WASHINGTON – Relatives of soldiers who refused to deliver supplies in Iraq (search) say the troops considered the mission too dangerous, in part because their vehicles were in poor shape.
The Army is investigating up to 19 reservist members of a platoon that is part of the 343rd Quartermaster Company (search), based in Rock Hill, S.C. The unit delivers food, water and fuel on trucks in combat zones.
Convoys in Iraq are frequently subject to ambushes and roadside bombings (search).
Some of the troops' safety concerns were being addressed, military officials said. But a coalition spokesman in Baghdad said "a small number of the soldiers involved chose to express their concerns in an inappropriate manner, causing a temporary breakdown in discipline."
The coalition said in a statement Saturday that the troops are "not being guarded or detained. They are being interviewed. They're taking statements."
But the relatives said they were told the soldiers had been confined.
Teresa Hill of Dothan, Ala., who said her daughter, Amber McClenny, was among in the platoon, received a phone message from her early Thursday morning saying they had been detained by U.S. military authorities.
"This is a real, real, big emergency," McClenny said in her message. "I need you to contact someone. I mean, raise pure hell."
McClenny said in her message that her platoon had refused to go on a fuel-hauling convoy to Taji, north of Baghdad. "We had broken down trucks, non-armored vehicles and, um, we were carrying contaminated fuel. They are holding us against our will. We are now prisoners," she said.
Hill said she was later contacted by Spc. Tammy Reese in Iraq, who was calling families of the soldiers.
"She told me [Amber] was being held in a tent with armed guards," said Hill, who spoke with her daughter Friday afternoon after her release. Her daughter said they are facing punishment ranging from a reprimand to a charge of mutiny.
The incident was first reported Friday by The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss. Family members told the newspaper that several platoon members had been confined.
The supply route the soldiers were to have used, is among the most dangerous in Iraq. The military calls it "Main Supply Route Tampa." Many soldiers have been wounded there by roadside bombs and rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
A commanding general has ordered the unit to undergo a "safety-maintenance stand down," during which it will conduct no further missions as the unit's vehicles are inspected, the military said.
On Wednesday, 19 members of the platoon did not show up for a scheduled 7 a.m. meeting in Tallil, in southeastern Iraq, to prepare for the fuel convoy's departure a few hours later, the military statement said.
"An initial report indicated that some of the 19 soldiers [not all] refused to participate in the convoy as directed," the statement said.
The mission was ultimately carried out by other soldiers from the 343rd, which has at least 120 soldiers, the military said.
Staff Sgt. Christopher Stokes, a 37-year-old chemical engineer from Charlotte, N.C., went to Iraq with the 343rd but had to come home because of an injury. He said reservists were given inferior equipment and tensions in the company had been building since they were deployed in February.
"It wasn't really safe," he said. "The vehicles are not all that up to par anyway. The armor that they have is homemade. It's not really armor. It's like little steel rails."
A whole unit refusing to go on a mission in a war zone would be a significant breach of military discipline. The military statement said the incident "isolated" and called the 343rd an experienced unit that performed honorable service in nine months in Iraq.
U.S. military officials said the commanding general of the 13th Corps Support Command., Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, had appointed his deputy, Col. Darrell Roll, to investigate. An investigative team under Roll is in Tallil, questioning soldiers about the incident, the military said.
"Preliminary findings indicate that there were several contributing factors that led to the late convoy incident and alleged refusal to participate by some soldiers," the military said. "It would be inappropriate to discuss those factors while the investigation continues."
Separately, the commander of the 300th Area Support Group, listed on a military Web site as Col. Pamela Adams, has ordered a criminal inquiry to determine if any soldiers committed crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and, if so, whether disciplinary measures are warranted.
The platoon has troops from Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina, said Hill.