Peoria Journal Star

May 13, 2004

Durbin: Pentagon will finally beef up Bartonville Chinooks
But helicopters may not get missile protection until they return home


By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Pentagon plans to send a team back to Iraq next week to start installing the most advanced missile protection system on the remaining eight Chinook helicopters from a Bartonville-based National Guard unit, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Wednesday.

But the installation won't be completed on all the helicopters in the unit until this summer, when the unit is expected to return home. It takes three weeks to retrofit each helicopter.

"It is sad and ironic that the helicopters may finally be properly equipped as they are leaving," said the Illinois Democrat.

The Bartonville-based unit, 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation Regiment, F Company, is the only one in Iraq that lacks

the advanced ALE-47 missile defense system, according to Durbin.

Installation was halted in January after five of the unit's 13 helicopters were retrofitted because the unit was then slated to leave Iraq in April. But its tour was extended until at least July. By then, the installation team had returned to Germany.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Durbin grilled Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the Pentagon's failure to provide adequate protection to soldiers in Iraq. "My question is this: Having appropriated all of this money, and myself having voted for every penny of it, how can we explain that we didn't meet the most basic requirement when it came to body armor, helicopter equipment and armored Humvees to protect our troops?" Durbin asked.

Asked specifically about the Chinook helicopters, Myers failed to provide a clear answer.

Durbin later complained, "He didn't answer."

One of the unit's Chinook helicopters was shot down Nov. 2, killing 16 soldiers, including the pilot, 1st Lt. Brian Slavenas of Genoa. That helicopter had only the ALQ-156, the basic anti-missile system. Military officials haven't determined what brought down the aircraft, so it isn't clear whether the advanced system would have helped. For three months last year, six of the unit's helicopters flew without that basic system, a situation that Durbin brought to light.

"I keep in touch with the unit, and I can find out whether what the Pentagon has promised has been delivered. ... That gives me a pretty strong hand in arguing for better treatment," he said.

Despite his complaints about how the Pentagon is spending its money, Durbin said he will support President Bush's recent request for another $25 billion for the war effort.

"I look at it in terms of protecting our forces on the ground who just went through the most dangerous, bloodiest month of our occupation of Iraq. Boy, if it were my son or daughter over there, I wouldn't shortchange them a nickel," Durbin said.