In Defense of Their Soldiers

Relatives of reservists who refused to deliver fuel in Iraq last week are hitting airwaves, presenting a challenge for the U.S. military.

By Rennie Sloan and Ellen Barry

Los Angeles Times

October 19, 2004

QUINTON, Ala. — All day Monday from inside his mobile home, Ricky Shealey made the case for his son, Spec. Scott Shealey. The 15-year veteran of the Army outlined the evidence to one television crew after another. By afternoon, when a satellite truck pulled up for a link to CNN's Deborah Norville, Shealey sank into a plush recliner, exhausted.

He wasn't alone.

Theresa Hill, a long-haul truck driver from Dothan, Ala., was in New York to explain her daughter's perspective to NBC's Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. In San Antonio, 21-year-old Amanda Gordon defended her younger brother on local radio shows, swallowing her hurt when a caller said that he deserved the death penalty.

By now, much of America has heard about the standoff that took place within the 343rd Army Reserve Quartermaster Company in Iraq last week, when some platoon members refused to go on a fuel delivery mission. Since then, the soldiers' families have appealed directly to the American people in defense of the unit's actions.

The families are presenting a new challenge to the military — an advocacy campaign propelled by factors such as quick communications via e-mail and cellphone, dissent over the U.S. role in Iraq and the massive mobilization of military reservists. Unless soldiers' access to their families is severely restricted, experts say, authorities are likely to see this scenario repeated. "I think this is definitely going to pose itself as a new problem for the military from here on out," said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. "People will circumvent the chain of command by going directly to political leaders or the media."

Eighteen members of the fuel platoon failed to appear at a scheduled 7 a.m. formation Wednesday in Tallil, a U.S. military base in Iraq. Relatives have said that the soldiers were ordered to transport contaminated fuel through a dangerous area without proper equipment or armor. When they refused, the family members have said, the soldiers were arrested and placed in disciplinary lockdown.

Brig. Gen. James Chambers, commanding general of the 13th Corps Support Command, said Sunday that the military would investigate the safety and maintenance issues raised by the soldiers. But he said that it was too early to say whether the soldiers would be disciplined, and insisted that none of them had been arrested. He also denied that the fuel was contaminated.

As military authorities began their investigations, the soldiers found ways to let their families know about it.

Patricia McCook of Jackson, Miss., scribbled notes during a panicky, early-morning phone call from her husband, Sgt. Larry McCook, 41. Hill got a recorded message from her daughter, Pvt. Amber McClenny, 21, asking her to "raise pure hell."

Hill started calling the families of the detained soldiers one by one.

"We did it on our own initiative," Hill said. "I just called 'em up and said: 'This is what has happened to your soldier, and they are begging for media attention.' They want this to go as big as it can go."

Hill's first efforts fell flat — a local television station in south Alabama told her that the unit's refusal was a matter of military discipline and therefore not newsworthy.

Shealey, 51, turned to his congressman, but was told the Red Cross was the officially recognized advocate for families.

But McCook managed to interest a reporter at the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, which printed a story Friday.

Since then, the most vocal families have been making television appearances and granting interviews.

Hill said she was certain that the publicity has helped her daughter. "As soon as [Clarion-Ledger reporter] Jeremy Hudson broke the story, they were released miraculously," she said. Hill also believes that the effort has smoothed the way for soldiers to resist orders in the future.

"More soldiers are going to be standing up and saying: 'Look, this is a dangerous mission. It's going to put others in harm's way,' " said Hill, 42.

Others, however, have been critical of the families' intervention. Roland Day, 69, has watched the story from Birmingham, Ala. As an 18-year-old soldier in the Korean War, Day said, he learned the importance of the supply chain by watching U.S. soldiers so thirsty that they fought to reach a canteen.

"You think anyone wrote their congressman about it? Or told Mama and Daddy about it?" he said. "There is never a reason to disobey orders."

But there could be a reason for the difference in mentality. The vast numbers of National Guard and reserve troops in Iraq are "basically civilians," said Juanita Firestone, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"You have to sympathize with commanders trying to make strategic decisions," said Firestone, who teaches a course on civil-military relations. "A lot of these civilians are reacting with fear for their kids, without any knowledge of what military activity involves."

Ricky Shealey said he felt no elation at what he's accomplished over the last week. He was depressed, worried that his son would lose his rank and benefits. Scott Shealey, 29, was two weeks short of his commitment to the Army Reserves when he volunteered to ship out.

"He said, 'Dad, when I [saw those] young kids going, I had to go,' " Shealey said. "That's the type of soldier he is."

After getting up at 5 a.m. for two straight days of interviews, Shealey is still not entirely sure if talking to the media is the right thing to do. But he couldn't keep quiet, either.

"I'm doing this for my son," he said. "Somebody has to speak for those soldiers."


Sloan reported from Quinton and Barry from Atlanta.