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Subpar conditions force Florida Guard troops into a hotel

The commander of the Florida National Guard put one of his cargo planes on alert last week, ready to fly off and rescue 35 of his combat medics.

He wasn't saving them from Iraqi insurgents. It was the U.S. Army.

The Army was housing the Florida troops on a Texas base in sweltering metal huts, conditions the Guard called horrible.

Temperatures climbed close to 110 degrees, without adequate bathroom facilities, reported the troops, who were training before deployment to Iraq on Sept. 1.

The medics said the Army told them that they were being prepared for the desert heat and suggested they use wet towels to help them sleep.

"They need to stop saying troops need to be able to endure," the Florida Guard's commanding general, Doug Burnett, said on Wednesday. "That's complete crap. I know they're going to Iraq, and I know it sucks over there. But the soldiers don't need to suffer unnecessarily."

With crucial help from Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, Burnett was able to get the medics into a nearby hotel late last week after they spent a week in the huts.

But Burnett raided his own budget for $250,000 to pay the extra cost. Burnett covered accommodations for his troops and a group of others from five states.

"I took care of all of them," Burnett said. "When you're taking care of soldiers, you don't make a distinction about where they're from."

He said the National Guard Bureau in Washington will reimburse him.

Army officials both in Washington and at Camp Bullis, located near San Antonio, did not return calls for comment. Members of the Florida unit, the 256th Medical Company, also could not be reached.

It all started on Aug. 6, when a medic's relative sent a letter to the Guard and several members of Congress to complain.

"Shame on the state of Texas and Washington, D.C., for treating our military people so badly!" wrote Patricia McMahon, a principal in St. John's County. "I am appalled. … No wonder so many of these young people don't want to make the military a career!"

Burnett said his office was working to correct the problem at the time of this complaint.

At some point, a Guard leader visited Texas to inspect living conditions. This official, Gen. Mike Fleming, said conditions were substandard. (Records do not make clear the date of his visit.)

Fleming's report said:

The huts had no running water or privacy. The Florida troops and 150 soldiers total — a mix of men and women — were forced to use one distant bathroom, sharing eight stalls and eight shower heads.

"These conditions create a safety concern and obviously do not enhance the learning capability of our soldiers," Fleming said.

Young said he learned about these complaints at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 6. He immediately called Burnett at home.

"This was just not right," Young said. Burnett, Young said, told him he was in bed staring at the ceiling trying to figure out a solution.

After an e-mail to Army Chief of Staff George Casey at midnight, Young heard back from a top Army official the next morning at 7 promising a quick solution. In a day, troops were in the hotel.

Burnett said he was serious about sending a Guard plane to bring the troops back to Florida absent a fix. Until they deploy, he said, the troops are under his command.

The general said it isn't the first time the Army provided subpar housing.

Three years ago several hundred Florida troops were kept in 28-degree tents during a New Jersey winter at Fort Dix. In that instance Burnett sent heating equipment.

Burnett said Army leadership isn't the problem. Instead, he said, it's ingrained in Army culture at lower ranks to just force troops to suck it up.

"That's stupid," Burnett said. "I owe the moms and dads of these troops the responsibility to look after their sons and daughters that they've trusted us with."

Subpar conditions force Florida Guard troops into a hotel 08/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 4:05pm]
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