`Scrounging’ for Iraq war puts GIs in jail
Reservists court-martialed for theft; they say they did what they had to do
By Aamer Madhani
Tribune staff reporter
December 12, 2004
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Six reservists, including two veteran officers who had received Bronze Stars, were court-martialed for what soldiers have been doing as long as there have been wars–scrounging to get what their outfit needed to do its job in Iraq.
Darrell Birt, one of those court-martialed for theft, destruction of Army property and conspiracy to cover up the crimes, had been decorated for his “initiative and courage” for leading his unit’s delivery of fuel over the perilous roads of Iraq in the war’s first months.
Now, Birt, 45, who was a chief warrant officer with 656th Transportation Company, based in Springfield, Ohio, and his commanding officer find themselves felons, dishonorably discharged and stripped of all military benefits.
The 656th played a crucial role in maintaining the gasoline supply that fueled everything from Black Hawk helicopters to Bradley Fighting Vehicles between Balad Airfield and Tikrit. The reservists in the company proudly boast that their fuel was in the vehicles driven by the 4th Infantry Division soldiers who found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole last year.
But when Birt’s unit was ordered to head into Iraq in the heat of battle in April 2003 from its base in Kuwait, Birt said the company didn’t have enough vehicles to haul the equipment it would need to do the job.
So, Birt explained, he and other reservists grabbed two tractors and two trailers left in Kuwait by other U.S. units that had already moved into Iraq.
Several weeks later, Birt and other reservists scrounged a third vehicle, an abandoned 5-ton cargo truck, and stripped it for parts they needed for repair of their trucks.
“We could have gone with what we had, but we would not have been able to complete our mission,” said Birt, who was released from the brig on Oct. 17 and is petitioning for clemency in hope that he can return to the reserves.
“I admit that what we did was technically against the rules, but it wasn’t for our own personal gain. It was so we could do our jobs.”
The thefts mirror countless stories of shifty appropriation that has been memorialized in books and films as a wartime skill. Birt and other reservists in the unit said that what the prosecutors called theft was simply resourcefulness, a quality they say is abundant among soldiers in Iraq.
While in confinement, Birt had a chat with a military police officer who was puzzled by why Birt was in the brig. The MP, a guard, told Birt that his unit had “acquired” a Humvee in a similar fashion.
Equipment shortages have become a concern, and soldiers are expressing growing frustration about them. On Monday, the military announced it would not court-martial the 23 reservists who balked at transporting fuel in Iraq because their vehicles were in poor condition and lacked armor, and on Wednesday, soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of armor for vehicles.
In addition to the six in the 656th who were court-martialed, eight others in the unit were given non-judicial punishment, including fines, pay reduction and loss in rank.
The commanding officer of the company, Maj. Cathy Kaus, 46, was sentenced to 6 months in jail and fined $5,000 for her part in the thefts. She is scheduled to be released from the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego on Christmas Day after serving most of her sentence.
Kaus and Birt chose to be tried by a military judge rather than a panel that would have included fellow soldiers, and they waived the formal investigation.
An Army spokeswoman said Friday that the Army does not comment on specific cases. But she noted that the military’s judicial process allows those who are court-martialed to apply for clemency.
The severity of the punishments was surprising to many members of the company, who regularly saw off-the-books trading and thefts of military property in Iraq by troops in other units.
Surprised by severity
Even Lt. Col. Christopher Wicker, the former commanding officer of the battalion overseeing the 656th who ordered the investigation of the thefts, said he was shocked by the hefty penalties.
“Circumstances at [the] time, however, made these acts less serious than if done in a peacetime garrison environment,” Wicker said in a letter supporting clemency for Birt. “The sentences . . . are too harsh given the situation during the initial drive north of Baghdad in April 2003, and the limited flow of repair parts that existed April-September 2003.”
Theft of military equipment is legendary among American war veterans, and the act has its own lexicon. In past wars some called it “scrounging,” while others called it “midnight requisitions” and “liberating supplies,” said writer and Vietnam War veteran Robert Vaughan.
Military bureaucracy combined with the reality of warfare has long made “scrounging” a necessity for soldiers trying to get a job done, Vaughan said. Stealing is justified, he said, because everything being taken is U.S. government property and is being used toward the war effort.
He recalled that while his unit was serving in a remote area in Vietnam, headquarters in Saigon repeatedly denied his unit’s request for high-power generators because it said there were none in stock. But on previous trips to Saigon, Vaughan had seen dozens of generators stacked in a holding area at headquarters.
Frustrated, he drove to Saigon one afternoon, posed as a captain from another unit and gave a guard a forged requisition to get the generators.
“I was the greatest scrounger in the Vietnam War,” said Vaughan, who has a war novel to be published in January in which the protagonist is an expert at stealing equipment for his unit. “If you did something that is not for your own personal gain, your higher-ups tended to protect you from getting into any trouble for it.”
The problems for the 656th started days before the company was to move into Iraq. The company had only two cargo trucks to haul six containers filled with tools, spare parts, ammunition, biological-chemical protective wear and other supplies.
Kaus, the commander of the 656th, said that officers with the 544th Maintenance Battalion, whose command her company fell under, informed her the day before their scheduled push into Iraq that they could not provide her company support in moving the company’s six containers. She said she discussed the problem with Birt and her other chief warrant officer, and the two told her they could solve it.
Just deal with it
Kaus said in a telephone interview that she told the men “to do what they had to do” to move their supplies, but she did not tell them to steal equipment.
Birt said he inferred that they had her permission to take the vehicles. The other chief warrant officer, Christopher Parriman, was not charged in the thefts and left Iraq because of a medical disability before the investigation began. Parriman declined to comment.
Kaus said Birt and Parriman initially told her they had permission to take the vehicles from another unit. She said she learned in late May or early June of 2003 that the vehicles were stolen, but at that point the trucks had become an integral part of the unit’s regular fuel convoys.
“These were vehicles that were not going to be used by the unit that originally owned them, and they had become an important part in allowing us to deliver 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of fuel a day,” said Kaus, who was awarded a Bronze Star for effectively leading the unit.
Kaus also said she could not determine which unit the trucks belonged to, so she could not return them. In fact, the vehicles and trailers in question were never reported stolen, according to transcripts of court-martial proceedings.
In a meeting with 656th officers and leaders of other companies under his command in June 2003, Wicker, the 544th Maintenance battalion commander, asked the officers if they had any equipment that did not belong to them. Kaus and the other officers said nothing, Wicker said.
No one mentioned the stolen property, Wicker and others said, until a disgruntled soldier, Sgt. Charles Neely, reported the unit to Wicker as the company was preparing to end its tour and return to Ohio. Neely, who also took part in the theft of one of the trucks, was reduced to private as part of his sentence. Neely lives in Ohio; he declined to comment.
Wicker, who had heard stories from relatives about scrounging in Vietnam, said he was more bothered that the officers did not admit having the equipment when asked and that they dismantled the 5-ton cargo truck. He said he understood the rationale for stealing the equipment, but he did not agree with it.
In the first several months of the Iraq war, the supply line moved at a glacial pace. Obtaining even basic parts to repair vehicles took as long as six weeks, said Robert Chalmers, who had been a sergeant with the 656th. He received a court-martial for stripping the cargo truck for spare parts and disposing of its frame.
Sitting in his kitchen in Greenville, Ohio, Chalmers recalled the rocket attacks, bomb explosions and small-arms fire his company faced on the road between Tikrit and Balad.
He laughed about his eagerness to head to Iraq. Anticipating that his company was going to be called up, he took two weeks off from work as an electrician to get gear ready before the unit’s soldiers received official word that they would be going.
Other reservists’ penalties
Chalmers said their actions were technically wrong, but he felt the importance of the company’s mission justified the thefts. During the company’s year in Iraq, members of the 656th drove more than 1.2 million miles and delivered about 33 million gallons of fuel.
Chalmers was reduced to a specialist as part of his sentence. Of the other two reservists who were court-martialed, one received a jail sentence, and the second was punished but not jailed.
The situation has left Chalmers in debt and bitter. His wife, Tina, said she had to borrow against her retirement savings to pay his $20,000 in legal fees.
“We were sent to Iraq without what we needed,” said Chalmers, who has spent 15 years on active or reserve duty.. “If they don’t make that decision to get the vehicles we needed, we are worse off and can’t do our mission. If we don’t do our mission, those tanks at the front stand still.”
For Birt and Kaus, the court-martial and confinements are a devastating end to long and successful military careers. Both are holding onto a thin thread of hope that they will be granted clemency by Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, so their benefits will be reinstated and they will have a chance to continue their military careers.
Birt and Kaus were dishonorably discharged, and unless they receive clemency, they lose all military benefits, including the right to have the U.S. flag draped on their coffins.
This month, Birt received a certified letter from the trucking company he worked for as a shop foreman, telling him that it could no longer employ him because of his felony conviction. Kaus said her employer, sporting goods manufacturer Huffy Corp., has informed her that it is unlikely she will be allowed to come back to work because of her conviction.
Kaus said her anger has subsided, and she is trying to move on with her life.
“My family and friends remind me how fortunate we are that everyone of us [in the 656th] made it out of Iraq in one piece,” she said.
For Birt, the end to his military career has been jolting.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Birt said. “I am proud of the work we did serving our country. If I could get back in the reserves, I would go back to Iraq in a second.”