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Iraq/U.K.: War Widow Says Soldiers Had To Share Body Armor, Buy Equipment

Britain sent its soldiers to the war in Iraq sometimes lacking proper equipment. Some had to purchase gear themselves, or share it. A war widow has made public audiotapes sent by her soldier husband, who died in action without body armor. RFE/RL reports that the government has ordered an inquiry into this case, but the soldier's widow and the opposition are calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon.

London, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Sergeant Steven Roberts, 33, died in action in Iraq on 24 March 2003. While on a patrol, shot in the chest. He had lent his protective armor to one of his fellow soldiers. There were simply not enough flak jackets to go round.

He died on the same day that he sent an audiotape letter to his wife. In it he disclosed that he was concerned about his unit not getting the appropriate protection in battle.

Robert's widow Samantha made the tapes public yesterday. She also has disclosed that her husband had to buy other equipment, such as a tent and a flashlight, spending the equivalent of $1,800. She said other soldiers even had to buy special desert boots.

Mrs. Roberts made the tapes available to a British TV station. "Things that we were being told we were going to get we just have not, and it's disheartening because we know that we are going to have to go to war without the correct equipment," Roberts said.

"The Times" quotes the widow as saying that she has tried to make people aware of what happened in order to prevent more deaths, but found herself up against people like Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon. She has called for his resignation and says she will not stop until she is assured that such a thing cannot happen again.

Hoon defended himself in parliament. He said that the military sent 38,000 sets of enhanced body armor to Iraq. It was enough, he said, to equip all those who needed it. Hoon said, however, that some gear failed to reach soldiers before combat began.

"Not all of this equipment reached every unit in [the war] theater before the start of combat operations. However, the equipment that was known to arrive in theater was prioritized for those whom commanders judged had the greatest need, ensuring that all dismounted infantry units benefited from this additional protection," Hoon said.

These explanations did not satisfy the opposition. Its leader, Michael Howard, called for Hoon's resignation. He said in parliament that to send men into battle without proper equipment amounted to dereliction of duty on part of the government.

Conservative Party Shadow Army Minister Keith Simpson told RFE/RL that there is "no way for Mr. Hoon to hide behind a general picture and say that there are always problems if such a conflicts arise."
"Things that we were being told we were going to get we just have not, and it's disheartening because we know that we are going to have to go to war without the correct equipment."

"Our people in the armed forces and the Ministry of Defense were saying, look, if we are going to go ahead, we have to get not only the troops into position, but also the logistics. And I think ministers were very, very wary about alarming their own backbenchers in parliament, and that's a very sad position to be in," Simpson said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair even had to deal with this embarrassing development at his regular media briefing yesterday.

"First of all, let me express my sympathy and condolences to Mrs. Roberts, and to say to you I totally understand the concerns that she has expressed. As you well know, there is an inquiry being conducted now by the Ministry of Defense, and I know that they are keeping Mrs. Roberts closely in touch with the process of that inquiry and, of course, they will with the outcome as well," Blair said.

The embattled defense minister now has agreed to meet with Mrs. Roberts, but this comes at an inconvenient time. Some insiders expect the findings of the Hutton inquiry into the death of government arms expert David Kelly -- to be made public on 28 January -- to reflect poorly on Hoon.

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