BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. Army Reserve (search) soldiers who refused orders to drive a dangerous route were members of one of a few supply units whose trucks are still unarmored, their commanding general said Sunday.
The soldiers, now under investigation, had previously focused on local missions in safer parts of southern Iraq and had never driven a convoy north along the attack-prone roads passing through Baghdad (search).
"Not all of their trucks are completely armored. In their case, they haven't had the chance to get armored," said Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, commanding general of 13th Corps Support Command (search), which sends some 250 convoys ferrying Army fuel, food and ammunition across Iraq each day.
Chambers, speaking at a press conference in Baghdad, said the 18 soldiers involved in the incident had returned to duty and it was "too early" to determine if any will undergo disciplinary action.
He said a pair of investigations are examining the soldiers' disobedience as well as their allegations that the trucks were unfit for the hazardous journey. He declined to discuss particulars, citing the soldiers' rights.
Chambers said 80 percent of the 13th Coscom's 4,000 trucks have been fitted with custom steel plate, but some of those in the unit that balked, the 343rd Quartermaster Company, were among the last left unarmored, because the unit's mission normally confines it to a less dangerous part of Iraq.
None of the 13th Coscom's trucks arrived in Iraq with armor. Since February, the unit's engineers and private contractors have been working in impromptu maintenance yards to weld heavy metal "boxes" over truck cabs.
Chambers said the 18 soldiers who refused the mission on Wednesday morning — driving seven fuel tankers from Tallil air base near Nasiriyah to Taji north of Baghdad — also appeared to have also balked at their mission because of the trucks' bad condition.
"They were concerned about the maintenance," Chambers said. "If there is a maintenance issue, we'll clear it up."
Chambers downplayed the incident, saying the disobedience not indicative of wider U.S. Army morale or maintenance problems. The 18 soldiers were "moved to a separate location" for questioning and have all since returned to duty, the general said.
But Chambers did not downplay the danger of driving Iraq's roads, a job that has become the equivalent of front-line combat with Iraq's insurgency, whose deadliest weapon is the hidden roadside bomb.
"In Jim Chambers' opinion, the most dangerous job in Iraq is driving a truck," he said. Soldiers take their missions realizing "it's not if, but when, they will be attacked."
The Army announced last week it was investigating up to 19 members of a platoon from the 343rd Quartermaster Company based in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
On Wednesday, 19 members of the platoon did not show up for a scheduled 7 a.m. meeting in Tallil to prepare for the fuel convoy's departure a few hours later, a military statement said.
The general said a pair of investigations were already under way, and said there were just 18 soldiers whose actions were being probed.
The first investigation, overseen by the 13th Coscom's inspector general and deputy commander, is looking into maintenance and safety practices at the Talil air base, where the 343rd is based.
The second, headed by the commander of the 300th Area Support Group, 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.
"Based on our investigations, other actions may be necessary," Chambers said.
As a result of the incident, the entire 343rd is in the midst of a two-week "stand down," bolting on new armor and upgrading maintenance on its vehicles. The 18 soldiers under investigation must complete additional training and win re-certification to regain permission to perform convoy missions, Chambers said.
He said the incident and ongoing maintenance pause had no effects on supplying the U.S. military here. The 21-vehicle convoy still made the run Wednesday, albeit late.
The 15,000 troops under Chambers' command — almost 90 percent of whom are Reservists or National Guard soldiers — have completed 75,000 convoy missions covering the length and breadth of Iraq and suffered 26 killed since April, Chambers said. No members of the 343rd have been killed in Iraq in the nine months they've been here, the general said.
He denied claims by some of the soldiers to their families that the fuel they were to deliver was contaminated. The platoon has troops from Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina.