A clemency deserved

December 20, 2004

THE CHOICE before Army Maj. Cathy Kaus and Chief Warrant Officer Darrell Birt was no choice at all: Take what appeared to be two abandoned Army trucks and two trailers so they could move all their equipment into Iraq, and strip a third for parts. Or don't take them and scrounge around for spare parts en route to the war.

The officers and four other Reservists from the 656th Transportation Company, based in Springfield, Ohio, were found guilty of theft and destruction of property earlier this year in a case that underscores yet again the failure of the Pentagon to give soldiers what they need.

To borrow a phrase from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Army these Reservists went to war with didn't have enough trucks to get them from Kuwait to Iraq - and no spare parts. Their decision to improvise landed them in prison.

That's no way to treat a couple of officers who believed that without the parts from the stripped truck, their mission to deliver essential fuel to Army units deep in Iraq would be compromised.

The ill-prepared Army they went to war with is the same Army that the soldiers say ignored or never filled their repeated requests for spare parts before their transportation company rolled out of Kuwait in March 2003.

It's the same Army that dishonorably discharged them.

These soldiers knew they were breaking the rules and pleaded guilty as charged. But they didn't see any other way to secure their long, difficult journey into Iraq, a route that has been targeted by insurgents.

Major Kaus and Mr. Birt weren't thieves - they didn't sell the stuff on the black market and pocket the cash. They were being resourceful in a time of war.

U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio has recognized the wrong done here and requested clemency for the officers. Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, who will consider the request, should grant it. In a time of war, military discipline is essential. Without adherence to rules and regulations, anarchy would ensue and the safety of soldiers and civilians would be seriously jeopardized.

That's the way it should be. But the wrong that should be set right involves the officers and their comrades who also were punished.

Major Kaus, a 46-year-old single mom, and Mr. Birt, 45, have served more than 20 years in the military. Both are Bronze Star recipients. Their guilty pleas won't change their discharge status.

Senator DeWine is trying to save their retirement benefits because they carried out their mission the only way they believed they could safely do it.

They did the best they could with what they had.

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