March 21, 2008 – Then-Sgt. Michael Butler of Jackson took a stand in October 2004 – against a military order.
Butler and 22 other members of an Army Reserve unit refused to go on a fuel transport mission in Iraq carrying nine 5,000-gallon tanks of fuel in vehicles with only cloth tops. Their actions set off an international stir about the equipment U.S. military personnel had to use.
Butler was jailed and faced a court-martial after the incident. He eventually was reassigned and served in five different units before returning to Jackson.
“They gave us no choice,” Butler said last week, explaining the action the soldiers on took Oct. 13, 2004, in his first interview about the experience.
“As a military man, I would never just not obey an order,” he said. But, “It would have been a suicide mission.”
Butler’s story was first told in The Clarion-Ledger, after his wife contacted the newspaper. Since his return, he says he has been denied medical benefits and wishes he had never seen Iraq.
Butler said last week that the convoy didn’t have air and ground support and their superiors didn’t want to listen to their concerns.
Amid the international debate that followed over poorly equipped Humvees in combat zones, the military admitted the unit’s vehicles were not properly armored.
Butler hopes the action he and the other reservists took made it better for soldiers who came behind them in Iraq.
“It’s just like it happened yesterday,” Butler said of memories of his tour of duty in Iraq.
Butler is now retired from the military after a 25-year career, but he saaid his battles continue.
Butler said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, has memory loss and other ailments. He said he has been denied benefits for medical claims by the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Jackson with the exception of one claim: He was approved for10 percent disability benefits for a shoulder injury.
Butler’s medical claims include stress, anxiety, hypertension, memory loss, lower back pain, a leg injury, high cholesterol and the shoulder injury.
In one instance, Butler said he received a claim rejection letter where the examiner mentioned he was dressed too nicely.
A letter to Butler from Veterans Affairs, dated July 25, 2005, denying his mental stress claim said the examination “showed you were alert, oriented to time, place and person, you were casually dressed, well-groomed and attentive.”
Butler said maybe if he would have gone to the interview dressed “like a bum” he would have been approved.
“I got shafted at VA,” Butler said recently at his Jackson home.
Bill Taylor, spokesman for the Veterans Benefits Administration regional office in Jackson, said the VA would like to provide benefits to all veterans, but as the law is written, they must meet certain thresholds for elligibility.
Taylor said there must be verifiable medical information to link a condition to military service.
“Also, we can’t grant benefits for injuries that have gotten better,” Taylor said.
When it comes to benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, Taylor said it must be determined a veteran came into contact with the enemy. Citations such as a Purple Heart or a Bronze Star would denote a veteran had been in a war zone.
But Taylor said Butler and other veterans denied claims can file to have their cases reopened.
Butler and Sgt. Larry McCook, also of Jackson, were among the members of the Rock Hill, S.C.-based 343rd Quartermaster Company that refused to carry the fuel to Taji, Iraq.
The reservists were jailed for two days and faced court-martial, Butler said.
Butler’s wife, Jackie, called The Clarion-Ledger, which was the first news organization to report on the story. Soon, media from across the world were reporting it.
Butler said he regrets the stress his wife had to endure to help him. He said his wife received threats during the height of the incident and had to see a doctor for post-traumatic stress.
Since returning from Iraq, Butler has gone back to his job in carpentry at Jackson Public Schools. But he and his wife say his life has been far from normal.
“He wakes up at night like he is still over there,” Jackie Butler said. “He may get an hour’s sleep a night. … I lose sleep because he wakes me up.”
Jackie Butler said there should be help for soldiers returning from the war zone to ease them back into normal society.
From the 110- to 115-degree days in Iraq to the casualties of war, “it’s not something you just forget,” Michael Butler said.
After returning from Iraq, Butler said he had a fear of going under bridges because it was where most enemy bombing attacks occurred in Iraq. And he had a fear of driving over potholes in streets because of memories of roadside bombings.
“I wouldn’t wish Iraq on my worst enemies,” Butler said.
Butler said he often wakes up in the middle of the night sweating profusely, reliving Iraq.
“It was not the stress of so much having to kill someone as it was seeing someone’s head blown off or seeing them holding their guts in their hands,” Butler said.
Jackie Butler said she is worried about her husband because he seems to be losing part of his memory and they can’t get any help.
“I think it was a waste of our lives,” Jackie Butler said last week of her husband’s Iraq service and what their family is now enduring.
Michael Butler said not all soldiers had their jobs waiting for them when they returned. He said he has kept in contact with some members of his unit.
Some of them, especially the younger ones, stayed in the military and have gone on other overseas tours of duty, Butler said. Others decided to leave the military.
One of them, Spc. Scott Shealey of Quinton, Ala., was killed in an automobile accident about six months after returning from Iraq.
McCook, who wouldn’t consent to an interview, came back to his job in March 2005 as a detention officer for the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department. He resigned 13 months later.