U.S. soldiers' simmering concerns about traveling the bomb-pocked roads of Iraq in unarmored vehicles broke out into the open in December. A National Guardsman roused cheers from a crowd of Iraq-bound troops when he asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld why soldiers had to scrounge scrap metal to bolster their vehicles. The exchange was top of the news and brought a next-day response from the Pentagon, detailing ongoing efforts to improve armor. At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee released statistics showing that in Iraq and Afghanistan 75 percent of Humvees, but only 10 percent to 15 percent of transport vehicles, had armor. Beneath the media firestorm lurked another, potentially bigger, problem: the growing reliance on Guard and Army Reserve troops to drive and protect those transport vehicles and to do almost everything else required to support active-duty combat forces abroad.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a Tennessee National Guard unit, asked Rumsfeld. He apparently was prompted by an embedded reporter to pose the question, but the applause of the 2,300 mostly Guard and Reserve members gathered in a hangar in Kuwait lent credibility to his query. Rumsfeld told the soldiers the Army is armoring vehicles as fast as they can be made. But, he reminded them, "You go to war with the army you have." Then, another soldier's query spotlighted inequities within that army. Why, he wondered, did active-duty Army units appear to get priority for the best equipment in Iraq? "I'm told that the Army is breaking its neck to see that there is not a differentiation as to who gets what aged materials . . . as between the active force, the Guard and the Reserve," Rumsfeld answered.
Soldiers' resentments about equipment and status in Iraq rarely had been voiced so publicly. But especially within the ranks of support troops, the combination of continuing convoy ambushes, armor shortages, old and unreliable vehicles, staffing problems, extended tours and the thinly veiled disdain of the regular Army had been taking a toll for some time. Perhaps the most arresting evidence came in October, when 19 Army reservists simply refused to make a fuel delivery to a dangerous area in northern Iraq.
The 19 said their vehicles, lacking armor and prone to breakdown, were too vulnerable and unreliable to risk the mission. Army Reserve leaders tagged them a tiny band of malcontents in a sea of loyal troops. But the concerns beneath the soldiers' charges echo through the Reserve and National Guard, whose members make up about 40 percent of the nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq and do almost all the support work there.
Army investigators later found at least some of the complaints raised by the reservists were credible. Their vehicles subsequently were retrofitted with armor. The Reserve moved gingerly to discipline them and five other members of their unit, the 343rd Quartermaster Company from Rock Hill, S.C. It rejected the harsh punishment reserved for mutineers, choosing more lenient nonjudicial remedies instead. Deeper probing reveals troubling gaps and deficiencies in training, morale, leadership and unit cohesiveness in the platoon and the company. Today, the soldiers' refusal looks less like an isolated incident than an early signal of serious, possibly pervasive, problems in the Army Reserve.
Calls for Help
In mid-October, Amber McClenny, a specialist with the 343rd, made a frantic telephone call from Iraq to her mother in rural Alabama. Before her mother could pick up, the answering machine kicked on. "Hey Mom, I need you to contact someone now. I mean raise pure hell," McClenny said. "We had broken-down trucks. No armored vehicles. Get somebody on this. I need you now, Mom. I need you so bad. Just please, please help me."
Other soldiers in the logistics unit, which supplies fuel and water to combat troops, made similar calls. Sgt. Larry McCook called his wife Patricia in Jackson, Miss., to say that 19 soldiers in one of the 343rd's four platoons had refused an order to deliver fuel to the dangerous Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Jackie Butler, also of Jackson, got word from her husband, Michael, a senior noncommissioned officer in the platoon. He said that he and the other soldiers were facing arrest for turning down "a suicide mission."
A year before the reservists balked, the 343rd was called up for active duty and began preparing for a yearlong deployment in Iraq. The unit was created in 1999, yet it still was not fully staffed. It had not been called up for active duty, though some in the company had been deployed overseas or stateside with other Reserve units. Experienced or not, logistics units such as the 343rd, which is part of the 13th Corps Support Command, are in high demand in Iraq. Security and rebuilding there require military police officers, civil affairs specialists and logisticians, not just tank drivers and infantry soldiers. The Army prefers to use active-duty troops in combat because they train regularly, so reservists and Guard members do the bulk of support work in Iraq-99 percent of the Army Reserve's 205,000 billets are in support specialties.
As reservists and Guard members play a bigger role in Iraq, their weaknesses are beginning to surface. Criticism-that they are soft, ill-trained, undisciplined part-time soldiers-is voiced more often. "[Reservists] don't train as often, they don't build up cohesion, they don't have as much leadership training," says retired Army Col. Jeffrey McCausland, a former dean of the Army War College who now heads the Leadership in Conflict Initiative at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "That's why they crack under the stress of combat. It is myth that the Reserve and National Guard are every bit as good as the regular active force." When not called to active service, reservists typically train one weekend a month and two weeks a year; they receive longer preparation before going to Iraq.
The 343rd had even less training than other Reserve units because it was short-staffed. In December 2003, 90 soldiers from eight southeastern states were declared fit for duty with the 343rd, but the company remained 26 soldiers short of its full strength of 116. The Army Reserve pulled in members from other units to cover the shortfall, a practice referred to as "cross-leveling." Two of the 343rd's four officers, two chief warrant officers and 12 senior enlisted soldiers arrived two months before deployment, according to accounts first published in The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill and later confirmed by the Reserve.
As result, 60 days before the 343rd was to leave for Iraq, nearly one-fifth of its soldiers were new to the unit. Rickey Shealey's son Scott, 29, was cross-leveled into the 343rd. He was one of the 19 who refused the October fueling mission. "My son went into that unit in the dark," says Shealey, a former Army sergeant. Even the 343rd's regular members hadn't trained thoroughly together for nearly a year. The last time the unit had trained together for more than a weekend was in December 2002 at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
Maj. William Ritter, a spokesman for the 81st Reserve Regional Readiness Command in Birmingham, Ala., says the Army Reserve increasingly fills units through cross-leveling. Many reservists have been on active duty at least once since 2001 and that service counts against the two-year limit on their tours of service. Cross-leveling might not be an ideal solution, Ritter says, but in the case of the 343rd, the soldiers added to the unit were placed in jobs they had held elsewhere and had two months to get to know one another before deploying.
Three days after the 343rd mobilized in Rock Hill, it was sent to Fort Stewart, Ga., for the 60-day training required of all reservists heading to Iraq. Active-duty Army units receive just 10 days' special preparation before shipping out to Iraq, but they train together continuously. As part of its pre-Iraq regimen, the 343rd completed the Army's standard three-day convoy training exercise, which includes simulated ambushes and roadside bomb attacks. Though the 343rd's primary job is ferrying supplies, those three days were the unit's first and only exposure to live-fire convoy training. Support soldiers generally don't face fire and thus have had little training for it, says Richard Stark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But in Iraq, every vehicle is vulnerable to attack, and knowing how to respond is crucial, he says.
As it prepared for departure, the 343rd earned high marks in readiness, scoring 94 percent for personnel, 90 percent for equipment and 97 percent for training status, Ritter says. Had it scored below 90 percent in any of the three areas, it would not have been deployed. But having met its marks, the unit shipped out, two months and two days after arriving at Fort Stewart.
At the Active Army's Mercy
By all accounts, the unit's first months in Iraq were uneventful. Its soldiers hailed mainly from Alabama, Mississippi, and North and South Carolina, and didn't stand out from members of the 149 other companies in the 13th Corps Support Command overseen by an active-duty headquarters command headed by Brig. Gen. James Chambers. The 343rd was a cog in a massive logistics operation that includes 15,000 soldiers, 90 percent of whom are reservists. They conducted 250 convoys in 3,000 vehicles per day, on average, carrying 110,000 cases of bottled water, 202,000 meals and more than 1 million gallons of fuel in Iraq.
The 343rd caught a break when it was assigned to Talill base about 175 miles south of Baghdad and far from the dangerous Sunni Triangle. In the Triangle, slow-moving convoys had become popular targets for insurgents and their roadside bombs. During the company's first 10 months in Iraq, only one convoy from Talill came under fire.
But relative safety came at a cost. It meant that the 343rd had low priority when vehicle armor-thick, steel plating bolted to vehicles-was doled out. The Army Reserve always has been at the bottom of the pecking order for new equipment. Generally, the active Army gets new gear and reservists get the hand-me-downs-refurbished tanks, trucks and helicopters. The process, known as "cascading," leaves reservists with decades-old equipment in need of continual maintenance and plagued by breakdowns. In Iraq, Reserve vehicles often are the last to get armor.
"The Army Reserve is at the mercy of the active Army," says retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. David Bockel, director of Army affairs for the Reserve Officers Association in Washington. Unlike the Army National Guard, which has a state mission and is overseen by governors who regularly ask Congress for new equipment and training dollars, the Army Reserve is solely a federal force and cannot lobby for additional funds, Bockel says.
Congress has given the Army tens of millions dollars over the past year to armor vehicles in Iraq, but the Army Reserve has been slow to see the benefits. Chambers told reporters during a mid-October press conference in Iraq that all his command's Humvees had been upgraded, but only 80 percent of the command's other vehicles, including fuel trucks, had been armored.
Troops in Iraq have taken to creating what they call "hillbilly armor" by cutting their own steel plates and attaching them to unarmored vehicles. "I've got some great mechanics that purchase steel. They draw patterns, they cut those patterns out and provide steel plating around the cab of those vehicles to provide extra protection," Chambers said. In December, the House Armed Services Committee reported that 10 percent of medium weight vehicles and 15 percent of heavy transport vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan sported armor.
Regardless of mission, all convoys are escorted by armored carriers and every soldier is armed. On the most dangerous routes, Army helicopters sometimes provide protection. "I can't think of anything we're not doing right now to better protect our convoys," Chambers says. But in October, most of the 343rd's missions had been in less dangerous areas and its trucks had gone unarmored.
On the night of Oct. 12, 19 soldiers from the 343rd returned from a fruitless mission to deliver jet fuel. Their trucks had broken down at least three times during the trip and the receiving base had rejected the fuel, believing it was contaminated. Commanders told the reservists they had to wake up early the next day to try to deliver the same fuel to another base farther north near the Sunni Triangle.
Concerned about the safety and soundness of the mission, the soldiers argued with their commanders for three hours. Three of their seven trucks were not roadworthy, they said. They would be taking unarmored trucks into a hostile area. They would be redelivering fuel that already had been rejected.
Tired, frustrated and unable to convince their leaders to cancel the convoy, the soldiers decided not to show up the next morning. Chambers at the press conference called the refusal "an isolated incident, involving a small number of soldiers that will not affect our ability to support coalition forces." He also said the fuel was not contaminated.
Soldiers rarely refuse orders. The primacy of order and discipline is hammered into them from their first day in uniform. To turn down an order, especially during wartime, the soldiers of the 343rd must have believed their circumstances were dire, according to military experts. Perhaps just as dire, they say, as the larger strains facing reservists across Iraq. "The problem is we are putting [reserve soldiers] in a whole new world that we had not bargained for," says former War College dean McCausland. He says Army leaders are committed to improving reservists' training and equipment, but fighting cannot be halted to await the arrival of armor or the completion of additional live-fire training.
Thomas Houlahan, director of military assessment for James Madison University in Virginia, points out that reservists are growing angry about extensions of their tours due to fighting in Iraq. Most reservists signed on expecting to serve in emergency situations, not in long-term overseas combat operations, he says.
Houlahan suggests that the 19 soldiers might have lost faith in their leaders. "If you are going to lead people down ambush alley without regular armor, you are going to have a problem," he says. "On some level, these guys must have thought, 'They just don't care about us.' "
In fact, several family members have said that the 19 soldiers had complained about their commanders before they refused their orders. Command of the 343rd has changed hands at least seven times in the four years since the unit was formed in 1999, according to the Army Reserve. Typically a Reserve commander stays with a unit for one to three years.
David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel who now runs a Web site that encourages soldiers to speak out, had blasted Chambers the month before the reservists balked. "Morale has been lower than clam dung under his leadership," Hackworth wrote in a Sept. 13 column on his Soldiers for the Truth site. Soldiers have extensively criticized commanders of the 13th Corps Support Command in chat rooms on Hackworth's site.
The Army disciplined 23 soldiers in the 343rd in relation to the refused convoy. The Reserve took nonjudicial actions against them under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Punishment under that article can range from a letter of reprimand to a reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay or extra duty. None of the 23 was court-martialed or discharged. The 343rd's commander, who has not been identified, left her post at her request and has been given another job in Iraq. An Army spokesman in Iraq declined to give more specific details on the commander or punishments, citing privacy laws. All the 343rd's vehicles have received armor upgrades, the spokesman said.
On Oct. 13, three hours after the 19 reservists declined their orders, a group of Montana National Guardsmen in the 343rd took over the supply run and delivered the fuel without incident.