updated 7/27/2005 12:55:21 PM ET 2005-07-27T16:55:21

Guest: Robert Kelley, James Rainey, Donald Jackson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Tonight, a HARDBALL Special Report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line,” real-life combat stories from the men who fight our wars. 

Let's play HARDBALL.

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  And welcome to a HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line.” 

You know, every day, we watch the news and we see the pictures that try to capture the reality of the war in Iraq, but pictures can't begin to tell the whole story.  We've learned that, the human story of the battles being fought over there.

Tonight, we've recruited three of the Army's top field commanders—they're just back from the front—to share their real-life stories to tell you what you're not getting on television and what they've been facing, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kelley of the 5th Special Forces Group, Colonel Donald Jackson, United States Army War College, and Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rainey of the 1st Cavalry Division.  And NBC News Military Analyst General Montgomery Meigs is here.

We also have an audience out there of enlisted soldiers, civilians, students and scholars who are going to ask some questions during the next hour.

My first question is for Colonel Kelley.

Your battalion over in Iraq—I know nothing of what it's like day to day, over there—what was it like for you guys, day to day?

LT. COL. ROBERT KELLEY, 5TH SPECIAL FORCES GROUP:  I have to start, Chris, by explaining what my unit consisted of.  And for us, for a special forces battalion, the guys who do the heavy lifting, are a special forces team.  They've got a captain.  They've got a warrant officer, and then they've got 10 senior sergeants, all soldiers who've been in the Army several years. 

They go through a selection and training process to come in and do special forces.  And then, day to day over there in Iraq, it varied quite a bit, because those teams were widely scattered throughout the country.  So when I go visit a team on the Syrian border, you find things that are very different there than when you go visit a team down near the Iranian border.

So, you see local differences in the insurgency and the war that those teams fight, but at the same time, I saw national trends.

MATTHEWS:  You know, we hear a lot about the different groups over there, the Sunnis, the Shia.  When you have to fight them, is it any different for different groups?

KELLEY:  Well, the—I actually—I met Jim in the battle of Najaf

...

MATTHEWS:  That's fighting Shia.

KELLEY:  Well, it was mostly, but then what we found is that you had foreigners coming in there.  You had Iranians come in.  You had foreigners who came from Fallujah down to that fight.  So there's—and all these fights, it's different.  There's local differences, but, in general, they are not—some very tough fights, but they are not on par with our soldiers.

MATTHEWS:  What are their soldiers like that come out and meet you?  Are they trained?  Are they irregulars?  Are they just hotshots?  How would you describe the guys you're fighting out there?

(CROSSTALK)

KELLEY:  It depends from battle to battle. 

In Najaf, we found that, the closer we got to the Imam Ali Shrine, the better the fighters got, the more hard-core they were.  You found more foreigners there.  So, you—our guys, again, the soldiers who are doing the fighting, in one block, they may be fighting a guy who picked up a rifle last week and was paid a certain amount of money or was motivated to join this particular fight. 

And then a day later, or a block later, they'll be fighting a very disciplined, well-trained skillful guy.  Sometimes, that guy's a foreigner.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are some of them are good—some of them good shots?

KELLEY:  They're—yes, there are some good shots.  Most of them aren't, but, again, in Najaf, we ran into some very good enemy snipers who got into some pretty intense sniper-countersniper fights between my guys and Jim's guys that were, I mean, very interesting fights.  You go visit those guys, you go see what they're doing.  And that's like a little war within itself.  A sniper-countersniper fight was a little war within the larger battle of Fallujah.

MATTHEWS:  Same perspective, Colonel?

LT. COL. JAMES RAINEY, 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION:  Well, just the same point of reference for everybody.  I had the privilege of commanding the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, which is a mechanized infantry battalion, about 850 men and women, tanks, best tanks, best Bradley Fighting Vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles we have in the Army, armored Humvees, a more conventional heavy force. 

And my battalion is part of the 1st Cavalry Division, Task Force Baghdad, that was responsible for Baghdad proper and a little bit of the surrounding area.

The area we operated in normally was a place called Taji, which is just north of Baghdad, almost entirely Sunni, lot of former regime, a lot of former Baathists, Iraqi Intelligence Service guys.  Fedayeen guys went top ground there, and Wahabis, so, a pretty bad area, 685 square kilometers.  Day-to-day basis, we had the IED and the countermortar fight, where the enemy would try and shoot mortars onto the bases to inflict casualties, destroy aircraft, things like that.

Then, in August, we fought in the battle of Najaf as part of a larger joint force there, Army units and Marine units and all the air capabilities of the Navy, the Air Force, Special Ops, so, what we call a joint fight, put together a joint team with the Marines, fought 15 days hard, tough urban combat down in Najaf, great victory for the Iraqis and for—for the coalition.

Then, in November, again, another joint fight, this time with the 1st Marine Division, which had moved over and with the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cav, and the infantry, 22 Infantry, another one of the Army infantry battalions, but basically built around the 1st Marine Division, and fought the big—the big battle in November with the foreign fighters, where they'd gone to ground and, you know, had declared that they were going to withstand the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who were the most ferocious enemy you faced over there?  Was it—was it the Baathist regime, people that were once in the Saddam army, or the Shia down south?  Who would you call your most fierce opponents?

RAINEY:  Again, there's—you know, there's different aspects of being a soldier.  There's the competence piece and there's the commitment piece.  So, those two components make up a good soldier. 

The majority of the Shias were very committed, you know, fanatical, if you will, down in Najaf, especially.  And it's hard to fight guys like that, because they're going to charge you; they're going to attack you; they're going to accept great personal risk.  They shoot RPGs at your tanks and Bradleys.

But they're not very good, and we basically devastated that enemy down there.  And shortly, into the fight, the countersniper stuff between special forces and Army snipers, Marine snipers and the enemy kind of came about because they lost their fanaticism after three or four days of just getting pretty much pounded by the Army and Marine Corps down there.  They stopped jumping out in the street and being fanatical and started hiding from us.

So, they were very committed.  The closest to competent fighters that I saw over there with my forces was in Fallujah, the battle of Fallujah, where there were some foreign fighters, some experienced foreign fighters, lacking the ideology...

MATTHEWS:  Foreign, meaning what?

RAINEY:  Other than Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  You mean, they're from Egypt or Saudi Arabia?

(CROSSTALK)

RAINEY:  Yeah, and places that had fought in other places.

MATTHEWS:  Is that your experience, Colonel Kelley, the same crowd, Fallujah was the toughest fighting?

RAINEY:  The...

KELLEY:  Well...

RAINEY:  I'm sorry. 

The—what I was going to is, is, they were the most competent by terrorist or by foreign fighter standards.  But they're not...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Were they trained by Saddam?  Were they part of the old army that sort of snuck away after we came in?

RAINEY:  Yeah that's a...

KELLEY:  I'll tell you, the insurgency over there, if you want to understand it, you need to be very comfortable with ambiguity, because it's not, OK, this is the insurgent model.  It is a very complex grouping of people. 

There's—there are former regime elements.  You were a thug under Saddam, you don't just all of the sudden turn over a new leaf in the new Iraq over there, so now you're a thug and you're an insurgent.

You've got Shia.  You have Sunni.  You have some Islamists, you know, whether they call themselves Wahabis or Salafists.  You have foreigners coming in.  And what it is, is, each fight is, they come together and it is a marriage of convenience between them and...

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Jackson, you came in after the fighting in Fallujah these both officers were involved, these leaders were involved in.  How did you know with the people who was really on our side and who had simply faded away when our guys came in there with all that firepower?

COL. DONALD JACKSON, ARMY WAR COLLEGE:  Well, Chris, first of all, thank you for inviting us to this—this meeting. 

It is very difficult to tell who the bad guys are and who the good guys are.  And my job in both Najaf and Fallujah, even before these commanders went to Fallujah and Najaf, was to prepare for what happens after the fight.

At civil affairs, we were responsible for, number one, trying to keep people away from the fighting, to keep people, local civilians, away from what we call kinetic, the combat operations.  And then, once the combat operations are complete, then we come in there very quickly to try to rehabilitate the area, whether it's restoring power, power plants or power generation or power pumps. 

In Fallujah, it is little known that there were power pumps, water pumps that pumped water out of Fallujah.  When the Battle of Fallujah was over, much of the city of Fallujah was under water.  And the civil affairs....

MATTHEWS:  Why was it under water?

D. JACKSON:  Because the pumps, kind of like New Orleans, kind of below the river, the pumps were not working...

MATTHEWS:  So, the city is below, sir, the river level?

D. JACKSON:  Yes, much of it, not all of it.  So we had to go in and help with the Marines, the Navy, the 1st Cav, and help pump that water out before we can even get people back into the city.

MATTHEWS:  How did you know who to trust, Colonel?

D. JACKSON:  It was difficult.  You had to develop relationships in Iraq.  Relationships is everything.  One of the challenges is maintaining relationships with Iraqis.

And my job, it's about relationships.  You have to go out—you can't go out, like we do here in the U.S., and sit down and say, let's start business right now.  You have to go out.  You have to sit down with them.  I've worked with several sheiks.  You sit down with them.  And those are local leaders who have a clan of people that listen to them and they trust them and they believe in them.

And you go down and you sit with them and you develop this relationship over a long period of time.  And I was able to do that and many others, like these—these guys.  They were responsible for big areas.  You sit down with them and they would tell you, hey, this guy's not from my area.  Or they would tell you where weapons were being stored.  And, in the long term, that is how you are able to weed out these insurgents.

MATTHEWS:  General, we'll be right back. 

When we return, we're going to ask our commanders how long will American troops be a part of this war.

This is HARDBALL's special report “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Lines,” only on MSNBC.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up , the untold stories from the front lines in Iraq.  HARDBALL's special report,  “Boots on the Ground,” continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line in Iraq.” 

I am here with three of the Army's top field commanders. 

I want to get back to your thoughts, Colonel Rainey.  Tell me about what you face every morning when you get up over there and you, I assume, say your prayers to get the day started.  Who are the enemy out there, the insurgents?

RAINEY:  Well, Bob and—alluded to the—made up—it's a various collection of people that don't want Iraq to become a great place for different reasons.  That's to sum it up.  It is complex. 

And another thing about the insurgency that is a critical piece, I think, to understand is, is it is a tough insurgency over there.  It's not a popular one, which is good for us, because those are the ones that historically that are really a problem.  There is not a conventional component of it, like there has been in North Vietnam, for example.

But it is hard.  It is very hard to fight.  It is arguably the toughest type of warfare that you can ask a military to do, is to defeat an insurgency.

The good news is, is that we are doing that.  We're winning over there.  And I'll tell you, there is different aspects of it.  The reconstruction piece, we're getting better at.  It is hard.  It's hard to ask a kid with an infantry, a platoon leader with a history degree from West Point to take over a water treatment plant and run it.  But it happens.

MATTHEWS:  Tell...

RAINEY:  One of my lieutenants did it.  It's—so, we're getting better at that.  And the training of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, we're getting better at, but it's hard.  It takes time. 

Their army was terrible before the war.  And we're basically starting from scratch and building a competent military.  Now, the Army trained me for 17 years before it let me lead a battalion in combat.  I have sergeants who come in the Army.  The best guys I have spend two years doing everything right and we let them be in charge of three men in battle, a fire team leader.  That's kind of the most important part we got.

So, we're doing the reconstruction, getting better every time.  We've got guys who are going back there now.  We are bringing great National Guardsmen that bring talents to—that are unbelievable to that fight.  And we're figuring it out.  There's people drinking water for the first time.  There is power places it's never been.  Trash is getting picked up.

It's hard.  Every time we do something and we're successful, the enemy

·         it automatically becomes a target to the enemy, so we have to commit forces to it to protect it.  It is a complicated thing.

MATTHEWS:  Colonel, how do you...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Kelley—excuse me.

Colonel Kelley, how do you tell your men to know what to look for? 

They don't wear uniforms on the other side.

KELLEY:  They—well, they know.

Again, we have, for my unit, got senior NCOs on the teams.  And they have been operating out there in places for several tours.  So, they have a lot of on-the-ground, in-the-streets experience.

MATTHEWS:  Good instincts.

KELLEY:  Very—that—you're—I don't want to exaggerate or be melodramatic, but, I mean, your life depends on your instincts.  And you really have to—especially dealing with the Iraqis, you have to trust your instincts, as you—you create a force.  You work with the Iraqi police.  You work with the Iraqi army, because I'm not going to tell you that they're perfect and I'm not going to tell you that the enemy is not trying to penetrate and isn't penetrating those organizations.

But I will tell you that there are some incredibly brave Iraqis out there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But can the—excuse me—can your noncoms sense, when they go around a turn and they see some people standing there, that they're the enemy?  Can they tell?

KELLEY:  You—you can—you can feel it.  And some of my guys call it the stink eye.  It's like, hey, sir, we don't want—we don't want to go down that street or we don't want to go into that neighborhood because, you know, they've been giving us the stink eye, just looking at you in a very confrontational or a sullen manner.  I mean, it varies.

MATTHEWS:  So they give it away a little bit?

KELLEY:  It's—you know, in a conflict like that, it is very hard over time for people to hide their—their true feelings.  But, honestly...

MATTHEWS:  Well, that's good, isn't it?

KELLEY:  Well, it is, but you know what the best indicators are, are the kids.  Kids are your best leading indicators, when you go into a new area and how the children react to you before mom and dad has a chance to pull them and say, hey, do this or do that.  When you first go in there, how the kids treat you is a reflection of what their parents talk about and their opinions of the coalition.

MATTHEWS:  That's true of life, isn't it?

KELLEY:  It is.  It is.

MATTHEWS:  And so, if the kids are giving the bad look, you know the parents are going to have the same 'tude, same attitude.  And if the kids are smiling and coming up to say, hi, that's a good sign.

KELLEY:  It is. 

RAINEY:  Numerous times, I have been driving somewhere, moving somewhere, and the children will run out to the road and wave.  And then the parents will come up and smack them in the head and drag them back inside.

MATTHEWS:  And that means?

RAINEY:  That means that the parents are not pro-coalition.

(LAUGHTER)

D. JACKSON:  It's either that—it's either that parents are not pro-coalition or that they are being watched by some of these bad people that these officers were just talking about.

RAINEY:  Right, being intimidated.

MATTHEWS:  Which, in effect, is the same result, a dangerous neighborhood.

D. JACKSON:  Oh, absolutely.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLEY:  But once they pull them inside a few times, then those kids aren't going to be out there waving at you anymore.

So, it's best when you first go into an area.  It's the best indicator when you first go.

MATTHEWS:  So, they're not actors over there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  When we return, we'll be joined by NBC News military analyst and retired General Montgomery Meigs. 

This is a HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line,” only on MSNBC.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line.”

General Meigs, respond to what these officers have been saying, these colonels, the fighting guys.  They say that, when you go into an area, you can smell trouble.

RET. GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Yeah, that's right. 

I—look, I can remember in both Vietnam and Bosnia, you'd be used to the patterns of a town or a village.  And if you were to show up with troops and the patterns had changed or stopped, I mean, you could almost smell it.  You knew that something was going down.  You weren't sure what.  And then you—that's where the instinctual thing comes in.

Secondly, Bob was talking about something that you started earlier in the program about the training of the Iraqi forces. 

And, Bob, you were—you were telling me about a special forces outfit that you trained that was slowly going out of business.  What was that all about?

KELLEY:  Well, the—we stood up an entire Iraqi special operations brigade.  My S.F. soldiers, you know, working with them, and guys who went through some very tough fights, whether it was Najaf or Fallujah or Samarra. 

And when we first stood the unit up, there was a lot of call for that unit around the country:  Hey, we need you up here.  We need you over there. 

And it wasn't always because they needed a special forces unit.  It's because they needed a reliable Iraqi security force.  And now that unit has to look real hard, because what you have all over the country is, you have local forces who are working with American soldiers or coalition soldiers.  And they're becoming more and more capable.

So, that unit has to look around much more to find things to do outside of where they are based.

MATTHEWS:  So, you're confident of the training effort so far, putting together an Iraqi force?

KELLEY:  It is not easy.  I'm not going to lie to you.  It's not easy.  Jim talked about it, how long it takes us to build an army.  But I can tell you that the units that I worked with, whether—that my guys worked with, and I worked with the commanders of the Iraqi special operations brigade.  Those were my counterparts—that it came quicker than I thought it would come along.

MATTHEWS:  Do they know what they're doing, in terms of purpose?  Do they know they're not just getting paid a salary; they're trying to build a country?

KELLEY:  Again, I'm not going to lie to you, Chris.  There's—you go to this unit, and it's like, hey let's go, let's jock up, and let's—we're going to go here to this known bad guy area. 

And you find out who's just in it to draw a paycheck.  But I will tell you that—that, generally, there are Iraqis—I can't believe the risks they take.  I mean, I have soldiers call me up and say, because they come and they serve for several weeks and then they go home for a while.  And guys call up and they're apologizing to my guys, to my sergeants, and they're saying, I'm not going to report back for duty on time, calling from wherever he lives in the country.

And, I'm sorry, but, if I leave, they're going to kill my family.  So, I am not going to be back.  And I just want you to know I'm not AWOL.  When I get my brother down from this town, or I move my family to this town, then I will be back.  I'll be late, but I'll be back there.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, their families are being killed because they're fighting.

KELLEY:  This is—that's—this is—you know, we're a military—

Jim talks about it.  We're—and he's exactly right.  We're—we are a values-based military.  And we fight according to some very strict, very good principles, guiding principles. 

And our enemy suffers none of those constraints.  And, you know, killing families, things like—there was an Iraqi policeman who served outside my base and he brought his two-and-a-half year old daughter to my battalion surgeon, because she was horribly burned over 60 percent of her body.  The reason she was burned over 60 percent of her body is because the insurgents had put explosives into a stuffed animal and threw it over his fence, knowing that his daughter would go for that.

And I wish I gave you a picture of the American hospital there, where we put her.  And like 35, 40 stuffed animals, she was just cradled in them, because we got her in an American hospital.  And that guy, in the face of that kind of threat, he was still going back to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Rainey, talk about the—you have a picture you want to show us of a fellow doing something interesting in this fight.

RAINEY:  It goes back—it's illustrative of the complexity of this fight.  But it goes to your point about their forces vs. ours.

And, you know, every warrior respects his enemy.  And you don't like him, but you respect him.  It's just part of doing business the way we do.  And the enemy has some committed young lower-level soldiers, foot soldiers.  They're committed and they have some decent leadership, not good leadership, but they have effective leadership who are good at strategy and they are really good at information operations.

What they don't have that we do have is the mid-level noncommissioned officers, the sergeants that make the American military the absolute best in the world, not just the Army, the Marine Corps, their counterparts.  This picture I brought along is one I use when people ask me if I think we're going to win this fight.  You know, are we going to win?  And my answer is, yes, we are.

MATTHEWS:  Describe it.

RAINEY:  This is a young sergeant, about 20, 21, 22 years old now, battle in Najaf.  He is in a countersniper battle with the enemy that Bob mentioned early, kind of a stalemate, not because we couldn't keep moving, but there is some political negotiating going on.

So, the enemy moved his snipers forward and was trying to pin down our soldiers.

MATTHEWS:  We're looking at the picture, by the way, right now.

RAINEY:  It's a very, very, very complicated process, been going out throughout history, countersniper battle. 

U.S. Army sniper and his partner—we always have two together—are trying to kill an enemy sniper who is trying to kill them and kill friendly forces.  And they go to do this thing the whole day.  It's 130 degrees down there, you know, a real pleasant place to be.

And that young sergeant right there couldn't get the shot on the enemy, kind of knew where he was, couldn't get the shot.  So, he took his helmet off, took his uniform off, balled it up, made a dummy, scarecrow, and put his helmet on it, put his sunglasses on it.  Put it on a stick, raised it up.  And when the enemy sniper took a shot at that decoy, that deception, the 18-year-old U.S. Army sniper who was working with him killed that enemy sniper. 

(CROSSTALK)

RAINEY:  There you go.

There is no—no other army in the world, not enemy, not an insurgency, has that kind of talent.

MATTHEWS:  And you can't be trained to do that?  You have to have innovation.

RAINEY:  No, you can—you can be trained. 

I mean, the biggest advantage we have as a military and a couple of the other countries that are fighting with us is—is investment in people.  If you invest in people and you invest in leadership and you invest in training, you're going to come out.

If we stick with this thing, we're going to win because of guys like that.

MATTHEWS:  I want to talk to you, Colonel, about hearts and minds, Colonel Jackson, whether we're winning that battle as well.  And we'll have General Meigs get in here on the question.

When we return, we'll have much more from our guests and we'll hear from our audience. 

You're watching a HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground:

Untold Stories from the Front Line,” only on MSNBC.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line.”  We have gathered together three of the Army's finest to get a front line view of the war in Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kelley of the 5th Special Forces Group, Colonel Donald Jackson of the U.S. Army War College, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rainey of the 1st Cavalry Division.  Also with us, NBC News military Analyst General Montgomery Meigs. 

Let's go to our audience right now for the first question.

Sir?

QUESTION:  Good evening.  My name is Wayne Smith (ph). 

I spent 18 months in Vietnam as a combat medic.  And I am here today with a number of other veterans from both the Gulf War and Vietnam.  And we salute you for your service and thank you for helping to educate us about boots on the ground in Iraq. 

But I must tell you that, judging from your description of the war in Iraq, it sounds a lot like Vietnam, the difficulty distinguishing enemy from—friends from foe, the nature of the insurgency.  And I wonder what lessons, if any, do you think have been learned from the Vietnam War that are being applied to the war in Iraq?

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Kelley, you start it.

KELLEY:  The—well, first of all, I want to thank you for your service, sir. 

I'll tell you that the Army, in my estimation, does a pretty fair job of learning from the past.  So, we study Vietnam.  And it's one thing to say an institution studies what happened, what went right, what went wrong.  It's another thing when it comes to application.

And I think, if you look at the application of it by soldiers against fighting—fighting a counterinsurgency in Central and South America after Vietnam, we took lessons that we learned there and we applied them in Central and South America, with some success.

Same thing in Afghanistan.  You look at what the Russians tried to do in Afghanistan, 10 years, 10 divisions, and then you look at what our military did in a very short period of time.  So, the—we're always learning.  It's a tough fight.  I don't think you heard or will hear from any one of us that this is not a very tough fight.  But I'll tell you, in my experience, it's worth fighting.  And you've got some great young Americans who are succeeding over there.

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Jack—Colonel, go ahead.

RAINEY:  Again, I'd just like to echo, thank you all for your service.  It's a proud tradition that we're a part of now, the military fighting men and women over time.  And we really do value that.

The bigger thing—you know, Bob talked about how we've adapted for our fight and we have learned a lesson.  We've all studied everything we can learn, you know, and talked to veterans, very active veterans' groups. 

The bigger thing may be what we're doing outside the close-in fight, that -

·         the unit integrity that we're maintaining.  We're sending units over.  I took my force over there, brought it back. 

We got some replacements for injuries, but no kind of wholesale individual replacements or anything like that.  It was a great lesson learned.  I think, if you look at improvements we're making at taking care of our wounded guys who come home, I think that's a product of some stuff we didn't do right in the past that we're trying to get better at.

And then maybe the biggest one is that I think that America is just—

I think there's a lot of people that are ashamed of the way they treated the Vietnam veterans returning.  And I think that's a direct—as they should be in some cases—and I think that's a direct reflection on the great support that our soldiers are getting when we come home now.

And that may be the biggest thing.

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Jackson, do you feel the American people behind you over there?

D. JACKSON:  Oh, absolutely. 

Even your—just coming in here today and your staff, we felt very comfortable coming in here.  Some of your veterans came up to thank us.

And, personally, just like the two colonels said, you know, you have to thank them, because we stand on their shoulders.  Our military is not the way it is today without some of the sacrifices that our young men and women before us have done.

I mean, we have the most effective fighting force that has ever been put on this earth and it is because of the men and women who fought before us.

MATTHEWS:  Are we better with a volunteer Army than having a draft Army?

KELLEY:  Oh, definitely.

RAINEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Why are you so sure?

(CROSSTALK)

RAINEY:  Because the all-volunteer force is about quality, not quantity.  So, you know, the Army is growing a little bit.  It is getting bigger.  We are in the middle of a tough war.  Would it be nice if more of the right people stepped up to the plate for the right reason?  Yes.  That would be great.

MATTHEWS:  Better recruitment.

RAINEY:  Well, I mean, it's a choice in our country.  You know, you volunteer to serve in the military.  And we could use more of the right people joining for the right reasons.  And that would be—I'm not going to lie.

MATTHEWS:  Your experience tells you that who makes the best soldiers?  When you say you want the right people, what kind of officer corps are you looking for?

RAINEY:  You want guys that are doing it for the right reason.

And the right reason is that they're driven by a sense of obligation, a sense of responsibility to this great country, and for whatever reason.  Some guys get it from their parents, some from their preacher, some from their coach, some from—you know, just all different, depending on how you grew up.  There's no mold.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you feel that motivation, gentleman, among your fellow officers?  Can you tell the guys and the women who are there because they really do love their country and they think this is something that the country needs done, or are some guys just for three squares a day or just a career move?

KELLEY:  Well, it's—Jim—I mean, for my force, we have got guys who have already been in the Army a while.  They go through a fairly interesting selection and training process to get in the unit and then...

MATTHEWS:  To get in special forces.

KELLEY:  Right.

But Jim says it best.  You know, nobody joined after—very few people joined after 9/11 for college money.  You join after 9/11, you know that you're going to serve this nation that needs you in time of war.

RAINEY:  That's the story.  That's the other part of the story.

MATTHEWS:  You're going to the front, in other words.

KELLEY:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

RAINEY:  No, but you talked about, there's a whole story to get told.  And there is numerous stuff in the press that says that armed—any one of the service is or isn't meeting their recruiting goals, retention goals.  And that's—you know, the American people are entitled to that information.

A good example of what doesn't get told is that simple fact that Bob just mentioned.  Post-9/11, anybody who walked into a recruiting station and raised their hand, anybody who took an ROTC scholarship to any service, anyone who walked into any of our service academies did so knowing that they were going to war. 

MATTHEWS:  Personally.

RAINEY:  Not a 1-20 -- not a 1-20 chance they might fight the Russians over in the plains of Europe.  They knew they were going to war.  And they signed up.

And we're getting great people.  The talent of people that are signing up and joining the Army, knowing that they're going to fight, one to defend their country, one to protect their family from the global war on terror and these people that want to harm us, they're good—they're great people.

(CROSSTALK)

RAINEY:  So, the talent—we're better off with the talent.  More talent is better, but talent is a requirement before we...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLEY:  The more interesting thing is, what are the reenlistment numbers?  Once a young man or woman joins the Army and is in the Army for a few years, once their family is part of the Army family, once they go to war, then why do they reenlist in the numbers they do? 

And I'll tell you, it's not perfect.  You always want to keep everybody.  Guys make different decisions at different parts of their life.

But the—we—my organization is doing all right, reenlistment-wise.  And it's because they trust the organization.

MATTHEWS:  They trust the special forces.

KELLEY:  Well, they trust—they trust the organization, whether it's the Army or the special forces regiment or their battalion.  Most important, they love their teammates. 

And third reason they stay in is because they feel, in their heart, that they are doing something that's vital to national security.

MATTHEWS:  We felt that when we visited the guys who were wounded over at—at Walter Reed.  They want to get back to their units.

When we return, how much time do we have, by the way, to get the job done in Iraq?  That's the big question.  Want to get to the general with that one.  And will the insurgents ever give up the fight and surrender?

More with our guests and our audience. 

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  This is HARDBALL, a special report, “Boots on the Ground:

Untold Stories from the Front Line,” only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL Special Report, “Boots on the Ground: Untold Stories from the Front Line.”

Next question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Christy Custer (ph). 

How has your family dealt with you being on the front lines, and how do you keep in touch with them while you're away?

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Jackson?

D. JACKSON:  Well, my wife, Angela, is in the audience.  I'll let her answer that question.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  There she is.

ANGELA JACKSON, WIFE OF COLONEL DONALD D. JACKSON:  Well, he calls me once a month, and through e-mails is how I was able to stay in touch with him.

MATTHEWS:  So, is that a good relationship, these calls?

D. JACKSON:  It's tough.  It's tough on families.

But the military has done a wonderful job with trying to make sure that soldiers have e-mail, access to mail.  I was privileged to do a VTC with my family halfway through.  And then I was also able to come back over for my son's graduation from high school.  So, the military is very supportive of families, unlike it was, you know—we were talking about during Vietnam.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, for funerals and weddings and stuff, you can come back.

D. JACKSON:  It depends on what relationship you had with the person that—that died.  But, generally, for a father or a mother, you generally got to come back.

MATTHEWS:  What do you miss?

D. JACKSON:  What do I miss from?

MATTHEWS:  From being over there, besides the obvious stuff.

D. JACKSON:  Oh.  Oh, I—I enjoy driving down the highway now and only worrying about getting a traffic ticket or something.  You know, I'm not worried about getting shot at.  So, this is—this is great.  You appreciate...

MATTHEWS:  You miss the calm of American life.

D. JACKSON:  Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

MEIGS:  But, Chris, what makes this go is these groups of spouses and wives that volunteer to run an organization that supports the families and maintains the contact with the soldiers in the field called the family support groups.

MATTHEWS:  Angela, what don't you like about this war, missing your husband and the whole thing?

A. JACKSON:  Well, I just miss—it was hard for me to not see him every day, and my son not staying in close touch with his dad.  That's—basically, that's it.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thanks a lot. 

We'll be right back, much more with our guests and our audience when we return. 

You're watching, as you can see, a HARDBALL special report, “Boots on the Ground: The Untold Stories from the Front Line in Iraq,” only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this HARDBALL special report. 

Next question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I'm Bob Scheck (ph).  I am also a Vietnam veteran. 

You are an impressive group of warriors.  You do us proud.  Thanks a lot.

Colonel Kelley, you talked about ambiguity.  That seemed to be the pervasive experience in Vietnam as well.  And one particularly difficult aspect of that was, on the one hand, you want to protect your forces, which often means you have to fire before you are entirely sure you're in danger.  On the other hand, you want to win hearts and minds, which means you want to keep civilian and other kinds of casualties down. 

Those push in two different directions.  It was always a problem in Vietnam.

Have you guys found a way to solve that problem?

KELLEY:  No.  I mean, it's—it's something that young soldiers deal with every day. 

I will tell you that our guys are very, very discriminating in their use of force, because the reality is, when they enter a house, you don't know if you're just going to find women and children in there, if you're going to find guy you're looking for, or if you're going to find guys who are in there and they are going to fight to the death.

So, part of our training is being very discriminating in the use of force.  And it just—it takes a lot of training.

MATTHEWS:  I'll bet. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Colonel Jackson, we see pictures of American troops risking their lives breaking into houses in the middle of the night looking for insurgents.  How do you win back the support of those families, where we've embarrassed them and broken into their homes in the middle of the night?

D. JACKSON:  Chris, before any of those operations are started, there's a planning process, where we plan the civil affairs actions that are going to go in.  They break the doors down, go in after the insurgents, and we plan to go in to help to minimize the destruction, try to help people recoup damages. 

We also try to make sure that, if there is someone that was detained, that they can get information on where they went.  But the bottom line is, we want to get them back to normalcy as soon as possible.  So, we want to show them that we're after the bad guys.  And, if you're bad, we're going to get you, and, if you're not one of the bad guys, that we want to make sure that we make it right.

MATTHEWS:  General Meigs, we're running out of time.

How much time do we have over there in Iraq to win the hearts and minds, to reconstruct the country and defeat the insurgency, before we are just forced out by history?

MEIGS:  Well, Chris, there is two clocks running.  The first clock has to do with politics and economics.  We have a...

MATTHEWS:  At home.

MEIGS:  We have a runaway current accounts deficit, what we're spending vs. what we're bringing in from overseas.  We have a burgeoning deficit.  It's not clear that the economy is going to stay healthy over the next five years.  You've got elections in '06 and '08.  Are the American people going to stay behind these great soldiers?

Secondly, how long can we keep a bold fighting presence like this in the heart of the Muslim world without generating even more animosity?  So, the pressure on us is to minimize that signature and get the Iraqis in the game, so that they can move toward a safe and secure society that has some sort of reasonable government.  It's a condition-based standard.  But you're right.  The pressure is on to do it and do it as quickly as possible.

MATTHEWS:  Gentlemen, you're the fighting forces and the civil forces over there.  Do you sense that clock ticking, that you can't stay in the country more than four or five years, or whatever the time limit is, or do you think we have a lot of time?

RAINEY:  Well, one of the fundamental concepts that makes our country great is the whole separation of the military and civilian, and civilian control of the military.  And we really don't worry about it. 

And we support the president of the United States.  We execute his orders.  We've done it.  I've done it personally for four presidents equally the same.  Our job is to fight, take care of each other, kill bad guys, help good guys.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

RAINEY:  And we'll come home when we're told to come home.  And we'll stay as long as we have to.

MATTHEWS:  Do you have any sense that we're winning the hearts and minds, gentlemen?

KELLEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  How do you get the sense?  What's your manifestation of that?

KELLEY:  Again, it varies different places.

But the way people react, it's typical insurgency.  You have people who are willing to blow themselves up, a small group of them.  You have Iraqi security forces, most of whom are very, very dedicated, take incredible risks.  And then you have a large number of people in the middle who just want—they want peace.  They want stability.

But you generate momentum, and they come on your side.

MATTHEWS:  I'd like to thank my guests, obviously, Colonel Robert Kelley, Colonel Jim Rainey, Colonel Donald Jackson, General Montgomery Meigs.  I want to thank you for telling the story of Iraq. 

And, as we say good night, I'd like to ask our audience to join me in thanking—I like to say this well, because I mean it from my heart.  Thank you for your service, gentlemen.

(APPLAUSE)

END

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