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DeFazio listens to troops' concerns.

Byline: Joe Mosley The Register-Guard

A Cottage Grove-based unit of the Oregon National Guard arrived a month ago at Fort Hood, Texas, to train with U.S. Army troops for deployment to Iraq, and had to siphon gasoline from one vehicle to another to get to exercises.

The Oregon soldiers showed up for firearms training and were told they'd have to supply their own ammunition - even though they weren't allowed to ship any with them from back home.

A commander of the National Guard unit even had to scrounge toilet paper for his charges when Army supply officers refused to share.

"Our people are great," U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio said Thursday, a day after he and fellow U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley conducted a fact-finding mission to check on complaints at the Texas training facility.

The two Democratic lawmakers from Oregon had a lunch of MREs - Meals Ready to Eat - with members of the 2nd Battalion of the 162nd Infantry, based in Cottage Grove, and spoke with the unit's officers.

"They're there, and they're enthusiastic about their mission," DeFazio said. "But there are concerns. There are problems with equipment, problems with their living conditions and other things that are interfering with their training experience.

"There is an ongoing problem of the attitude of regular Army people toward the Guard. But these Guard people are going to be performing exactly the same functions (in Iraq). They are replacing a full-time Army unit, so there just shouldn't be this problem."

DeFazio promised to "shake the tree" in Congress and at the Pentagon to ensure National Guard units from Oregon and around the country are treated more equitably in training and combat alongside Army troops.

Meanwhile, credit cards authorized by the governor's office were sent to the Oregon unit on Thursday, and the federal Department of Defense apparently has responded similarly.

"Funny thing," DeFazio said, "two federal credit cards showed up ... the day after our visit."

Complaints similar to those from Fort Hood have been heard from National Guard units training at Fort Stewart, in Georgia, and at Fort Knox, in Kentucky.

But Col. Mike Caldwell of the Oregon National Guard in Salem said such treatment is a continuing and well-known problem for Army National Guard units, while Guard units of the U.S. Air Force are typically treated far better by their federal counterparts.

"The Army National Guard is treated poorly and not funded properly, and the arguments have not been heard by the Department of Defense, for sure, and maybe have not been heard in Congress to the extent they should have been," Caldwell said. "It's real damn frustrating."

Control over National Guard units passes from their governor to the federal government when they are called up for active duty, Caldwell said. That limits how Guard commanders in Oregon can respond to situations that arise during the soldiers' federal training.

"It's like being 30 to 50 rows up in a ball game and saying, 'If the coach would call this play, I think it would be successful,' ' Caldwell said. "But it's pretty hard to get the coach's attention to call the play."

Deployment of the Cottage Grove unit - almost 650 soldiers - is the largest since World War II. About 50 more guardsmen from around the state have joined the unit since it reported to Fort Hood on Oct. 29.

The 2nd Battalion - headquartered in Cottage Grove and with units from Eugene, Newport and Coos Bay - is scheduled to ship out for Iraq in March with Arkansas' 39th Brigade.

The battalion's mission is expected to include digging sewers, building schools and training Iraqis, though DeFazio said Thursday the training inadequacies could hinder the soldiers' ability to respond in the event they find themselves in combat situations.

For instance, DeFazio said the Oregon soldiers have been denied access to standard-issue Army radios of the type being used in Iraq, so they have been using two-way radios in training exercises that "they bought at GI Joe's."

"The second they get off the plane (in Iraq) they're going to be under fire or potentially under fire," DeFazio said. "They don't need to be learning how to use equipment they haven't trained with."

Another issue confronting the National Guard troops, the congressman said, is that several will have their enlistments expire while serving their assignments in Iraq. They will be automatically re-enlisted - but without the $10,000 tax-free bonuses awarded to regular Army soldiers in similar situations.

"There's still discrimination against Guard members in the Pentagon hierarchy," DeFazio said, urging concerned citizens to contact his office or those of Oregon's two U.S. senators.

"The only downside of taking care of some of these problems is spending a little money," he said.

"But the Pentagon has tens of billions of dollars it can't even find on the books, so the money is there. It's not an issue."
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Title Annotation:Government; National Guardsmen from Cottage Grove are treated poorly at a training facility
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 12, 2003
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