Soldiers refuse `suicide' duty in Iraq

Army investigates

Relatives say reservists had unprotected convoy

October 16, 2004|By Mark Mazzetti and Ellen Barry | Mark Mazzetti and Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Army has launched an investigation into whether members of an Army reserve unit in Iraq refused to carry out a convoy supply mission this week, military officials said yesterday.

The incident came to light when relatives of the soldiers under investigation declared that the troops disobeyed orders to drive in the convoy because they considered it a "suicide mission."

The troops believed that the poor condition of their fuel trucks and the lack of armored vehicles to escort them meant that the convoy would be too dangerous, the family members said.

The soldiers decided to express their concerns to commanders on base.

The reservists are part of a fuel platoon from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, a South Carolina-based unit charged with delivering food, fuel, water and supplies to front-line troops throughout Iraq.

Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, supply convoys have been among the most dangerous missions in Iraq, with insurgents launching deadly attacks with rockets, small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices on a daily basis.

According to a U.S. military statement issued from Baghdad, 19 members of the fuel platoon failed to appear at a scheduled 7 a.m. formation Wednesday in Tallil, a U.S. military base in Iraq. The formation was called to prepare for a fuel convoy mission hours later to Taji, a town north of Baghdad.

The statement does not give details about why the troops refused the mission.

"The investigating team is currently in Tallil taking statements and interviewing those involved," the statement read. "This is an isolated incident and it is far too early to speculate as to what happened."

The Reserve unit, based in Rock Hill, S.C., is made up of soldiers from throughout the South. The Army described the 343rd as "an experienced company that has performed honorable service for nearly nine months in Iraq."

The incident was first reported by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss.

"The main thing is that [my husband] feels his life was saved by not going on the mission," said Patricia McCook of Jackson, whose husband, Sgt. Larry McCook, is among the soldiers under investigation. "My husband is the type of person who does not disobey orders."

With roughly 40 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq drawn from the Reserve and National Guard, the Pentagon has struggled to equip Reserve units with the same vehicles - as well as equipment such as body armor - that full-time troops have.

Jacqueline Butler, also of Jackson, the wife of Staff Sgt. Michael Butler, another soldier involved in the incident, said her husband would never have refused the mission unless he thought his life and the lives of his troops were unnecessarily at risk.

"I know that for him to take that drastic measure, they put him in a no-win situation," she said. "I know he ain't going to jeopardize [his years of service] unless it was dangerous to his life, a suicide mission."

"Yesterday we refused to go on a convoy to Taji," Spc. Amber McClenny, 21, said in a message she left on the answering machine of her mother, Teresa Hill, in Dothan, Ala. "We had broken-down trucks, non-armored vehicles. We were carrying contaminated fuel."

After the soldiers were released, McClenny called her mother again and explained that the jet fuel the convoy had to carry had been contaminated with diesel, and that because it had been rejected by one base, it would likely also have been rejected by the Taji base where they were ordered to go.

Taji is in the volatile Sunni-dominated swath of Iraq, and Hill said her daughter felt that "if you go there, it's a 99 percent chance you will be ambushed or fired upon."

"They had not slept, the trucks had not been maintained, they were going without armed guards; it was just a bad deal," Hill said. "And that's when the whole unit said no." She said their defense is "cease action on an unsafe order."

Hill said she was later contacted by Spc. Tammy Reese in Iraq, who was calling families of the detainees.

"She told me [Amber] was being held in a tent with armed guards," said Hill. Her daughter later said they are facing punishment ranging from a reprimand to a charge of mutiny.

According to the statement issued by the military, the soldiers raised "valid concerns," which commanders are now addressing. The commanding general of the 13th Corps Support Command - the parent command of the South Carolina-based unit - has ordered a stand-down of every vehicle in the unit, during which the vehicles will be inspected for safety hazards.

It is the behavior of the soldiers, however, that is the subject of an inquiry to determine whether any of the troops violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice when they refused the mission.

"Unfortunately, it appears that a small number of the soldiers involved chose to express their concerns in an inappropriate manner, causing a temporary breakdown in discipline confined only to some members of the platoon involved," the military's statement reads.

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