Since 2003, our country has been fighting an escalating and elusive war. The battlefield injuries just keep breaking my heart. Despite the obvious dangers that our troops face in hostile areas -- whether in mountainous regions or heavily-populated cities, it seems that our own government exacerbates problems further by providing our troops with faulty or unsuitable equipment. This is a chronic problem that keeps rearing its ugly and tragic head in many different ways.
Some of you might remember incidents of faulty electrical work causing electrocutions in the showers on bases in Iraq. It's truly despicable to think that troops were being injured and killed in the safety of their own bathrooms. What's worse is that it took the Army years to act on the problem. In fact, it was only due to the courage and persistence of Cheryl Harris, mother of Green Beret Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, that the Army was finally forced to admit there was a problem. They ultimately confronted the U.S. contractor and had them fix the faulty electrical system.
More recently, the helmets our troops have been wearing have become objects of scrutiny. In May, the Army issued a recall for 44,000 helmets. While I applaud the Army for stepping up, admitting a problem and issuing a recall (as opposed to the simply ignoring the problem), I have to wonder how we arrived at this predicament in the first place. It seems to me that the reliability and quality of a soldier's helmet should be of the utmost concern; it is the most basic piece of equipment issued to the warfighter. Have you ever been to a war museum? In addition to the arms that soldiers bear, safe and secure helmets are probably the most important tool in protecting our warriors.
How could the Army have issued 44,000 defective helmets? Shouldn't there be rigorous testing of equipment before these items are issued to our men and women? The company that produced the recalled helmets, Federal Prison Industries, was awarded the contract on a non-competitive basis and have yet to produce one acceptable helmet.
In addition to electrical systems and field equipment, now that we are focusing our efforts in mountainous and remote regions of Afghanistan, our communications equipment is of the most utmost priority.
Everyone knows that part of a soldier's job involves being put in harm's way. But, the Army is obligated to provide soldiers with protective equipment that helps minimize the risks they face on a day-to-day basis. Satellite phones, for example, are supposed to give our troops secure connections back to military bases, to other members of their platoons and for calling for back-up or medical assistance. These devices are what our troops need when they are in trouble, stuck in the harsh mountains of Afghanistan, and they play an important role in the war.
Currently, the Department of Defense has an exclusive contract with Iridium Communications Inc. to manufacture and distribute these phones, but their satellite network is over 10 years old and won't be updated until 2017 at the earliest.
I discovered this when I read that the 16 year-old sailor, Abby Sunderland, who was lost at sea in her solo journey around the world, was also using an Iridium phone that failed her when she needed to call for emergency rescue. Eventually, she activated manual emergency beacons.
The bottom line is that when our troops are in dangerous situations they need the most reliable communications equipment possible. It's pretty egregious that our country doesn't have much to say about this, but is up in arms about a 1 in 200 reception problem with the Apple's new iPhone 4.
But I digress. I recall my graduation from Wharton Business School almost 20 years ago. First Lady Barbara Bush had only one theme. She kept telling us to stay human as we enter the world of high finance and fast business and to remember that everyone we meet is someone's son or daughter.
I think those in Washington that are choosing contractors, suppliers and equipment are often more easily swayed by lucrative relationships than dedicating themselves to protecting those who are protecting us.
The long list of faulty equipment with which we provide our troops continues on like a broken record. Even when they come home, their care has been compromised. What did it take for Walter Reed Hospital to finally clean up the deplorable run-down care and rehab facility?
Thank goodness for the media -- admittedly, they've received a fair amount of flack for being less than objective politically, but they've also exposed travesties like these. And for that, I'm grateful.
Our troops deserve the safest and most secure equipment available. I have to wonder how we can ask these young men and women to risk their lives for our country without giving them every opportunity stay alive.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post claimed that Iridium has a first-call connection rate of only 80 percent. This figure wasn't verifiable and has been removed from the post.
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