WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that he feels grief "to my core" every time he meets a wounded soldier or the loved ones of those who've been killed in action.
"I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I or others here are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and cared for in every way humanly possible," Rumsfeld said. "And I hope and pray that every family member of those who have died so bravely knows how deeply I feel their loss."
Rumsfeld made the remarks during his first public appearance after a suicide bomber killed and wounded more than 90 people who were eating lunch in a mess tent at a U.S.-run military base outside Mosul, Iraq. Eighteen of the dead were Americans, including 14 soldiers. An additional 44 soldiers were wounded.
Rumsfeld came under fire two weeks ago after he met in Kuwait with a group of U.S. soldiers who were on their way to Iraq. When one soldier asked why the Pentagon couldn't supply enough armor to protect their heavy trucks and other vehicles, Rumsfeld gave a lengthy answer, but also replied bluntly, "You go to war with the Army you have."
The remark drew a barrage of criticism from Capitol Hill, not only from Democrats who called for his ouster but also from some Republicans, who said they'd lost faith in Rumsfeld for his handling of the war and the often high-handed way he deals with Congress.
Last weekend, it became public that Rumsfeld had been using a mechanical device to auto-sign letters of condolence to the families of the more than 1,300 troops killed in Iraq. Rumsfeld's office later said he would sign each letter personally, and on Monday, President Bush praised Rumsfeld's performance and said he has no plans to replace him.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that the defense secretary is insensitive to the troops he leads, coming atop questions about the planning, execution and cost of the Iraq war and the abuse of prisoners by U.S. forces, has taken a toll on Rumsfeld's public and political standing.
Some Pentagon officials are hoping that the year-end holidays will give the storm a chance to blow over and Rumsfeld an opportunity to demonstrate his personal concern for the troops in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rumsfeld said that every time he meets with the families of a wounded or deceased service member, "their grief is something I feel to my core."
"I—and others I know—stay awake at night with concern for those at risk, with hope for their lives and for their success," he said. "And I want those who matter most—the men and women in uniform and their families—to know that."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.