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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Unfit in Iraq

ADD unfit soldiers to the list of burdens being visited by poor Pentagon planning on United States military personnel deployed in Iraq.

A report by Knight Ridder Newspapers says that medically unfit National Guard and Army Reserve members were sent overseas because, as one said, "they need bodies." The Pentagon, which underestimated the size of the force it would need for the Iraq occupation, confirms medical fitness is a problem, although the numbers of troops involved is unclear.

Soldiers interviewed for the report said they were given only cursory medical exams before being certified for deployment and ailments were routinely ignored in the Pentagon's haste to provide manpower for the war and subsequent occupation.

Such maladministration is unfair to the troops in the field and reflects badly on the entire chain of command, right up to the Oval Office.

Soldiers hampered by asthma, bad backs, heart ailments, and other maladies cannot fight effectively, and their absence can leave their units dangerously shorthanded. In addition, non-emergency medical treatment for American personnel is scarce in Iraq, and the military has spent an inordinate amount of time, trouble, and money ferrying medically unfit soldiers back to the U.S.

The issue isunder consideration by a congressional committee looking at military health care. It is one more example of how the Pentagon, eager to carry out President Bush's invasion of Iraq, brushed aside indications that it had insufficient regular forces to do the job. National Guard and reserve troops are being relied upon in greater proportion than they were during World War II. Of the approximately 120,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Knight Ridder reported, nearly 50,000 - 40 percent - are from guard and reserve units.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the war could be prosecuted with a small, mobile fighting force that was bolstered by guard and reserve troops. But he failed to heed warnings that a far larger force would be needed to establish security and carry out the occupation.

The result of this miscalculation is what we are seeing daily in Iraq: chaos and insecurity, both for American fighting men and women and for the Iraqi people, and an undue burden on America's "citizen soldiers."

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