From the Fact Check Desk: Obama's Army Anecdote

At last night's debate in Texas, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, told an anecdote about an Army captain that is causing a lot of chatter in the political world.

Obama was making a point about what he called "the single most important foreign policy decision of this generation, whether or not to go to war in Iraq." His point was that in opposing the war he "showed the judgment of a commander in chief.  And I think that Senator Clinton was wrong in her judgments on that."

He argued the Iraq war "diverted attention from Afghanistan where Al Qaeda, that killed 3,000 Americans, are stronger now than at any time since 2001."

And then he told the following story to argue that Clinton's vote -- and the larger decision to go to war -- had negative consequences.

"You know, I've heard from an Army captain who was the head of a rifle platoon -- supposed to have 39 men in a rifle platoon," he said. "Ended up being sent to Afghanistan with 24 because 15 of those soldiers had been sent to Iraq.  And as a consequence, they didn't have enough ammunition, they didn't have enough humvees.  They were actually capturing Taliban weapons, because it was easier to get Taliban weapons than it was for them to get properly equipped by our current commander in chief."

Asked about the story in the Spin Room last night, Obama strategist David Axelrod told the National Review's Stephen Spruiell, "that was a discussion that a captain in the military had with our staff, and he asked that that be passed along to Senator Obama."

Conservatives have weighed in on this story, many of them challenging its veracity (see HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.)

I called the Obama campaign this morning to chat about this story, and was put in touch with the Army captain in question.

He told me his story, which I found quite credible, though for obvious reasons he asked that I not mention his name or certain identifying information.

Short answer: He backs up Obama's story.

The longer answer is worth telling, though.

The Army captain, a West Point graduate, did a tour in a hot area of eastern Afghanistan from the Summer of 2003 through Spring 2004.

Prior to deployment the Captain -- then a Lieutenant -- took command of a rifle platoon at Fort Drum. When he took command, the platoon had 39 members, but -- in ones and twos -- 15 members of the platoon were re-assigned to other units. He knows of 10 of those 15 for sure who went to Iraq, and he suspects the other five did as well.

The platoon was sent to Afghanistan with 24 men.

"We should have deployed with 39," he told me, "we should have gotten replacements. But we didn't. And that was pretty consistent across the battalion."

He adds that maybe a half-dozen of the 15 were replaced by the Fall of 2003, months after they arrived in Afghanistan, but never all 15.

As for the weapons and humvees, there are two distinct periods in this, as he explains -- before deployment, and afterwards.

At Fort Drum, in training, "we didn't have access to heavy weapons or the ammunition for the weapons, or humvees to train before we deployed."

What ammunition?

40 mm automatic grenade launcher ammunition for the MK-19, and ammunition for the .50 caliber M-2 machine gun ("50 cal.")

"We weren't able to train in the way we needed to train," he says. When the platoon got to Afghanistan they had three days to learn.

They also didn't have the humvees they were supposed to have both before deployment and once they were in Afghanistan, the Captain says.

"We should have had 4 up-armored humvees," he said. "We were supposed to. But at most we had three operable humvees, and it was usually just two."

So what did they do? "To get the rest of the platoon to the fight," he says, "we would use Toyota Hilux pickup trucks or unarmored flatbed humvees." Sometimes with sandbags, sometimes without.

Also in Afghanistan they had issues getting parts for their MK-19s and their 50-cals. Getting parts or ammunition for their standard rifles was not a problem.

"It was very difficult to get any parts in theater," he says, "because parts are prioritized to the theater where they were needed most -- so they were going to Iraq not Afghanistan."

"The purpose of going after the Taliban was not to get their weapons," he said, but on occasion they used Taliban weapons. Sometimes AK-47s, and they also mounted a Soviet-model DShK (or "Dishka") on one of their humvees instead of their 50 cal.

The Captain has spoken to Sen. Obama, he says, but this anecdote was relayed to Obama through an Obama staffer.

I find that Obama's anecdote checks out.

Some are quibbling about whether or not the "commander in chief" can be held responsible for how well our soldiers are being equipped, since Congress provides the funding for the military, but the Pentagon (and ultimately President Bush) are in charge of the funding mechanism.

I might suggest those on the blogosphere upset about this story would be better suited directing their ire at those responsible for this problem, which is certainly not new.  That is, if they actually care about the men and women bravely serving our country at home and abroad.

- jpt

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