Update: The Soldiers Who Said No

Village Voice (New York)

A pair of Mississippi women challenge the army brass on behalf of their soldier-husbands in Iraq

The Soldiers Who Said No

Iraqi pipeline: Patricia McCook (left) and Jackie Butler on the home front
(photo: Jaro Vacek)

No matter how the military ultimately decides to deal with Staff Sergeant Michael Butler for disobeying orders, once the war in Iraq is through with him, he’ll be welcomed home by an adoring family and the big yellow ribbon that is pinned to the tall long-leaf pine tree outside his one-story brick house in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I am very, very proud of him. He is a definite leader, someone who is capable of doing many things,” said Butler’s wife, Jackie, as she sat in her living room facing a wall of awards earned by her husband during his 24 years of duty in both the regular army and the reserves. There are a half-dozen Army Achievement Medals and a plaque for “1997 NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] of the Year.” Four short words of high military praise are inscribed on it: “Can do. Damn good.”

It was that same type of leadership that Butler, 44, was exhibiting this month, his wife insisted, when he and 17 others in his army reserve platoon did the militarily unthinkable by refusing direct orders to drive a convoy of fuel trucks from their post at the Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq to Taji, north of Baghdad. Butler told his wife that their breakdown-prone trucks—and the lack of steel-plated armor on the vehicles—made them sitting ducks for hostile fire along the 200-mile route. According to Jackie Butler and family members of others in the unit, commanders of the 343rd Quartermaster Company reacted by arresting the soldiers at gunpoint, reading them their rights, and holding them in a tent under guard for 24 hours—actions denied by army spokesmen.

A day later, after Jackie Butler and others spread the alarm, the incident was worldwide news, providing sharp focus to charges that many troops in Iraq lack adequate equipment, criticism that dogged the Bush administration even before Democrat John Kerry made it a stock element of his stump speech. It has also rekindled memories of the last days of the Vietnam War, when there were incidents of demoralized U.S. troops refusing orders they believed would accomplish little other than placing themselves in peril.

Jackie Butler said she was less concerned with the big-picture implications of her husband’s actions than the fact that he was in trouble and needed her help. That news had come in an alarming call in the early morning of October 14 from a stranger who said he was a lieutenant in the army in Iraq and friendly with her husband. “He said, ‘Your husband snuck this note to me to call you, that you should call your sister-in-law and she should call the lawyers she knows, because he needs their help.’ I asked him what was going on, and he said, ‘Your husband has been charged with disobeying orders.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yes, your husband has been falsely accused. He is being held under guard right now. I have to go.’ Then he hung up.”

Butler said she immediately began calling family members. She also left a message at the local daily paper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

A couple of miles away, Patricia McCook, whose husband, Sergeant Larry McCook, 41, was also serving in the 343rd, was awoken at 5:12 that same morning when he called from Iraq.

“He was saying, ‘Baby, baby, wake up, wake up please. Get a paper, take this down.’ He sounded panicky. He said they were trying to make them go to a place called Taji—I can’t even pronounce it. He said the trucks didn’t have protection, that it was a suicide mission. He said, ‘They’ve arrested us. They’ve got military police armed with guns guarding us; they read us our rights.’ He said, ‘Write these names down, these are the others in trouble with me.’ ”

Among the names her husband gave her was that of Michael Butler. The two wives had never met, but within a few days, Jackie Butler and Pat McCook were granting joint interviews to media from around the country, holding court in Butler’s living room, so much in tune with each other’s concerns that they noddingly finished each other’s sentences.

It was a sudden and unexpected thrust into the national spotlight, putting them at the crossroads of a volatile issue at the heart of the presidential election.

In many ways, they are an unlikely pair to be taking on a mighty military establishment. Both are devout churchgoers: Butler at Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist, McCook at the Jones Chapel Church in nearby Flora, Mississippi, where her husband is a deacon. McCook is raising a pair of teenagers; Butler, a hairstylist, is stepmother to two children, ages 10 and 14. The trunk of Pat McCook’s sedan bears a “Support Our Troops” yellow-ribbon sticker. Another urges people to find guidance through prayer. McCook was born in Flora and raised in Jackson; Butler has lived here all her life. Her modest but comfortable home is on a street of well-groomed lawns and spreading magnolias, a quiet neighborhood located in the city’s northeast, where the only discordant note is the protective metal bars that cover most windows. It is about a mile and a half from another pleasant neighborhood of single-family homes, where Jackson civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway in 1963 by a virulent racist.

Despite the unexpectedness of the crisis, both women quickly rose to the challenge posed by the emergency messages from the other side of the world. Armed with a mutual bedrock belief in their husbands’ integrity, they enlisted friends, relatives, and local politicians in a campaign to expose what they called “a terrible cover-up” by the army.

“It’s a leadership problem,” said McCook. “They knew those vehicles were unsafe. Why in the world would you send soldiers out unprotected like that?”

Probably their most effective calls were those to The Clarion-Ledger, where reporter Jeremy Hudson got the military to acknowledge the incident and wrote the initial account. National and international coverage followed. “I thought, Well, The Clarion-Ledger has it, that’ll be it, just a local story,” said McCook. “We’re surprised at all the national attention.”

They share the same analysis, however, of what’s driving the news. “It’s because it’s election time,” said McCook.

Both women declined to discuss their own political preferences. “I don’t deal with politics,” said Butler. “I vote for the best person.”

They both said, however, that they believed President Bush to be badly misinformed in his assurances to the public that troops in Iraq have all necessary equipment. “He should go to the 343rd,” said McCook.

“I don’t know how he says these soldiers are all so enthusiastic,” said Butler. “He is getting some bad information from someone.”

The issue of shortages isn’t new, they said.

“It’s not as though this hasn’t come up before,” said McCook. “Even General [Ricardo] Sanchez [former commander of coalition forces in Iraq] wrote a letter to the Pentagon about the equipment problem.”

“From what I was told there have been many direct orders disobeyed before this,” said Butler. “But it was just one person. This was so many, all at the same moment.”

“They all stood together, they made a united front, that’s what makes the difference,” added McCook. “It’s like a fist, it makes a mighty blow. I know you don’t have any clout when you stand alone.”

Pat McCook has a first-person understanding of how the military works. She spent three years on active duty, serving as an army administrative specialist in 1983 in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where she met her husband. “I loved everything about him,” she said. Larry McCook followed her home to Jackson and, about 10 years ago, joined the army reserves. He was working for the Hinds County Sheriff’s Office as a detention officer when he was called up last year. In February, he was shipped to Iraq from Rock Hill, South Carolina, where the 343rd is based.

Iraq is Michael Butler’s second round of combat in the Middle East. He served in the 1990–91 Gulf War and came home to Jackson, maintaining his enlistment in the reserves. He married Jackie three years ago. When he was summoned for active duty last fall he was working as a carpenter for the Jackson public school system. “I asked him why he was in the army,” said Jackie Butler. “He said, ‘Baby, I volunteered. I was looking to serve my country, and I wanted to go to school.’ He did, too. He got himself licensed as a mechanic and learned carpentry skills. He did well by the army.”

Jackie Butler gave her husband a pre-paid telephone calling card when he left. When he was able, they managed to speak two or three times a week. Not all of the calls were reassuring. “I’ve been talking to him on the phone when I hear the bombs coming in. You hear that sound, ‘Ssssss,’ and the explosion, and then my husband says, ‘Got to go, baby.’ ”

Michael Butler was home for a two-week leave at the end of August. “He was fine. We didn’t go out much; we had the family over, had a lot of fun, eating and laughing. At night, though, me and him would sit together and talk. He talked about the problems he was having over there, the trouble with the equipment. He told these stories. I said, ‘Just go to him, your commander.’ He said, ‘She’s a female, and I tried that. She’s not going to do anything.’ ”

Pat McCook also noted changes in her husband after he went to war. “Most of all I love his sense of humor; he is just a naturally funny man. People say he even looks like Eddie Murphy so he should be funny. But ever since he went over, I don’t hear it as much in him. I can tell he’s worried.”

Their husbands’ complaints kept coming back to the trucks, both women said. “I remember him pulling out of Rock Hill, South Carolina,” said Jackie Butler. “They had to drive down to Fort Stewart, Georgia. Even then the trucks were breaking down. He said he could’ve outrun those trucks, they went so slow. They were just no good.”

In Iraq, breakdowns had occurred while the trucks were on their way to deliver fuel and supplies, the men told their wives. “He said they just sleep on top of the trucks when that happens,” said Jackie Butler.

“What they wanted was bulletproof armor for the trucks,” said Pat McCook. “At least it gives them a fighting chance.”

McCook and Butler weren’t the only ones sending up alarms about the incarceration of the platoon members. Relatives of other soldiers in the 343rd also called the media. Some offered a different explanation for the platoon’s refusal to take the convoy to Taji. Rick Shealey of Quinton, Alabama, said his son Scott, 29, told him by phone that the fuel the platoon was ordered to deliver to Taji had been contaminated by diesel fuel and had been rejected as unusable when they had tried to deliver it to another army location.

“They had just got back from that trip when they got woken at 4 a.m. and told to take it to Taji,” Shealey said. “The soldiers sat there for three hours arguing with the commander, saying it didn’t make sense. They were saying, ‘Now what if that bad fuel got into a helicopter?’ ” said Shealey. “I asked my son, ‘Wasn’t you all tired?’ He said, ‘Daddy, we do that every day. Tiredness doesn’t matter. We are used to it. The point was that the fuel was contaminated. That’s the whole reason.’ ”

Jackie Butler and Pat McCook said that their husbands never raised the fuel issue in their initial conversations, and since then, both women say, their husbands have been guarded in their conversations with them about the incident. “We try not to talk about stuff like that over the phone now,” said Butler.

Whatever the army’s reasons—either the mini-maelstrom kicked up by the media, or its own second thoughts—the platoon members were freed after being held for about a day, according to relatives. Five members of the platoon, however, including Butler, McCook, and Shealey, were sent to other units. “They saw them as the ringleaders,” said Jackie Butler. Pat McCook said her husband told her he is back driving a fuel truck again, this time one in good condition and equipped with armor. “He said it’s like going from driving a Yugo to driving a Cadillac,” she said.

The army has sent other signals that it recognized that the soldiers had legitimate gripes. Last week, the military confirmed that the commander of the 343rd had been relieved of her duties. Although the army refused to name her, The Clarion-Ledger reported that it was Captain Nancy Daniels, the commander whom sergeants McCook and Butler had complained about. There have also been reports that the army will seek to have the leaders of the revolt released under a general discharge rather than bring courts-martial against them.

“What I would like is to have the army admit that this is why these soldiers did this—to save lives of other soldiers,” said Jackie Butler. “They should fix the problem, finish the mission, and get our husbands home—”

“Alive and whole,” interjected Pat McCook, beside her on the couch.

“The same way they left,” added Butler.

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