Why He Popped The Question

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"If this is my 15 minutes of fame, I hope it saves a life," says Thomas "Jerry" Wilson, the National Guard specialist who unnerved Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a public forum by asking why soldiers have to scrounge for scrap metal to arm their vehicles before heading into Iraq. Wilson, 31, who joined the National Guard a few days after Sept. 11, has kept a low profile since the Dec. 8 town-hall meeting in Kuwait, even as his question — and a reporter's later account of his role in preparing it — became a hot topic. But in an interview with TIME last week, the soldier from Tennessee's 278th Regiment gave his first public account of the incident, saying he came up with the pointed question himself.

Wilson, of Ringgold, Ga., says he met and befriended Edward Lee Pitts, an embedded reporter from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, at California's Fort Irwin, where his unit trained. Later in Kuwait, after Pitts learned that only soldiers could ask questions at the upcoming Rumsfeld meeting, he urged Wilson to come up with, as Wilson recalls, some "intelligent questions." Wilson decided on one after his convoy arrived at Camp Arijan. The camp had hundreds of fully armored vehicles waiting for a unit scheduled to arrive in July. When Wilson asked if the 278th could use them in the meantime, the answer was no. Wilson then devised a question about the shortage of armor and showed it to Pitts. Even though the reporter "suggested a less brash way of asking the question," Wilson says, "I told him no, that I wanted to make my point very clear." Wilson says he also came up with three alternate questions on his own.

As for Rumsfeld's brusque response — that even a fully armored vehicle "can be blown up"--Wilson says, "Personally, I didn't like that answer." But as a George W. Bush supporter, he adds, "I hope I didn't do any damage to Secretary Rumsfeld." After the meeting, Wilson told Rumsfeld he did not intend to put him "on the spot" or show disrespect, and the two shook hands. While most soldiers were "overwhelmingly positive" afterward, one officer suggested Wilson should have asked the question in a more "proper forum." Says Wilson: "My response was, 'What would the proper forum be?' If it costs me my career to save another soldier, I'll give it."