DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The debate triggered by Congressman Murtha on Capitol Hill has gotten personal as well as passionate. This was the scene last night when Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt of Ohio took the floor.
Representative JEAN SCHMIDT (Republican, Ohio): A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bopp, Ohio representative from the 88th District in the House of Representatives. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message that cowards cut and run. Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world...
(Soundbite of gavel)
ELLIOTT: To find out what the troops might make of this political uproar, we turn to Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Operation Truth, a soldiers' advocacy group, and Frank Adams, commander of a local Veterans of Foreign Wars post near Camp Pendleton in California.
Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Executive Director, Operation Truth): Good afternoon.
Mr. FRANK ADAMS (Commander, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post): Yes, hello.
ELLIOTT: Paul Rieckhoff, you served in Iraq. Are soldiers in the field aware of the political debate back home? I mean, how much news do they get?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: They are aware and I think the Internet has made a dramatic difference in the connectivity, but I think when it comes to day-to-day life, they're not particularly concerned most immediately with the goings on of the local news of the daily national news back home. What they're concerned with is what we call in the military the five-meter target which is whatever is right in front of them. They're worried about being mortared. They're worried about being killed. They're worrying about trying to keep their daily missions to the best that they can. And at the end of the day, they're really just concerned with getting their butts home in one piece more than they are about the political rhetoric and the partisanship that's going on in Washington.
ELLIOTT: Does this kind of talk in Washington at all undermine their morale?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: No, it doesn't, and I think that's really a ridiculous assertion. I served for a year in Iraq and I just went to National Guard drill about two weeks ago and we didn't talk about the rationale for war. We were pretty busy firing our weapons and training. I think the things that affect morale most predominantly are family life issues. And when you look at the fact that most of our troops have been there for more than one tour, when you look at the fact the divorce rate has doubled, I think those things impact morale much more so.
ELLIOTT: Frank Adams, you served in Vietnam and I understand your son just got back from a tour in Iraq. Does it bother you to hear this kind of debate in Congress?
Mr. ADAMS: Well, of course, it does. I've been monitoring this very closely and some of the rhetoric I'm hearing coming out of Congress is very disheartening to me. I know it's very disheartening to my son, but all the Marines and my Iraqi vets that have joined the VFW--and many of them are injured and got released from service--the last thing they wanted to do was get out of the Marine Corps. They wanted to stay and go back.
ELLIOTT: Why is that?
Mr. ADAMS: Dedication to duty. They felt soundly about the cause they're fighting for.
ELLIOTT: You know, I must say that if I were serving in Iraq and heard that the government was talking about winding up the mission, you know, my first instinct might be to be glad that I might be going home soon. What is going through the troops' mind when they hear this discussion that it's time to start thinking about getting out of Iraq?
Mr. ADAMS: Well, mostly what I hear is wanting to complete the mission and get through this process in a timely manner but do it the right way because if we don't do it the right way now, we're going to have many problems.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Can I address the time line issue, ma'am?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Yeah. This is Paul Rieckhoff. I think this argument that we can't establish some sort of a time line is really flawed. I served for almost a year in Iraq and I'll probably go back for a second time at some point in the next few years. And I learned as a military commander, as an infantry platoon leader, that I owe my soldiers, my subordinates four things: I owe them proper training, I owe them proper equipment, I owe them a complete plan, and I owe them a time line. A timeline is a reasonable part of incorporating a complete military plan. Everything in the military has a time line. How do we know when we're done and what are the metrics that are necessary to get there? The president has never been clear on that.
ELLIOTT: Frank Adams, one of the things that we've heard from some of the veterans that we've spoken with is that they would like to hear more talk of a, quote, "victory strategy" than all this talk of a, quote, "exit strategy."
Mr. ADAMS: Well, I can relate to that. I think they want to know what their mission is and when they may be coming home, you know, sooner or later, but military for the boots on the ground in harm's way definitely needs the support of the American people and especially our folks at the White House instead of hearing about partisan issues. You have to support the troops no matter what you do.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: OK. Can I respond to that, ma'am?
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Yeah, this is...
ELLIOTT: ...Paul Rieckhoff.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: ...Paul Rieckhoff. Yeah. I think that our country learned their lesson after Vietnam and the American people have learned to separate the war from the warriors. They've learned to separate the people from the policy and I think we need to get past that. To use the troops as some kind of a hostage or to say that, you know, every bit of political criticism is undermining the troops, I think, is ridiculous. They're not babies that need to be coddled. We're grown adults that have our political opinions and we have a job to do, and we're going to do it no matter what happens back at home.
ELLIOTT: Frank Adams, what do you mean when you say we've got to support the troops?
Mr. ADAMS: When you hear certain rhetoric coming out of the mouths of people that are governing this country and they're trying to put time lines and they are saying what we're going to do over there and when we're going to do it, I think that it puts our men in harm's way. You know, with the technology we have, everyone is listening. This whole world are listening to what these people are saying, and that gives the other side the advantage. When we pulled out of Vietnam in '75, a million people were slaughtered and that could happen just as easily in Iraq if we don't do the job the right way.
ELLIOTT: Do you hear echoes of Vietnam in this debate?
Mr. ADAMS: I've heard it ever since we went into Iraq: It's another Vietnam. It's another Vietnam. Well, Vietnam was a whole different war. And we went in there for some reasons I probably didn't understand to this day, but we did our job for 10 years over there and we finally pulled out in a way which left the South Vietnamese very vulnerable to the Communists and look what happened afterwards. There was a disaster over there.
ELLIOTT: How did you feel about Congressman Murtha's statement?
Mr. ADAMS: I was appalled at what he said. No one likes the fact that, you know, 2,075 of our military have died over there and tens of thousands are injured and wounded. You know, I lost 58,000 plus in Vietnam, and we pulled out and I don't want that to happen over there and I don't want what they've done and their mission to be in vain.
ELLIOTT: Frank Adams of the VWF in Fallbrook, California, and Paul Rieckhoff of Operation Truth. Thank you, gentlemen.
Mr. RIECKHOFF: Thank you very much, ma'am.
Mr. ADAMS: Thank you, ma'am.