A 17-member Army Reserve platoon with troops from Jackson and around the Southeast deployed to Iraq is under arrest for refusing a “suicide mission” to deliver fuel, the troops’ relatives said Thursday.
The soldiers refused an order on Wednesday to go to Taji, Iraq — north of Baghdad — because their vehicles were considered “deadlined” or extremely unsafe, said Patricia McCook of Jackson, wife of Sgt. Larry O. McCook.
Sgt. McCook, a deputy at the Hinds County Detention Center, and the 16 other members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company from Rock Hill, S.C., were read their rights and moved from the military barracks into tents, Patricia McCook said her husband told her during a panicked phone call about 5 a.m. Thursday.
The platoon could be charged with the willful disobeying of orders, punishable by dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and up to five years confinement, said military law expert Mark Stevens, an associate professor of justice studies at Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C.
No military officials were able to confirm or deny the detainment of the platoon Thursday.
But today, Sgt. Salju Thomas of the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad issued a statement saying that an investigation has begun.
“The Commander General of the 13 Corps Support Group has appointed a deputy commander to lead an investigation into allegations that members of the 343 Quartermaster Company refused to participate in theri assigned convoy mission on Oct. 13,” Thomas’ statement said.
The investigation team is currently in Tallil taking statements and interviewing those involved, Thomas said in the statement.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson said he plans to submit a congressional inquiry today on behalf of the Mississippi soldiers to launch an investigation into whether they are being treated improperly.
“I would not want any member of the military to be put in a dangerous situation ill-equipped,” said Thompson, who was contacted by families. “I have had similar complaints from military families about vehicles that weren’t armor-plated, or bullet-proof vests that are outdated. It concerns me because we made over $150 billion in funds available to equip our forces in Iraq.
“President Bush takes the position that the troops are well-armed, but if this situation is true, it calls into question how honest he has been with the country,” Thompson said.
The 343rd is a supply unit whose general mission is to deliver fuel and water. The unit includes three women and 14 men and those with ranking up to sergeant first class.
“I got a call from an officer in another unit early (Thursday) morning who told me that my husband and his platoon had been arrested on a bogus charge because they refused to go on a suicide mission,” said Jackie Butler of Jackson, wife of Sgt. Michael Butler, a 24-year reservist. “When my husband refuses to follow an order, it has to be something major.”
The platoon being held has troops from Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina, said Teresa Hill of Dothan, Ala., whose daughter Amber McClenny is among those being detained.
McClenny, 21, pleaded for help in a message left on her mother’s answering machine early Thursday morning.
“They are holding us against our will,” McClenny said. “We are now prisoners.”
McClenny told her mother her unit tried to deliver fuel to another base in Iraq Wednesday, but was sent back because the fuel had been contaminated with water. The platoon returned to its base, where it was told to take the fuel to another base, McClenny told her mother.
The platoon is normally escorted by armed Humvees and helicopters, but did not have that support Wednesday, McClenny told her mother.
The convoy trucks the platoon was driving had experienced problems in the past and were not being properly maintained, Hill said her daughter told her.
The situation mirrors other tales of troops being sent on missions without proper equipment.
Aviation regiments have complained of being forced to fly dangerous missions over Iraq with outdated night-vision goggles and old missile-avoidance systems. Stories of troops’ families purchasing body armor because the military didn’t provide them with adequate equipment have been included in recent presidential debates.
Patricia McCook said her husband, a staff sergeant, understands well the severity of disobeying orders. But he did not feel comfortable taking his soldiers on another trip.
“He told me that three of the vehicles they were to use were deadlines … not safe to go in a hotbed like that,” Patricia McCook said.
Hill said the trucks her daughter’s unit was driving could not top 40 mph.
“They knew there was a 99 percent chance they were going to get ambushed or fired at,” Hill said her daughter told her. “They would have had no way to fight back.”
Kathy Harris of Vicksburg is the mother of Aaron Gordon, 20, who is among those being detained. Her primary concern is that she has been told the soldiers have not been provided access to a judge advocate general.
Stevens said if the soldiers are being confined, law requires them to have a hearing before a magistrate within seven days.
Harris said conditions for the platoon have been difficult of late. Her son e-mailed her earlier this week to ask what the penalty would be if he became physical with a commanding officer, she said.
But Nadine Stratford of Rock Hill, S.C., said her godson Colin Durham, 20, has been happy with his time in Iraq. She has not heard from him since the platoon was detained.
“When I talked to him about a month ago, he was fine,” Stratford said. “He said it was like being at home.”