Iraq war vet says leaders must own up to errors
Too little planning, troop support leaves mission 'not accomplished'
(CNN) -- An Iraqi war veteran delivered the weekly Democratic radio address Saturday, taking aim at the Bush administration's war and planning strategy and saying "our mission" -- plagued by "too little support and too little planning" -- "is not accomplished."
"I don't expect an easy solution to the situation in Iraq. I do expect an admission that there are serious problems that need serious solutions," said Paul Rieckhoff. "I don't expect our leaders to be free of mistakes, I expect our leaders to own up to them."
Rieckhoff served in the Army in a 10-month stint that ended in February. The decision by the Democratic Party to ask him to speak is somewhat of a departure, since the address is normally delivered by politicians.
Making his remarks on the first anniversary of President Bush's declaration that major combat had ended, Rieckhoff, who said he volunteered for duty and knew he would find himself fighting in Iraq, said the administration's buoyant rhetoric proved to be inaccurate.
'Summer was waiting for us'
"One year ago today, our president had declared that major combat operations in Iraq were over. We heard of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, and we heard him say that "Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home."
"Well, we were told that we would return home by July 4th. Parades were waiting for us. Summer was waiting for us. I wrote my brother in New York and told him to get tickets for the Yankees-Red Sox series in the Bronx. Baseball was waiting for us. Our families were waiting for us.
"But three days before we were supposed to leave, we were told that our stay in Iraq would be extended, indefinitely. The violence intensified, the danger persisted, and the instability grew. And despite what George Bush said, our mission was not accomplished."
He said the war planning was poor and that "our soldiers deserved better."
"There were not enough vehicles, not enough ammunition, not enough medical supplies, not enough water. Many days, we patrolled the streets of Baghdad in 120 degree heat with only one bottle of water per soldier.
The people who planned this war watched Iraq fall into chaos and refused to change course.
-- Paul Rieckhoff, U.S. soldier back from Iraq
"There was not enough body armor, leaving my men to dodge bullets with Vietnam-era flak vests. We had to write home and ask for batteries to be included in our care packages."
Rieckhoff said the area he had been assigned to in Baghdad "was certainly not stable." He said troops, foreign aid, interpreters, and water were expected and supply lines needed repairs.
"The people who planned this war watched Iraq fall into chaos and refused to change course. "
Meanwhile, Iraqis suffered and "we dealt with shootings, killings, kidnappings, and robberies for most of the spring."
He said that the pressures on the soldiers were great. For example, three wives filed for divorce and a fiancée returned a ring to a soldier. One soldier lost both legs in combat, he said.
"But our platoon was lucky -- all 39 of us came home alive. Too many of our friends and fellow soldiers did not share that same fate."
'Hope in the faces of children'
Nevertheless, Rieckhoff said, the soldiers bonded over the mission "to secure Iraq and help the Iraqi people."
"We saw firsthand the terrible suffering that they had endured. We protected a hospital and kept a school safe from sniper fire. We saw hope in the faces of Iraqi children who may have the chance to grow up as free as our own."
Rieckhoff said he is haunted by the news reports noting that April is the bloodiest month so far in the war and the remarks made by President Bush at his nationwide press conference two weeks ago.
"After all the waiting, after all the mistakes we had experienced firsthand over in Iraq, after another year of a policy that was not making the situation any better for our friends who are still there, he told us we were staying the course. He told us we were making progress. And he told us that, 'We're carrying out a decision that has already been made and will not change.' "
But Rieckhoff said that troops continue to wait for "more body armor," "better equipment," and a "policy that brings in the rest of the world and relieves their burden."
Rieckhoff said he is "not angry" with Bush. But he is is "disappointed."
"My question for President Bush -- who led the planning of this war so long ago -- is this: When will you take responsibility for the decisions you've made in Iraq and realize that something is wrong with the way things are going?"
Rieckhoff said his comrades were "men and women of extraordinary courage and incredible capability. But it's time we had leadership in Washington to match that courage and match that capability."
"I pledge that I will do everything I can to make sure they have not died in vain and that the truth is heard."
Rieckhoff, 29, served in the National Guard attached to the 3rd Infantry Division as a first lieutenant.
He was based in Adamiyah, in northeast Baghdad. His guard unit was among the first to enter Iraq in April, 2003. His tour in Iraq with the National Guard was extended three times. He joined the Army in 1998. He was called to active duty in December 2002.
He lives in New York. Rieckhoff was part of the 9/11 rescue and clean-up effort with his guard Unit Alpha Company First 105th at Ground Zero.