[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
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
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
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
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 199091 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,"
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
"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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