The Pentagon has acknowledged that Donald Rumsfeld did not sign condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq, but it said that the embattled defense secretary would stop the use of signing machines and would pick up the pen himself.

In a statement provided to Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, Rumsfeld said: "I wrote and approved the now more than 1,000 letters sent to family members and next of kin of each of the servicemen and women killed in military action."While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter."

The controversy arose when soldier-turned-writer David Hackworth penned a column Nov. 22 reporting that two Pentagon-based colonels told him that Rumsfeld "has relinquished this sacred duty to a signature device rather than signing the sad documents himself."

After checking with various families of the dead, Hackworth wrote that "one father bitterly commented that he thought it was a shame that the SecDef could keep his squash schedule but not find the time to sign his dead son's letter."

Hackworth wrote that a Pentagon spokesman, Jim Turner, dutifully told him that "Rumsfeld signs the letters himself."

This is an unwelcome discovery for Rumsfeld, whose handling of the Iraq war has earned complaints from several Republican senators.

In particular, Rumsfeld drew criticism for his dismissive treatment of a question from an Iraq-bound soldier about the lack of protective equipment.

Stars and Stripes quoted families of the dead saying they were insulted that Rumsfeld did not sign the letters.

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