld.
"While waiting for the VIP, I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd," Pitts said in an e-mail sent to colleagues at his newspaper.
Pitts also wrote: "I have been trying to get this story out for weeks - as soon as I found out I would be on an un-armored truck - and my paper published two stories on it. ... I believe lives are at stake with so many soldiers going across the border riding with scrap metal as protection. It may be to late for the unit I am with, but hopefully not for those who come after."
A Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said in a statement yesterday that the town hall meeting was intended for soldiers, not reporters, to ask questions.
"It would be unfortunate to discover that anyone might have interfered with that opportunity, whatever the intention," Di Rita said. "The secretary provides ample opportunity for interaction with the press."
Editors at the Times Free Press referred questions to Executive Editor Tom Griscom, who did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment. Pitts, who is traveling with the 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee Army National Guard, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Speaking to the Associated Press, Griscom praised the reporter's work yesterday. But he said the newspaper would publish a note to readers today explaining that the reporter had collaborated with soldiers to have the issue raised.
'We ... speak our mind'
Pitts' role raised questions about the spontaneity of the Rumsfeld session in Kuwait, but from his farm in northwest Georgia, Lyndon Wilson said he wasn't surprised that his son asked the question.
"Well, me and his mom both, we're not ones to hold our tongues," Lyndon Wilson said. "We usually speak our mind pretty good. And we taught our kids to be the same way."
Thomas "Jerry" Wilson grew up in Ringgold, Ga., the younger of two sons. Lyndon Wilson said his son is an avid outdoorsman who liked to hunt growing up and would explore underground caves.
After graduating from Lakeview High School in nearby Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., Thomas Wilson enlisted in the Air Force in 1994. He served about four years, including a stint in Haiti, his father said. Prompted in part by the Sept. 11 attacks, Thomas Wilson re-enlisted in 2003 with the Army National Guard in Tennessee, where he was living in Nashville and working for Comcast Cable.
Lyndon Wilson said his son has enormous respect for his superiors in the military, but the senior Wilson said he was disappointed by Rumsfeld's initial response to his son's question.
"My response was, you don't go to war with what you have - you build your army, and then you go to war," Lyndon Wilson said.
Meeting with officials
Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday that military officials would meet with Specialist Wilson, who is at the start of what is expected to be a yearlong tour in Iraq, to learn more about his concerns.
"I don't know what the facts are, but somebody is certainly going to sit down with him and find out what he knows that they may not know, and make sure he knows what they know that he may not know," Rumsfeld said. "That's a good thing. So I guess it is a very constructive exchange."
In his e-mail to colleagues, reporter Pitts described the events as "one of my best days as a journalist."
By Gail Gibson Sun National Staff December 10, 2004 Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun