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National Guardsmen Patrolling Bridges Question Readiness

Four guardsmen, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Contra Costa Times the noncommissioned officers leading their mission told them they are there "just for show."

They said the M-16 rifles they carry are dirty, they wear outdated bulletproof vests borrowed from the California Highway Patrol, have no security training and have been given vehicles that don't run.

Both National Guard and state officials denied the allegations.

"I am convinced the troops have the gear and the training they need to do the mission," said George Vinson, Gov. Gray Davis' adviser on state security. He also said Bay area bridges have indeed been the target of credible threats, although he would not elaborate.

"We're very concerned not only about the bridges, but certain other infrastructure," he said, citing nuclear plants and water ways.

Maj. Kim Oliver, a Guard spokeswoman, said all weapons are serviceable, the protective vests are optional and the Guard has requested newer vehicles.

Guard troops usually are assigned to protect the state during public disturbances or in the aftermath of natural disasters. Davis activated the volunteer force to wartime duty in November after threats to the state's four suspension bridges.

The soldiers say they are concerned for their own and the public's safety. "This isn't a game. We're at war," one said. "There are shortcomings that need to be addressed and taken care of."

Soldiers tapped to guard the bridges come from a variety of military backgrounds, not from military police or infantry units rigorously trained in the use of firearms and guarding civilian areas.

"They have no training in this type of situation except what they picked up in boot camp," one soldier said.

"These guys do their jobs," another said. "But when it comes down to their basic infantry skills, those are quite lacking."

Oliver said each soldier assigned to security on the bridges is adequately trained. "They're qualified to do the mission that the CHP has asked us to assist them with," she said.

But Col. William V. Wenger, a retired commander of the California Army National Guard, said he believes the Guard lacks the equipment, training and resources to mount a serious counter-terrorism initiative.

The Guard "still has not taken proper steps to supply the troops with proper equipment," he said.

Wenger described the bridge deployment as "eyewash."

"You cannot guard what you cannot control, and they are not given the equipment and the manpower to control the bridges," he said.

The total cost of the Guard's anti-terrorism mission on four California bridges was $2.5 million as of last month, according to the Finance Department. Government officials estimate the state will pay $400 million this year for counter-terrorism.

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