Yesterday, President Bush visited Fort Irwin, California, the main desert training camp where most U.S. soldiers are sent before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Bush told the troops:
Ours is a remarkable country when people volunteer to serve our country in a time of war. The amazing thing about our United States military is thousands and thousands have signed up knowing full well that we’re a nation at war. The government didn’t say, you have to do this, you chose to do it on your own. You decided to put your country ahead of self in many ways.
That message must have resonated in a unique way for some of the soldiers present. As Salon.com’s Mark Benjamin reported recently, Fort Irwin is where some soldiers with debilitating injuries and other medical conditions, including female soldiers who were pregnant, were deployed for weeks:
Hernandez is one of a dozen soldiers who stayed for weeks in those tents who were interviewed for this report, some of whose medical records were also reviewed by Salon. All of the soldiers said they had no business being sent to Fort Irwin given their physical condition. In some cases, soldiers were sent there even though their injuries were so severe that doctors had previously recommended they should be considered for medical retirement from the Army.
Military experts say they suspect that the deployment to Fort Irwin of injured soldiers was an effort to pump up manpower statistics used to show the readiness of Army units. With the military increasingly strained after four years of war, Army readiness has become a critical part of the debate over Iraq.
As Steve Benen noted, Bush’s remarks to the soldiers yesterday hardly produced the rally-like atmosphere of years past. Reuters reported that troops “sat quietly at their lunch tables, some joined by family members, as Bush spoke.” The Houston Chronicle’s Julie Mason described the event as “less than a rally, more than a stare-down,” and said the troops were “strangely quiet.”