The defiance of 17 U.S. Army Reservists who refused a fuel delivery mission Wednesday prompted the military to promise long-awaited armor for their military vehicles, even as the military refused to acknowledge claims from family members that the platoon’s convoy was expected to travel through insurgent hotspots unprotected.
"I can’t think of anything we’re not doing right now," said Brig. Gen. James Chambers at a Baghdad press conference yesterday. Commander of the 13 Corps Support Command, under which the platoon’s 343rd Quartermaster Company transports fuel and water, Chambers told reporters that troops had adequate body armor and vehicles were protected with steel plating, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
Regardless, the Company has been placed on inactive status. Spokesperson Capt. Cathy Wilkinson told the Monitor that the command is taking the time to evaluate which vehicles need armor, and to retrain the troops.
According to an unnamed member of the 343rd quoted in the Monitor, the company had not been trained in combat since before their deployment from their home base in South Carolina. The unit’s training had revolved around skills like testing fuel for contamination and operating water-purification systems, rather than combat tasks, the soldier told the Monitor.
Combat refusal became a widespread phenomenon during the Vietnam War and is widely cited by military historians as a major factor in the U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia. But in Vietnam, the first known cases of collective refusal of combat orders did not occur until 1969, four years after the U.S. began committing regular combat troops to that occupation effort. By the time U.S. forces pulled out of Southeast Asia, hundreds of incidents similar to last week’s had taken place.
The entire incident has brought the issue of military preparedness into the spotlight, over a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq.
Yet even now, the response to the issue is a noncommittal pledge "to study protective measures for supply vehicles and add steel plating to vehicles if necessary," reports the Associated Press.
"[My husband] said it was only thanks to the media that they got some work done on their vehicles," Patricia McCook, wife of platoon member Sgt. Larry McCook, told Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger yesterday.
But the condition of the 343rd’s vehicles constitutes just one of several areas of contention in the first known case of collective resistance among U.S. troops in the present war.
Family members began learning of the incident on Wednesday, when Specialist Adam Gordon sent an e-mail to his mother, Kathy Harris, in Jackson, Miss., asking what could be expected if the platoon refused an order, reports Salon.
"At that point they hadn’t been arrested yet," Harris told the online magazine. "He [Gordon] said they had been ordered to take a contaminated load of fuel into a high-danger area. He said that they had already taken this load to one location, and it had been refused, and that they had, in his exact words, a ’75 percent chance of being hit’ on this new mission.’"
At a press conference on Sunday, Gen. Chambers asserted that the cargo had not been contaminated, and the Coalition’s press office told The NewStandard that the fuel had been tested during an investigation Chambers announced he had launched on Friday.
But Harris is not the only family member relaying allegations that the fuel was bad. Two parents in Alabama received calls from their sons, as did a grandfather in Kentucky.
"The fuel was contaminated for the helicopters," Harold Casey told the AP, relating a call from his grandson, Sgt. Justin Roger, 22. "It would have caused [the helicopters] to crash. That’s why they refused to deliver the fuel. They saved lives." Casey also offered that the Army should "have been grateful and really thankful," rewarding the platoon "for showing that this fuel was contaminated."
What happened to the platoon immediately following its refusal is also unclear.
One soldier, Spc. Peter Sullivan, 35, told his wife he had been denied access to counsel. And Teresa Hill received a phone message Thursday from her daughter, 21-year-old Amber McClenny, saying that the platoon had been ordered to travel without protection and that they were being held against their will, reports Salon.
The Army has denied both charges.
Major Richard Spiegel, also a spokesperson for 13th Corps Support Command, wrote Salon in an e-mail: "The confusion might be because they were required to remain in the unit area until they provided an initial statement this was required from anyone that was involved, witnessed or had knowledge of the situation and is a prudent practice to insure the investigating officer gathers all the facts in a timely manner. Soldiers’ rights were insured at all times during this process."
Adding to the "confusion" is the account of Angela Jones, who told Salon that her husband, Specialist Desmond Jones, 33, said the platoon wasn’t "directly arrested," but was placed under armed guard.
Also uncertain is their future. Chambers said that the 17 had been returned to duty, but the Clarion-Ledger, which broke the story last week, now reports that five of the soldiers may be discharged.
"My son said they are getting ready to be discharged and would be home in three or four weeks," Ricky Scott told Clarion-Ledger. "It’s just a boot … some way to put some type of close to this while using them as scapegoats."
While the Army refused to "confirm or deny" the assertion, The Ledger and AP both report that at least four sergeants in the platoon have been reassigned to new units.
Scott said his son, Scott Shealy, 29 has been reassigned to a new unit, as have Sgt. McCook and Sgt. Michael Butler, according to Patricia McCook, who spoke with her husband on Saturday.
Sgt. Rogers also told his grandfather that certain soldiers were being reassigned and reduced in rank; he himself was dropped down to specialist, reports AP. Harold Casey relayed that Rogers said he and McCook were being transferred to the 2101 Transportation Company.
"Casey said his grandson told him he expected the transfer to keep him in Iraq longer than he had anticipated, because the 2021st only recently arrived in Iraq," reports AP.
A second unit was sent out Wednesday and completed the abandoned mission. Major Meyley told The NewStandard that she did not know if that convoy had possessed better armor.