Soldiers Saw Refusing Order as Their Last Stand
JACKSON, Miss., Oct. 17 – What does it take for a man like Staff Sgt. Michael Butler, a 24-year veteran of the Army and the Reserve who was a soldier in the first Persian Gulf war and a reserve called up to fight in the current war in Iraq, to risk everything by disobeying a direct order in wartime?
On the morning of Oct. 13, the military says, Sergeant Butler and most of his platoon, some 18 men and women from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, refused to deliver a shipment of fuel from the Tallil Air Base near Nasiriya, Iraq, to another base much farther north.
The Army has begun an inquiry, and the soldiers could face disciplinary measures, including possible courts-martial. But Jackie Butler, Sergeant Butler’s wife, and her family in Jackson say he would not have jeopardized his career and his freedom for something impulsive or unimportant.
The soldiers, many of whom have called home this weekend, said their trucks were unsafe and lacked a proper armed escort, problems that have plagued them since they went to Iraq nine months ago, their relatives said. The time had come for them, for her husband, to act, Ms. Butler said.
“I’m proud that he said ‘no,’ ” Ms. Butler said. “They had complained and complained for months to the chain of command about the equipment and trucks. But nothing was done, so I think he felt he had to take a stand.”
Other soldiers completed the mission the platoon turned down, the military kept functioning, and the Army has cast the incident as isolated.
But as the soldiers involved in the refusal in Tallil and others begin to speak out, it is growing more apparent that the military has yet to solve the lack of training, parts and equipment that has riddled the military operation in Iraq from the outset, especially among National Guard and Reserve units.
Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, commander of the 13th Corps Support Command, which the 343rd reports to, said at a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday that he had ordered two investigations into the incident and the concerns expressed by the 18 soldiers “regarding maintenance and safety.”
General Chambers said preliminary findings showed that the unit’s trucks were not yet armored and were among the last in his command to get such protection, because they usually functioned in less dangerous parts of Iraq. None of the trucks in his command were armored when they arrived in Iraq, General Chambers said. He told reporters that he had ordered a safety and maintenance review of all trucks in the 343rd.
“Based on results of this investigation other actions may be necessary,” the general said, but he added, “It’s too early in the investigation to speculate on charges or other disciplinary actions.”
General Chambers described the episode as “a single event that is confined to a small group of individuals.”
A number of Army officers contacted in recent days said such an apparent act of insubordination was very unusual, particularly among such a large number of soldiers in a single unit and especially since the military is all volunteer.
The incident has prompted widespread interest among military families who have complained in months past of inadequate equipment and protection for their soldiers.
Nancy Lessin, a leader of Military Families Speak Out, which opposes the war, said she had been flooded with calls and e-mail from families with a simple message: What had happened to the reservists echoed the conditions their own soldiers experienced in Iraq: a shortage of armored vehicles, especially for part-time soldiers’ units; convoy missions through dangerous stretches without adequate firepower; and constant breakdowns among old vehicles owned, especially, by National Guard and reservist units.
“This is absolutely striking a nerve,” Ms. Lessin said. “People are saying, ‘This is the same thing that happened to my son,’ and if the Army tries to spin this as ‘just a few bad apples,’ people need to know that these are common problems and what these soldiers did required a tremendous amount of courage.”
Nothing seems to separate the men and women who defied their command in Tallil from the tens of thousands of others now in Iraq, their families say. The 343rd was drawn mainly from Southern states like the Carolinas, Alabama and Mississippi, and the military said Friday that the 343rd had performed honorably during its tour in Iraq.
The soldiers in the platoon are described as devoted to the military and unabashedly patriotic. A wall of Sergeant Butler’s living room is covered with certificates and citations from the Army. Another member of the 343rd, Specialist Joe Dobbs, 19, of Vandiver, Ala., had his bedroom painted the dark blue of the American flag. And another soldier in the unit, Sgt. Justin Rogers of Louisville, Ky., liked to walk around town in his uniform when he was home on leave, said Chris Helm, a 14-year-old high school student and his first cousin.
When Sergeant Rogers went home for a two-week leave in July, his brother Derrick asked whether the war and all the deaths were worth it. “His answer was simple,” Derrick Rogers said. “He said, ‘If I didn’t feel like it was worth it, I wouldn’t be there.’ ”
Ms. Butler did not want to speak for her husband on his feelings about the war. Better he should do that when he is finally home, she said, which is scheduled to be sometime next year. But Sergeant Butler knew he would be called up, once the war against Iraq was begun in March 2003. Late last year, he reported to Rock Hill, and quickly, his confidence was shaken, his wife said. He saw that the equipment to be shipped with his unit was “not very good,” Ms. Butler said.
Once the unit arrived in Iraq, the inadequacy of the platoon’s equipment and preparedness was thrown into sharp relief against the dangers the country posed. Although the unit is based near Nasiriya in the Shiite-controlled south, which is not as volatile as Sunni-dominated areas, the whole country has been convulsed by battles and uprisings during most of the 343rd’s tour of duty. “This is not the first time that there has been a problem with these charges and stuff, with them not having armor, not having radios,” said Beverly Dobbs, mother of Specialist Dobbs. “My son told me two months ago – he called me, he said, ‘Mom I got the scare of my life.’
“‘I said what’s wrong?'” Ms. Dobbs said. “He said, ‘They sent us out, we come under fire, our own people was shooting and we didn’t even have radios to let them know.’ They’re sending them out without the equipment they need. I don’t care what the Army says.”
Families that spoke to the soldiers this weekend received slightly differing accounts of what happened the morning of Oct. 13. They all said, however, that fuel the soldiers had to deliver was unusable because it had been contaminated with a second liquid. They all said the soldiers were under armed guard. General Chambers denied both assertions. Relatives say that Sergeant Butler, Sgt. Larry McCook of Jackson and Specialist Scott Shealey of Graysville, Ala., have been identified as three of five “ringleaders” of the incident and reassigned to other units on the air base. Specialist Shealey’s parents said their son said in a telephone call that he was going to be discharged.
“He’ll be home in three to four weeks, that’s what he’s being told,” said Ricky Shealey, Specialist Shealey’s father, a retired Postal Service supervisor and former sergeant in the Army. “He’s depressed,” Mr. Shealey said. “He just can’t believe it’s happening.”
Ms. Butler said her husband did not know what he might be facing and had heard nothing about a discharge. Other families said the military had yet to contact them to explain the situation. The families have not hired lawyers yet, in large part because they are uncertain what charges might be brought against their relatives.
Some families are reaching out to one another through e-mail and phone calls, offering help and discussing strategy. They have contacted their members of Congressmen. Others, like Ms. Dobbs and her family, are glued to television news, awaiting some clarification of the incident.
Ms. Butler has her big family to lean on, and on this Sunday, the day after the phone call from her husband, they went to church and turned to their neighbors, friends and faith. Ms. Butler went to the altar rail of Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church and told the congregation: “My husband has been in the Army more than 20 years, but refused to take those men in that convoy. He said it would be suicidal.”
“So, I’m going to ask you to pray for me,” she said, “because he is not going to take no other men’s children into the land of death.”
She bowed her head, and so did everyone else. “Lord, Sister Butler needs you,” the Rev. Daniel Watkins said, shutting his eyes tight. “Her husband, he needs you. All the soldiers in Iraq, they need you.”
Monica Davey contributed reporting from Chicago for this article, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Dexter Filkins from Baghdad