[News] The Soldiers Who Said No

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Oct 27 08:44:16 EDT 2004


A pair of Mississippi women challenge the army brass on behalf of their 
soldier-husbands in Iraq
The Soldiers Who Said No

http://www.villagevoice.com/print/issues/0443/robbins.php
by Tom Robbins
October 26th, 2004 10:10 AM


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 
trucks­and the lack of steel-plated armor on the vehicles­made 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 
hours­actions 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 Taji­I 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 reasons­either the mini-maelstrom kicked up by the 
media, or its own second thoughts­the 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 this­to 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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