Ortiz: Get troops ‘out of harm’s way’

A Texas congressman has made a remarkable journey from a hardscrabble life as the son of a poor Mexican migrant to a top post in Congress that will focus on the readiness of American troops sent to Iraq.

Long before officially becoming the first Hispanic chairman of the House Armed Services Military Readiness Subcommittee Thursday, Rep. Solomon Ortiz joined the Army to help his widowed mother support his four younger siblings.

“I have never forgotten where I came from,” Ortiz said. “There were days when we didn’t have anything to eat or any clothing to wear.”

His father died when Ortiz was very young and the family depended on handouts from those better off. At age 16, Ortiz dropped out of school and volunteered for the Army so his mother could get a supplemental check to support his brothers and sisters.

He obtained a general equivalency diploma while in the Army and, eventually, about three years of college, he said. He considers himself a graduate of the “university of hard knocks.”

Ortiz, now 69, has served 43 years in public office, first as a constable, then as a county commissioner and a sheriff. He has been in Congress for 24 years and is the dean of the congressional Hispanic delegation from Texas.

During his career, Ortiz has tried to improve conditions for the men and women in the military, Luis Miranda, Democratic National Committee spokesman in Washington, said in an e-mail statement.

The appointment of Ortiz, a centrist to conservative Democrat, to subcommittee chairman isn’t controversial, said David Wasserman, an analyst of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

But the new post makes Ortiz “the most important legislator on the issue of military readiness, bar none,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think-tank.

The military readiness subcommittee Ortiz now leads could hold important hearings and has the power to OK more money or change how the military ensures readiness, said Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Under Republican control, the House of Representatives has followed the lead of the president and has not aggressively done oversight on readiness issues,” Byman said.

Thursday, Ortiz spoke out in opposition to President Bush’s plan to escalate forces in Iraq by about 20,000 more troops.

The following question and answer summary also contains information from a wide-ranging interview with Ortiz last month.

Q: What do you think of the president’s new plan?

Ortiz: I think that he’s already a dollar short.

This is something that was recommended three and a half years ago by then Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. (Eric) Shinseki when he came down and he said we need 250,000 to 300,000 soldiers to do our job.

And they decided that, no, we can do it with less than that, and now we’re paying for it in the form of lives of young men and women, in the form of the taxpayers having to pay a lot of money for equipment that’s been destroyed.

Q: Do you see flaws with the surge besides that it’s a dollar short?

Ortiz: The things we’re going to have to look at are the consequences once those 21,000 troops are taken away from the domestic United States, the continental United States. What is going to be left behind? What kind of equipment are we going to have?

How many of the first responders are going to be activated with the reserves and National Guard?

And remember, we’re not immune to being attacked inside the United States. …What’s going to happen knowing that we’re tied up in these two wars?

Q: What do you think needs to be done?

Ortiz: This is something that we have been saying in the past for many, many years. We need to increase the end strength of the military, and they would never do it.

Q: Do you see a point at which U.S. troops could be withdrawn or reduced in Iraq?

Ortiz: Well, first of all, we need to use more diplomatic efforts and talk to … Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and see if they will accept us putting troops there.

And then we can decrease it, you know, from what we have — 130,000 maybe 110,000, 100,000 — but knowing that these troops are right there, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll go right in. …

… I’m saying let’s get them out of harm’s way and put them close by. They can continue their training in those countries and then as the need arises, they can go right back. …

And let’s see if by diminishing our presence, it will cut down on some of these attacks because I’ll tell you one thing, sending 21,000 more soldiers, you’re going to see another 20,000, 30,000 insurgents coming into fight us.

Q: In the long term, what do you think needs to be done for military readiness?

Ortiz: No. 1, we need to take care of our soldiers first. We need to give them the right equipment, the right training, and we need to support their families. That’s the bottom line.

And then of course, we need to raise the end strength (total military strength). Can you imagine if we had done this two, three years ago? We would have had enough soldiers to send them there.

But they said, ‘No, we don’t need to do that. They’re going to receive us with a big parade in Iraq, and throw a big bouquet at us because they love us.’

Yeah, this is how much they love us: They killed 3,000 of our soldiers.

Q: Do you think the president and lawmakers will listen to you more now that you’re assuming this new post?

A: I think the pressure’s going to come from the American people because we’ve got to level with them, and we’ve got to tell the American people where we stand, and I think that’s where the pressure’s going to be coming from … not so much from us.

Trish Choate can be reached at choatet(at)shns.com.