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CNN: SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT
Aired July 7, 2007 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MELISSA LONG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, I'm Melissa Long at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT: BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN" begins in a moment.
First, a check at the headlines for you:
Police have conducted searches and raids near Glasgow and in central England today, as they continue their terror probe. They have five suspects in custody in connection with the incidents in Glasgow and London. Police today found a suspicious vehicle outside the hospital where one of the suspects is being cared for, and conducted a controlled explosion.
Responding to the incidents in Britain, the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, has stepped up security at U.S. airports. Officials say, it's merely a precaution, and there are no indications of any specific security threat in the U.S.
And despite security concerns in London, tens of thousands turned out for an all-star tribute to Princess Diana. Elton John kicked it off. The concert marks the tenth anniversary of Diana's death and comes on what would have been her 46th birthday. Her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, thanked the crowds for coming.
Flash flooding and evacuations in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas, following heavy rain. The Kansas governor has declared a state of the disaster in 12 counties. Farther west, floods have forced evacuations of two neighborhoods in Wichita Falls, Texas.
And President Bush is putting out the welcome mat at the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is due there later in the day for talks aimed at easing strained U.S./Russian relations.
We are starting to learn much more about how much money the presidential candidates raised in the second quarter. And Democrat Barack Obama set a record for the Democrats in an announcement released just today. The campaign says it raised $32.5 million between April and June.
We will have more news for you at the top of the hour.
BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN starts now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You ride around waiting to get blown up by IEDs.
JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Unprotected.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an ambush. Two IEDs detonated on my column of unarmored Humvees.
ALLEN VAUGHT, CAPTAIN, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): The price of the lack of planning: dead Americans, crippled Americans -- it's a big price.
KING: Under enormous stress.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a lot of dreams, nightmares.
KING: Yet sent back to fight again.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She found me wandering across the house, you know, yelling and screaming, you know, Get down.
KING: And unable to move past the pain.
K. CASTNER: Why did it happen to Stephen? I want the Army to tell us what happened.
KING: Through the eyes of those on the frontlines: BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN, the full price of war in Iraq.
CNN ANNOUNCER: Now John King: BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN.
JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): July 24th, 2006, Stephen Castner's third day in Iraq and his first mission: protecting a two-mile long convoy on the dangerous highway from Kuwait to Baghdad. Specialist Castner kept watch as the convoy approached Toledo from the south, using his camera and his perch in the Humvee gunner's target to capture the moment.
The photos stopped at the point a grieving father's questions begin.
STEPHEN CASTNER, FATHER: When the IED went off, there was a huge cloud of smoke. And when the truck behind went through this cloud of smoke, they noticed that the Humvee was no longer there. There was a great deal of confusion on the radio.
She answered the door, and she said, "Steve, there are two men here in Army uniforms." I think we both knew what it meant.
KING: Parents aren't supposed to bury their children. And it hurts even more when you are convinced it should not have happened.
KAY CASTNER, MOTHER: We love you.
KING: Stephen Castner's story is, on the one hand, sadly unremarkable. By the Defense Department's count, number 2,558 on a list of more than 3,500 names -- knocks at the door, and gold stars for the window.
On the other hand, Stephen Castner's short experience in Iraq is a telling reflection of how our war in its fifth frustrating year has strained the Army to its breaking point, forcing third, even fourth deployments, stressing equipment, and leaving an alarming number of active duty and National Guard units rated "not ready for combat."
MAJ. GEN. DENNIS HARDY, DEPUTY COMMANDING GENERAL, 3RD ARMY: Five years into a war fight, you're putting a lot of extra hours, a lot of extra miles, a lot of extra demands on your equipment.
KING: Major General Dennis Hardy, the deputy commanding general of ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, worries most about a mounting physical and psychological toll unique to this war.
HARDY: Some of the injuries that we're suffering over here, though, concussions, the effects on the brain, it's a lot less obvious in terms of what the impact and what some of the effects are.
KING: To understand the true cost of this war, we travel to the frontlines in Iraq, support bases in Kuwait, and a handful of Army and National Guard installations stateside. A visit to Stephen and Kay Castner's home north of Milwaukee brings you face to face with the ultimate price of war -- and the questions that cloud their morning...
S. CASTNER: I think that this situation was a classic example of using National Guard troops who were not prepared in any sense.
KING: ... questions about exactly what happened after their son's last photo.
K. CASTNER: I don't feel that somebody calling my son a hero answers my questions for me. I want the Army to tell us what happened.
KING: This part is not in dispute: An explosively fired projectile pierced Castner's Humvee, causing it to careen off the road and into a ditch. Castner was wounded, yet the convoy kept rolling north for at least 10 minutes, more than 20 by some accounts.
S. CASTNER: They didn't know how to react; they didn't know how to respond. They didn't take care of their own.
KING: It was at least 35 minutes before comrades returned and called for a MedEvac helicopter. Even Castner's breathing was initially reported as strong. But 30 seconds before landing in an Army field hospital, Castner went into cardiac arrest.
S. CASTNER: The cause of death was he bled to death. So the time was critical.
KING: Stephen Castner was 27.
(on camera): His dad thinks that his son died in a raw deal. He thinks, number one, that he didn't get good training. LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM, CHIEF, NATIONAL GUARD BUREAU: There is nothing that we could have done in training that would have prevented the loss of Stephen Castner.
KING (voice-over): Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the commander of the National Guard, told CNN, the confusion after the IED attack was a sad example of the fog of war.
BLUM: The only way I can make that whole for his father and his family is to reload a tape and make the IED not go off and the casualty not occur and the loss -- the painful loss for his family -- just didn't happen. That is -- that's not -- I cannot do that. No human being can do that.
KING: An Army investigation of the incident said the commander kept the convoy moving because a radio check found "all gun trucks were mission capable."
S. CASTNER: In other words, he would have said, "B-12." And B- 12 would have said, "Present," or something in more military terms.
KING: Castner's Humvee was truck B-41. Its radio was destroyed in the blast. An officer in the unit, in a letter to Castner's father, wrote there was one more Humvee than normal attached to the convoy that day. So when the count came back, they thought they had everyone and continued to move north.
The questions make coping harder. The Castners tend to their farm while pressing the Pentagon to reopen the investigation. The Pentagon says it has provided as much information as it can. But Castner says the Army refuses to give him copies of the radio logs and refuses to say whether the commander now concedes he forgot how many Humvees were in his convoy.
S. CASTNER: It's consistent with other reported cover-ups of how many fatalities are over there.
KING (on camera): Cover-up is a strong word.
CASTNER: It's a very strong word. There's absolutely no other explanation for it.
KING (voice-over): Up next...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two Hajis (ph) right side!
KING: ... night on the edge with an Army stretched thin.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Talk to Sgt. Wolf (ph) today?
KING: Staff Sgt. David Bess is a chain smoker, prone to cursing; a no nonsense type who keeps a quick pace. But before each mission, he stops to bow his head and lead Bravo Company in a few moments of silent prayer. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What goes through your mind when you're doing that?
STAFF SGT. DAVID BESS, BRAVO COMPANY, 1-16TH INFANTRY: I pray to Jesus, and I just, I thank him for everything and have him -- ask him to please bless me and everyone that's going on the patrol. And then, I always say a blessing for my wife and kids at home. I try to focus it towards that, just, you know, bring safety on us.
KING: It is a lot to ask for.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're going through their final checks.
KING: Bravo Company performs one of Iraq's most dangerous missions, convoy security, which means night after night on Iraq's perilous roads. Night after night on the edge.
This night, we went with them -- 60 to 100 major convoys a week in Iraq. At least one in 10 will encounter roadside bombs, not to mention snipers and small arms fire. Tonight's destination is Baqubah, only about 30 miles from Bravo Company's base in Balad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is it -- AA (ph) positive in universal receiver?
KING: Yet the conversation in the lead Humvee tells you there's no guarantee of getting there and back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dangerous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can give you a transfusion if I have to.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, roger.
KING: In Iraq, exhausted troops spend spring nights talking blood types, not baseball. Staff Sgt. Bess, the office for the next eight to 10 hours is the cramped passenger seat, radio in hand, eyes darting left to right on dark roads, where every shadow, pothole, or pile of trash is a potential enemy.
BESS: Two Hajis (ph) right side in a parking lot.
KING: David Bess is happy to be in Iraq, just not here. In sports jargon, Bess is playing out of position in more ways than one: an infantry man riding shotgun on a convoy security mission...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, go.
KING: ... and an E-6, an enlisted man in a command role that would normally fall to an officer, a lieutenant, or higher.
BESS: It's always there in my mind that, you know, hey, I am responsible for a lot as an E-6.
KING: In e-mails and calls home to his wife, Patricia, there are questions about how the girls are doing and some grumbling about convoy duty. But out here, his decisions could be the line between life and death. So duty trumps pride.
BESS: It's not necessarily my preferred mission, but it's an important mission, and I want to do the best I can at it.
KING: Bess is just one of many examples of an Army juggling to cope with manpower shortages. These air force drivers haul supplies in Army trucks, and 400 Navy reservists run a wartime customs operation. It is grimy, thankless work.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You might find some dirt.
KING: But Lt. Cmdr. Michael Mason didn't hesitate when he asked why men trained to serve on ships and submarines find themselves sweating in the Kuwaiti desert.
LT. CMDR. MICHAEL MASON, NAVAL RESERVIST: The Army is able to send more troops north in to the fight. If we weren't here, the Army would have to fill this role, and so they would be minus about 400, 450 people.
KING: Stephen Castner found out firsthand what happens when the Army scrambles. He did a stint in the Air Force straight out of high school and was trained in electronics and sensitive communications systems. After that, it was off to the University of Wisconsin, until the weekend he came home with a surprise.
S. CASTNER: He had enlisted in the Guard without telling us, and the Guard promised him that his MOS, his Military Organization Specialty, his job specification, would be the same as he had in the Air Force.
KING: Castner, though, was assigned not to electronics or communications work, but to a military regiment. And then, just as the unit was being mobilized for Iraq, another switch.
S. CASTNER: All their job classifications were changed, and they were all dumbed (ph) down to combat infantry men without their consent, and the entire battalion was converted from artillery to infantry, to man and operate gun trucks.
KING: He complained before shipping out that training was rushed, something his father believes contributed to Castner's death on the unit's first Iraq mission.
S. CASTNER: They did not have an adequate number of Humvees to train. The time of the individual squads on the Humvees was severely limited.
BLUM: The enemy gets a vote, and that enemy votes every day, and that enemy changes and adapts every day. And so we need to do the same.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Be yourself.
KING: But Pentagon and Congressional sources tell CNN that while he publicly defends re-tasking units, Guard Commanding Gen. Steven Blum has complained to superiors that his units need more notice and more training before a major assignment shift like the one faced by Castner's unit.
(on camera): They didn't think they were going to Iraq to provide convoy security.
BLUM: He became a combat casualty doing a task that any soldier could be asked to do, but it was not the task the unit anticipated they would have to do.
KING (voice-over): Ahead on BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN, the questions of men sent into harm's way.
ALLEN VAUGHT, CAPTAIN, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): It shocked me that we didn't have body armor. We didn't have enough food. We didn't have enough water.
KING: Shattered ballistic glass, twisted and punctured steel -- it is the vulnerability the Pentagon doesn't want you to see. On bases across Iraq, Humvees damaged by IED attacks are covered with tarps. Troops can be punished for e-mailing photographs of significant battle damage. The Pentagon says releasing images like these could help the enemy, and CNN carefully chose these shots to take those concerns into account.
But critics say the Pentagon restrictions, just like limits on images of caskets, are part of a concerted effort to keep the American people from seeing the worst of this war; seeing just how vulnerable the most high-tech army in the world is to the crude weapons of a resilient and resourceful enemy.
It is a vulnerability that can be traced back to the very beginning. It was March 2003 when Dallas trial lawyer Allen Vaught got his call-up. A month later, Army Reserve Capt. Allen Vaught deployed to Fallujah.
VAUGHT: I don't think we were more than three days without either an RPG being fired at us or an AK-47 being fired from around the corner or mortars coming in at night.
KING: Back then, riding in a Humvee in Iraq meant canvas or fiberglass doors -- sometimes, no doors at all.
In one letter home to his mother, just a month into the war, Capt. Vaught wrote: "It is getting worse here in Fallujah, and we don't know why. I have done my past few missions in this town by riding inside of a Bradley instead of my Humvee with canvas doors. Seems like everywhere we go, nobody likes us. I thought we were supposed to be welcomed as liberators."
The insurgency was gaining steam. Roadside bombs, IEDs, became the weapon of choice against a suddenly vulnerable superpower. Capt. Vaught had little doubt where they were coming from. VAUGHT: There were munitions all over this country. I have pictures of just tank rounds and artillery rounds and RPG rounds just lying everywhere, in open fields and bunkers. And the fact that we did not have enough troops to secure those sites in the early days of the war has led to a lot of the IEDs being used on our troops now, because the Iraqis went in and looted that equipment.
KING: After six months in Fallujah, Vaught was transferred to the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began railing against the U.S. occupation. There, Vaught was ordered to take a dangerous mission in unarmored Humvees, to taxi a prominent Shiite leader's daughter to a hospital in central Baghdad.
VAUGHT: You know, your options are pretty limited. Your options are to disobey the order and not go on the mission -- I guess, be court-martialed for cowardice -- or you go on the mission. So we went on the mission.
KING: One IED exploded; then a second.
VAUGHT: It was an ambush. It happened so quickly, and it just -- all of a sudden, your ears go deaf, and you know something's happened, but you don't know what just happened.
KING: The explosion and gunfire ripped through Vaught's Humvee. His back was broken. Two of his comrades had shrapnel injuries.
VAUGHT: It's funny how you come to your senses and realize, "Oh, my God, I just got hit by a roadside bomb, and now people are shooting at me."
KING: The vulnerability was no secret. In the Blackhawk Down incident in Somalia back in 1993, 18 Army Rangers were killed in their vehicles, leading to the first generation of armor upgrades. But the Iraq plan assumed just a few weeks of high intensity combat. Recommendations to send a larger, better protected force were dismissed.
Instead, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld settled on a lean invasion force of about 148,000 troops. And of the thousands of Humvees sent to Iraq with them, only 235 -- 235 -- were armored.
Allen Vaught recalls packing the floor and cabin walls with sandbags and any scrap metal they could find.
VAUGHT: That's all we had. I mean, we crudely armored our Humvees. Any metal we could get, we could find, we would put in critical areas, we thought, of the Humvee.
KING: "Hillbilly armor," they called it. Troops in the world's greatest army left to scavenge for sheet metal.
SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: It all traces back to a lack of a coherent plan when they went in, understanding this might evolve into some insurgency. KING: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is a Vietnam era veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division. He went to Iraq in July of 2003. The lack of armor was the biggest complaint from troops.
By September, as Congress debated the war budget, the Pentagon had conceded it needed more up-armored Humvees. More than 1,400 for Iraq -- not nearly enough was Reed's conclusion.
REED: My information indicated they need at least 3,400, and I wanted to start that process, jump start that process.
KING: Reed proposed transferring money from Iraq reconstruction funds to buy 800 more Humvee armor kits. The Pentagon told Congress it didn't need any more.
REED: I think they were still in the stages of denial, saying, Well, this is not necessary. Why do we want to invest in these armored Humvees because, frankly, we won't be needing them when we leave Iraq in the next several months.
KING: Four years later, Pentagon data show IEDs and similar explosive devices cause nearly six of every 10 deaths in Iraq and nearly six of 10 of the major injuries, like the broken back suffered by Capt. Vaught.
VAUGHT: Armored Humvees will stop most of the munitions the Iraqis were using on us at that particular time.
KING: It was an IED that killed Stephen Castner. Among his father's memories, a conversation in which his son told a friend of his shift to convoy security duty.
S. CASTNER: And the friend said, "Well, that's pretty safe, isn't it?" And Steve said, "No, it's not. You ride around waiting to get blown up by IEDs."
HARDY: Our Humvee, the utility vehicle, was never intended to be a fighting vehicle.
KING: The same Pentagon that sent only 235 armored Humvees to Iraq at the start of the war now has roughly 8,000 there. And says it needs 2,000 more.
HARDY: This is an evolutionary sort of process in some cases. We started the war, trained, organized, equipped for what we thought the war would require.
KING: Lt. Gen. Blum, whose Guard units tend to come last when the Army assigns new equipment, calls it a waste of time to look back and assign blame.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go, go, go, go, go!
KING: Yet he told CNN, there is no doubt the initial Iraq force had too few troops and too little armor -- to him, a major breach of war doctrine. BLUM: And the lesson is a very fundamental lesson of all prudent military planners: Plan for the worst case. You hope for the best, but you plan for the worst.
KING: When we come back, the war in Iraq destroys equipment at an alarming rate.
COL. ROBERT SWENSON, CMDR., LETTERKENNY ARMY DEPOT: For example, on Humvees, we're getting six years of use in one year in Iraq.
KING: This is progress, but it comes late, and at a hefty price. As many as 30 Humvees a day get new armor at this facility we visited in Baghdad. Work once done only back in the States, now at the war front.
DAVID STEWART, DEFENSE DEPT. CIVILIAN: It came in with probably about that much protection, going out with a whole --
KING (on camera): It's going out with a whole handful more?
KING (voice over): David Stewart runs the show here, and keeps the math simple.
STEWART: Every time we turn out 30 vehicles, that's 30 soldiers that have a chance of going out the gate, and coming back alive. That's what that means to me.
KING: This facility in Balad (ph), 50 miles north of Baghdad, is another new addition. But still not enough to handle the enormous repair and armoring challenge. So Humvees, tanks, and other heavy equipment, beaten by heavy use in a hostile climate, not to mention damaged by IEDs and hostile fire, are lined up, logged in, and shipped home.
Then logged in on the other end. Before being stripped, cleaned, and rebuilt to battle ready.
COL. ROBERT SWENSON, CMDR., LETTERKENNY ARMY DEPOT.: It initially took us 274 hours to produce a Humvee. It's now taking us less than 160 hours to produce the same Humvee.
KING: It is an efficiency born of repetition. Back home we visited Colonel Robert Swenson of the Letterkenny, Pennsylvania Army Depot. He's in charge of restoring Humvees beaten by an unyielding combat temp in harsh desert conditions.
SWENSON: In Humvees, we're getting six years of use in year in Iraq, which is significantly reducing the life cycle of how we expect to be able to use that Humvee.
KING: The desert is equally unkind to helicopters. This frontline repair work on helicopters is done in Balad, Iraq. But the bulk of aviation work comes here to Corpus Christi, Texas. Where we saw robots help increase the productivity of a depot Colonel Tim Sassenrath says is getting more and more work as the war drags on.
COL. TIM ASSENRATH, CMDR., CORPUS CHRISTI ARMY DEPOT: It's triple because the soldiers in the field, the aviation flying hours, are about seven times the normal amount. So seven times the normal amount, you've got that much more wear on the aircraft, and the parts have to turn faster.
KING: The faster turnaround is welcome at the war front, but it doesn't come cheap. Taxpayers have already poured $500 billion into Iraq. And at least $17 billion is budgeted this year just for equipment repairs.
And it will take at least that much every year as long as the war continues, just to keep things as they are. But today warehouses in Iraq and Kuwait are full, and most critical parts and supplies available, a dramatic turnaround.
CAPT. ALLEN VAUGHT, U.S. RESERVIST: You ready?
KING: Captain Allen Vaught, the reservist injured in a Sadr City ambush, now lives with his family in Dallas. He says shortages were common when he arrived in Fallujah just weeks after the war started.
VAUGHT: There was a supply problem, so much that our troops were rationed to one big bottle of water for every eight days and one MRE per day. Now, of course, you would die if that's all the water you had, one bottle for every eight days, because the temperature was 120 degrees usually, sometimes more.
KING: They were forced to purify river water. One of many problems that can be traced back to early miscalculations that the war would be swift and the Iraqi people welcoming.
A government accountability office study reported the Pentagon was unable to accurately forecast supply requirements for armored vehicle track shoes, lithium batteries, meals ready-to-eat and tires. In some cases they underestimated the actual demand, which resulted in supply shortages during combat operations.
Assessments of armor shortages are equally damming. In 2004, the manufacture of the Humvee armor kits was producing 460 a month. But a government an audit found the signed agreement with the manufacturer indicated an increase to 500 vehicles.
The days of canvas, or fiberglass doors on Iraq's perilous roads are passed. No soldier can leave a forward base unless in an armored Humvee or better. But even fully armored, a Humvee is vulnerable, and vehicles that provide better protection are still in short supply. The M-1117 armored security vehicle, for example, fell out of favor before Iraq because the army was shifting to a lighter, more mobile force, but it is back in production now and in Iraq in limited numbers because its V-shaped bottom helps direct explosions away from the passenger cab. SPEC. RYAN MARTENS, 21st FIELD ARTILLERY, WIS. NAT'L. GUARD: This is a better form of protection for some troops that are lucky enough to get them.
KING: That Specialist Ryan Martens' unit was lucky enough to get several armored security vehicles is telling. He is in the Wisconsin National Guard.
Stephen Castner's unit, the unit had only Humvees for patrols at the time of Castner's death. But several Wisconsin Guard members CNN encountered in Kuwait talked to us off camera. They believe the unit later received armored security vehicles and other equipment upgrades because Castner's father complained to Congress and the Pentagon.
(On camera): They say they have some armored support vehicles now. And they have full frag-5 up-armored Humvees, they think, because of that, because of the political trouble the father caused.
LT. GEN. STEVEN BLUM, CHIEF, NAT'L. GUARD BUREAU: I think they -- I would say there's some veracity to that. I would say there's some validity to that.
Stephen may have saved other people's lives, and if it gives them any solace that his loss may have prevented the loss of some other soldiers down the road, then I would say he probably did not die in vain. Although, it doesn't take any of the pain for the loss away from the family, never will. Never will.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fire!
KING: When BATTLEFIELD BREAKDOWN returns, as the war eats into the National Guard, who's left to serve the homeland?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The question is how long do you want to wait for your fire department?
KING (voice over): Training is a staple of military readiness. A free-fall jump from a Chinook helicopter, part of the regimen special forces units rely on to prepare for the rigors and stress of combat.
On the ground, the images are less dramatic but critical in assessing Iraq's debilitating toll on America's military might. One snapshot, near empty lots at National Guard armories. The best equipment is in Iraq. Rifles that can't be used because they need repairs is another. Many in congress believe it is a deepening crises.
SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: What we've done in terms of stripping the stores, the war stocks, in terms of concentrating so much in Iraq is that we don't have the strategic flexibility to respond to other problems.
KING: Pentagon numbers shared in private meetings with lawmakers hammer home the devastating domino effect of pouring so many resources into Iraq. The situation now is even worse than when this chart was provided to Congress back in 2006, showing more than two-thirds of the Army's 42 active brigades are rated unable to perform their missions because of equipment and manpower shortages.
In fact, sources tell me that at one point the Iraq Study Group was leaning towards a recommendation of 100,000 additional troops to pacify Baghdad. But in a private briefing, the Pentagon said it would have trouble coming up with 20,000.
MICHELE FLOURNOY, MILITARY ANALYST: Right now, the United States doesn't have any depth of strategic reserve in our ground forces. Meaning we don't have ground force units ready and waiting to go deter a conflict, or keep a small problem small, or stop aggression against an ally or interest anywhere else.
KING: Military analyst Michelle Flournoy calls that a dangerous state of decay for a super power worried about a nuclear Iran and an unpredictable North Korea.
FLOURNOY: That's the kind of contingency that should keep people up at night because of the kinds of forces that are required to execute that war plan are not available right now.
KING: The cost is not just a military strained overseas.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Line up in the center of the fox hole.
KING: Iraq's deployments have devastated the National Guard, the country's first line of homeland defense. Nearly 90 percent of stateside guard units are rated not ready for deployment. Overwhelming problems is equipment ordered left behind in Iraq. So once home, units lack trucks, weapons, helicopters, and other vital tools needed in case of a terrorist attack, or more traditional challenges like a major hurricane or earthquake.
BLUM: The question is how long do you want to wait for your fire department to get all the equipment it needs to put out your house fire? That's really the question that each senator and each congressman has to ask, is how much risk do I want to assume in the zip code where my constituents live?
KING: General Blum recently told Congress it would take $40 billion to replace the equipment guard units have lost to the Iraq war.
BLUM: And we need some help.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By order of the president of the United States, the 1113th Transportation Company is activated to federal active service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
KING: The California Guard is a case study. It has had to refuse some state missions because so much of its equipment is left in Iraq. And now, as First Sergeant Steven Howell, and others in the 1113th Transportation Company, prepare to go back to Iraq, their training is compromised. FIRST SGT. STEVEN HOWELL, 113 TRANSPORTATION CO.: One of the biggest disadvantages we have as a unit getting prepared to mobilize is the equipment training assist that we have are not fully up- armored. So that kind of limits our ability to train in what we're actually going to be doing the mission in.
KING: Stephen Castner had similar concerns when he videotaped his Wisconsin Guard unit training for Iraq.
STEPHEN CASTNER, FATHER: They didn't have enough time. Some of the soldiers have told us they had only about an hour in the seat driving Humvees, and they were going to be sent over to Iraq to drive these things. They're not your average SUV.
KING: And there are other shortcuts.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got one down, one down.
KING: This simulated IED attack is in a mock Iraqi village we visited at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Before its first deployment, the 3rd Infantry Division trained here, the Ft. Irwin, California, desert base, where heat, sand, and other punishing conditions of the Iraq battlefield can be closely replicated. But training this time in the Georgia woods is a compromise that gets these soldiers to Iraq faster.
Another compromise, the Humvees, tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles awaiting the newest troops in Iraq are borrowed from the Army's already severely depleted emergency reserves.
FLOURNOY: We really aren't training and preparing for any other mission set. And over time that may degrade the capability and competency of the force, for other challenges we may face, other contingencies we may face in the future. That is not a comfortable or wise position for a super power to be in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had a big fire fight out here, right outside Baghdad.
KING: Four years later, a third deployment, and a sergeant with a secret.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want them to know that, hey, when I come back, I'm going to be messed up.
KING: Ahead, the cost that can't be counted.
KING (voice over): Like the Army he proudly serves, Sergeant Chris Tucker is hurting. He can't walk in his military-issued combat boots. Both feet need surgery. He is near deaf in his right ear. And if the nightmares don't wake him up, his wife Nicky often nervously chases him down sleepwalking.
STAFF SGT. CHRIS TUCKER, CHARLIE CO., 64th ARMOR REGIMENT: The next morning when I wake up finding out that Nicky made me go back to bed because she found me wandering across the house, you know, yelling and screaming, you know, get down, and playing Army with people. It's kind of frustrating.
NICKY TUCKER, ARMY WIFE: He's in this dream of being in battle. So it is scary because I'm not going to be over there with him in Iraq to stop him from waking up in the middle of the night.
TUCKER: My uniform's in there somewhere.
KING: Chris Tucker is 24 years old, and despite his mangled feet, failing hearing, nightmares and depression, he's off to Iraq, for the third time in four years.
The Army promises help but says Sergeant Tucker is needed on the battlefield.
TUCKER: You would hope that they would take care of you better, but some things are just out of your hands.
KING: Some measure Iraq by the death toll; more than 3,500 and counting. Others by the number of wounded, 25,000 plus, so far. The financial cost is another barometer, $500 billion in four-plus years. Current spending at a rate of $2 billion a week.
But how do you count what you can't comprehend?
TUCKER: This is on your right sleeve, you have your combat stripes.
KING: Like the toll on people like Tucker, who are toughing it out. Perhaps, Tucker's wife Nicky worries, at an enormous cost down the road.
N. TUCKER: When he first went in, and from now, he's not the same. He's always trying to be the bigger man and take care of himself, but there's a point where enough's enough, and he needs to be looked at, and he needs to be taken care of. But the mission always comes first, and he has to worry about himself later.
KING: According to the Army, 12.5 percent of soldiers on their first Iraq tour reported acute stress. It jumped to more than 18 percent among soldiers on their second tour. Roughly 200,000 members of the Army and National Guard have been deployed to Iraq at least twice. And those heading back now face extended tours of 15 months.
TUCKER: It's kind of depressing in some ways. It makes you realize that we're stretched kind of thin.
KING: Stretched thin and constantly stressed.
MARTENS: Numerous times we've been hit with IED strikes, small arms fire.
KING: Specialist Ryan Martens is with the Wisconsin National Guard unit that lost Stephen Castner on its first mission, a unit that has come under fire many times in its year in Iraq. MARTENS: I've been knocked unconscious from one blast, but that was just due to the fact that it blew up pretty close to the truck. So I mean, it's just from the concussion.
MAJ. GEN. DENNIS HARDY, DEP. COMMANDING GEN., 3rd ARMY: We're all continuing to learn about the implications, the effects of operations, continuous operations, multiple deployments. And then some of the situations, the explosions, the roadside bombs that our soldiers find themselves in.
KING: More and more, commanders worry brain injuries could be to Iraq what agent orange was to Vietnam. The extent of the problem hidden for years. General Dennis Hardy is among those pushing for a more detailed monitoring system, even after soldiers leave Iraq and the Army, for that matter.
HARDY: We probably got to do a more formal sort of tracking process to understand who has been in the vicinity of some of the explosions, monitoring behavior, to see if there's been any changes, any indicators.
KING: Chris Tucker's first exposure came during the march on Baghdad back in 2003.
C. TUCKER: What's up? We're in a big fire fight here, right outside Baghdad. It's kind of hot.
KING: When then-private Tucker mounted a camera on his tank. CNN has kept in touch since the beginning. The flashbacks and nightmares started between the first and second deployments.
TUCKER: I'll wake up places, and I don't even know where I'm at. It freaks you out. You're like, wow, that just can't be safe. You know, I -- I had a big problem with my anger and depression.
KING: Counseling and medications have helped some, Tucker told us when we visited just before he shipped out the third time.
C. TUCKER: There's not many other places I'd rather be on the battlefield than on this baby.
KING: He showed off his tank with pride and tries to hide his physical and psychological scars, especially when a new recruit has questions about combat.
C. TUCKER: Just the other night, I had one of my soldiers, you know, he was kind of upset, and he said -- he said, hey, Sergeant T, what's it like, man? I'm scared.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not too bad so far.
C. TUCKER: I told him, I understand. It's OK to be scared. Because the first time I went, I was scared. I was a baby, just like you.
KING: That baby of the initial march on Baghdad has aged a lot in just four years. Moving up the enlisted ranks into a critical position in the Army, a sergeant with the trust of his men, and experience under fire.
Experience that is irreplaceable.
SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: You lose a lot more than just an individual captain, or individual sergeant. You lose a lot of experience. A lot of what makes this Army and Marine Corps the best in the world.
KING: So far the Army shows a respectable bottom line from a recruitment and retention standpoint. To meet goals, the services have increased the use of generous bonuses, lowered their educational standards, raised age limits, and issued more waivers for those with criminal convictions. And many of those who have stayed in proudly are increasingly war weary.
TUCKER: Take the bolts off and put a new one on.
KING: People like Chris Tucker.
First the Army told Tucker he must stay in Iraq five additional months after his commitment runs out next March.
TUCKER: Yeah, I'm kind of banged up, but I think there are many other people in the same position as me.
KING: Banged up, and now, feeling a bit betrayed. Just as he deployed, this bomb shell. His tank unit was retasked, assigned to Humvee patrols with Iraqi troops. Not the mission they spent months training for. Two men in his company died in the first two weeks back.
This is it. No more Army for Chris Tucker.
TUCKER: You'll always see me push myself, you know, beyond a breaking point for me. I don't think we're busted. I think we're stretched thin. It starts to wear you out. You start to lose good soldiers because -- like myself. I'm tired.
KING: Tired, stressed, and hurting. Like the Army he proudly serves.
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