[lit-ideas] Iraq -- this is the last straw...

  • From: JimKandJulieB@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 12 Dec 2004 18:56:18 EST

_Click here: t r u t h o u t  - Resourcefulness a Crime in Rumsfeld's Army_ 
`Scrounging' for Iraq War Puts GIs in  Jail
By Aamer Madhani
The Chicago Tribune   
Sunday 12 December 2004 
Reservists court-martialed for theft; they say they did what  they had to do.
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Six reservists, including two veteran officers  who had 
received Bronze Stars, were court-martialed for what soldiers have been  doing 
long as there have been wars - scrounging to get what their outfit  needed to 
do its job in Iraq. 
Darrell Birt, one of those court-martialed for theft, destruction  of Army 
property and conspiracy to cover up the crimes, had been decorated for  his 
"initiative and courage" for leading his unit's delivery of fuel over the  
perilous roads of Iraq in the war's first months. 
Now, Birt, 45, who was a chief warrant officer with 656th  Transportation 
Company, based in Springfield, Ohio, and his commanding officer  find 
felons, dishonorably discharged and stripped of all military  benefits. 
The 656th played a crucial role in maintaining the gasoline  supply that 
fueled everything from Black Hawk helicopters to Bradley Fighting  Vehicles 
between Balad Airfield and Tikrit. The reservists in the company  proudly boast 
their fuel was in the vehicles driven by the 4th Infantry  Division soldiers 
who found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole last year. 
But when Birt's unit was ordered to head into Iraq in the heat of  battle in 
April 2003 from its base in Kuwait, Birt said the company didn't have  enough 
vehicles to haul the equipment it would need to do the job. 
So, Birt explained, he and other reservists grabbed two tractors  and two 
trailers left in Kuwait by other U.S. units that had already moved into  Iraq. 
Several weeks later, Birt and other reservists scrounged a third  vehicle, an 
abandoned 5-ton cargo truck, and stripped it for parts they needed  for 
repair of their trucks. 
"We could have gone with what we had, but we would not have been  able to 
complete our mission," said Birt, who was released from the brig on Oct.  17 
is petitioning for clemency in hope that he can return to the  reserves. 
"I admit that what we did was technically against the rules, but  it wasn't 
for our own personal gain. It was so we could do our jobs." 
The thefts mirror countless stories of shifty appropriation that  has been 
memorialized in books and films as a wartime skill. Birt and other  reservists 
in the unit said that what the prosecutors called theft was simply  
resourcefulness, a quality they say is abundant among soldiers in Iraq. 
While in confinement, Birt had a chat with a military police  officer who was 
puzzled by why Birt was in the brig. The MP, a guard, told Birt  that his 
unit had "acquired" a Humvee in a similar fashion. 
Equipment shortages have become a concern, and soldiers are  expressing 
growing frustration about them. On Monday, the military announced it  would not 
court-martial the 23 reservists who balked at transporting fuel in  Iraq 
their vehicles were in poor condition and lacked armor, and on  Wednesday, 
soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the  lack of 
for vehicles. 
In addition to the six in the 656th who were court-martialed,  eight others 
in the unit were given non-judicial punishment, including fines,  pay reduction 
and loss in rank. 
The commanding officer of the company, Maj. Cathy Kaus, 46, was  sentenced to 
6 months in jail and fined $5,000 for her part in the thefts. She  is 
scheduled to be released from the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San  Diego 
Christmas Day after serving most of her sentence. 
Kaus and Birt chose to be tried by a military judge rather than a  panel that 
would have included fellow soldiers, and they waived the formal  
An Army spokeswoman said Friday that the Army does not comment on  specific 
cases. But she noted that the military's judicial process allows those  who are 
court-martialed to apply for clemency. 
The severity of the punishments was surprising to many members of  the 
company, who regularly saw off-the-books trading and thefts of military  
property in 
Iraq by troops in other units. 
Surprised by Severity 
Even Lt. Col. Christopher Wicker, the former commanding officer  of the 
battalion overseeing the 656th who ordered the investigation of the  thefts, 
he was shocked by the hefty penalties. 
"Circumstances at [the] time, however, made these acts less  serious than if 
done in a peacetime garrison environment," Wicker said in a  letter supporting 
clemency for Birt. "The sentences . . . are too harsh given  the situation 
during the initial drive north of Baghdad in April 2003, and the  limited flow 
of repair parts that existed April-September 2003." 
Theft of military equipment is legendary among American war  veterans, and 
the act has its own lexicon. In past wars some called it  "scrounging," while 
others called it "midnight requisitions" and "liberating  supplies," said 
and Vietnam War veteran Robert Vaughan. 
Military bureaucracy combined with the reality of warfare has  long made 
"scrounging" a necessity for soldiers trying to get a job done,  Vaughan said. 
Stealing is justified, he said, because everything being taken is  U.S. 
government property and is being used toward the war effort. 
He recalled that while his unit was serving in a remote area in  Vietnam, 
headquarters in Saigon repeatedly denied his unit's request for  high-power 
generators because it said there were none in stock. But on previous  trips to 
Saigon, Vaughan had seen dozens of generators stacked in a holding area  at 
Frustrated, he drove to Saigon one afternoon, posed as a captain  from 
another unit and gave a guard a forged requisition to get the  generators. 
"I was the greatest scrounger in the Vietnam War," said Vaughan,  who has a 
war novel to be published in January in which the protagonist is an  expert at 
stealing equipment for his unit. "If you did something that is not for  your 
own personal gain, your higher-ups tended to protect you from getting into  any 
trouble for it." 
The problems for the 656th started days before the company was to  move into 
Iraq. The company had only two cargo trucks to haul six containers  filled 
with tools, spare parts, ammunition, biological-chemical protective wear  and 
other supplies. 
Kaus, the commander of the 656th, said that officers with the  544th 
Maintenance Battalion, whose command her company fell under, informed her  the 
before their scheduled push into Iraq that they could not provide her  company 
support in moving the company's six containers. She said she discussed  the 
problem with Birt and her other chief warrant officer, and the two told her  
could solve it. 
Just Deal With It 
Kaus said in a telephone interview that she told the men "to do  what they 
had to do" to move their supplies, but she did not tell them to steal  
Birt said he inferred that they had her permission to take the  vehicles. The 
other chief warrant officer, Christopher Parriman, was not charged  in the 
thefts and left Iraq because of a medical disability before the  investigation 
began. Parriman declined to comment. 
Kaus said Birt and Parriman initially told her they had  permission to take 
the vehicles from another unit. She said she learned in late  May or early June 
of 2003 that the vehicles were stolen, but at that point the  trucks had 
become an integral part of the unit's regular fuel convoys. 
"These were vehicles that were not going to be used by the unit  that 
originally owned them, and they had become an important part in allowing us  to 
deliver 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of fuel a day," said Kaus, who was awarded a  
Bronze Star for effectively leading the unit. 
Kaus also said she could not determine which unit the trucks  belonged to, so 
she could not return them. In fact, the vehicles and trailers in  question 
were never reported stolen, according to transcripts of court-martial  
In a meeting with 656th officers and leaders of other companies  under his 
command in June 2003, Wicker, the 544th Maintenance battalion  commander, asked 
the officers if they had any equipment that did not belong to  them. Kaus and 
the other officers said nothing, Wicker said. 
No one mentioned the stolen property, Wicker and others said,  until a 
disgruntled soldier, Sgt. Charles Neely, reported the unit to Wicker as  the 
was preparing to end its tour and return to Ohio. Neely, who also  took part 
in the theft of one of the trucks, was reduced to private as part of  his 
sentence. Neely lives in Ohio; he declined to comment. 
Wicker, who had heard stories from relatives about scrounging in  Vietnam, 
said he was more bothered that the officers did not admit having the  equipment 
when asked and that they dismantled the 5-ton cargo truck. He said he  
understood the rationale for stealing the equipment, but he did not agree with  
In the first several months of the Iraq war, the supply line  moved at a 
glacial pace. Obtaining even basic parts to repair vehicles took as  long as 
weeks, said Robert Chalmers, who had been a sergeant with the 656th.  He 
received a court-martial for stripping the cargo truck for spare parts and  
disposing of its frame. 
Sitting in his kitchen in Greenville, Ohio, Chalmers recalled the  rocket 
attacks, bomb explosions and small-arms fire his company faced on the  road 
between Tikrit and Balad. 
He laughed about his eagerness to head to Iraq. Anticipating that  his 
company was going to be called up, he took two weeks off from work as an  
electrician to get gear ready before the unit's soldiers received official word 
they would be going. 
Other Reservists' Penalties 
Chalmers said their actions were technically wrong, but he felt  the 
importance of the company's mission justified the thefts. During the  company's 
in Iraq, members of the 656th drove more than 1.2 million miles  and delivered 
about 33 million gallons of fuel. 
Chalmers was reduced to a specialist as part of his sentence. Of  the other 
two reservists who were court-martialed, one received a jail sentence,  and the 
second was punished but not jailed. 
The situation has left Chalmers in debt and bitter. His wife,  Tina, said she 
had to borrow against her retirement savings to pay his $20,000  in legal 
"We were sent to Iraq without what we needed," said Chalmers, who  has spent 
15 years on active or reserve duty.. "If they don't make that decision  to get 
the vehicles we needed, we are worse off and can't do our mission. If we  
don't do our mission, those tanks at the front stand still." 
For Birt and Kaus, the court-martial and confinements are a  devastating end 
to long and successful military careers. Both are holding onto a  thin thread 
of hope that they will be granted clemency by Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz,  commander 
of the multinational forces in Iraq, so their benefits will be  reinstated 
and they will have a chance to continue their military careers. 
Birt and Kaus were dishonorably discharged, and unless they  receive 
clemency, they lose all military benefits, including the right to have  the 
U.S. flag 
draped on their coffins. 
This month, Birt received a certified letter from the trucking  company he 
worked for as a shop foreman, telling him that it could no longer  employ him 
because of his felony conviction. Kaus said her employer, sporting  goods 
manufacturer Huffy Corp., has informed her that it is unlikely she will be  
to come back to work because of her conviction. 
Kaus said her anger has subsided, and she is trying to move on  with her 
"My family and friends remind me how fortunate we are that  everyone of us 
[in the 656th] made it out of Iraq in one piece," she said. 
For Birt, the end to his military career has been jolting. 
"I don't have any regrets," Birt said. "I am proud of the work we  did 
serving our country. If I could get back in the reserves, I would go back to  
in a second." 

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