The Army is investigating members of a Reserve unit in Iraq who refused to deliver a fuel shipment north of Baghdad under conditions they considered unsafe, the Pentagon and relatives of the soldiers said Friday. Several soldiers called it a "suicide mission," relatives said.
Some 18 members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in Rock Hill, S.C., were detained at gunpoint for nearly two days after disobeying orders to drive trucks that they said had not been serviced and were not being escorted by armed vehicles to Taji, about 15 miles north of Baghdad, relatives said after speaking to some of the soldiers.
Jackie Butler of Jackson, Miss., the wife of Staff Sgt. Michael Butler, 44, said she was awakened about 5:30 or 6 a.m. Thursday by a call from an officer from Iraq. He told her "that my husband was being detained for disobeying a direct order," Ms. Butler said, "and he went on to tell me that it was a bogus charge that they got against him and some of those soldiers over there, because what they was doing was sending them into a suicide mission, and they refused to go."
A senior Army officer said that 19 soldiers from the unit had been assembled Wednesday morning to deliver fuel but that some had refused to go. He denied they had been held under guard.
The officer said the soldiers raised "some valid concerns."
"Unfortunately it appears that a small number of the soldiers involved chose to express their concerns in an inappropriate manner," said the officer, who discussed the preliminary findings only on the condition of anonymity. Insubordination in wartime is a grave offense, and an inquiry is under way, the officer said, to determine if the Uniform Code of Military Justice was violated and whether disciplinary measures were warranted.
It is unclear if this is the first time a group of soldiers in Iraq has refused to carry out orders, and the military is playing down the incident as an isolated event. But the small rebellion suggests that problems linger with outfitting soldiers with adequate equipment in an increasingly dangerous country.
"I know soldiers are deeply concerned and have been deeply concerned about the equipment shortages," said Paul Rieckhoff, who was an Army lieutenant in Iraq for almost a year, until February this year, and is now executive director of Operation Truth, a New York advocacy group working to draw attention to the needs of soldiers in Iraq and returning veterans.
"When you don't have proper equipment, you feel vulnerable," Mr. Rieckhoff said. "We haven't evolved quickly enough to meet the enemy threat, which is rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs."
On average, American soldiers were attacked 87 times a day in August, the latest figures available, a sharp increase from a year earlier. In September, 41 soldiers died from rocket attacks and gunfire, up from 11 a year earlier.
The incident, which was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., where several of the soldiers live, apparently began after the company tried to deliver a shipment of fuel to a base, but was turned away because the fuel was unusable, according to family members.
According to relatives and the Army officer, they returned to their base in Tallil, where they were told to deliver the fuel to Taji. The group refused, citing the poor condition of their vehicles and the lack of an armed escort, family members said. American convoys, which are usually accompanied by armored cars and sometimes by aircraft, are often attacked by insurgents.
"Yesterday we refused to go on a convoy to Taji," Specialist Amber McClenny, 21, said in a message she left on the answering machine of her mother, Teresa Hill, in Dothan, Ala. "We had broken-down trucks, nonarmored vehicles. We were carrying contaminated fuel."
After the soldiers were released, Specialist McClenny called her mother again and explained that the jet fuel the convoy had to carry had been contaminated with diesel, and that because it had been rejected by one base, it would likely be rejected by the Taji base.
Taji is in the volatile Sunni-dominated swath of Iraq, and Ms. Hill said her daughter felt "that if you go there, it's a 99 percent chance you will be ambushed or fired upon."
"They had not slept, the trucks had not been maintained, they were going without armed guards, it was just a bad deal," Ms. Hill said. "And that's when the whole unit said no." She said their defense is "cease action on an unsafe order."
Relatives said that prior to the incident, soldiers had complained to them that their equipment was shoddy and put them in greater danger. The relatives said they did not know if such complaints were made to the unit's command.
Patricia McCook of Jackson, Miss., said her husband, Sgt. Larry O. McCook, 41, had told her "that these vehicles were unsafe."
"He said, we go out on these missions, you know, he was afraid they were going to break down, that they were no good, they were just piecemealing something together, and set up for people to come ambushing you," she added.
The senior Army officer said the military was investigating the issue of vehicle maintenance.
Phillip Carter, a former Army captain and expert on legal and military affairs, said the kind of insubordination the unit showed had been more common during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, when the draft was still in place and the average conscript's goal was survival. The formation of an all-volunteer Army was supposed to address these problems, Mr. Carter said.
But the continually shifting war in Iraq is testing the preparation of the military, especially the Reserve and the National Guard, military experts said. Since last year, Reserve and National Guard units have complained about lack of proper equipment and training. Those in rear service units, like cooks and truck drivers, often had minimal combat training. The Army has moved to change that, but experts like Mr. Carter call the effort inadequate.
"The paradigm shift that's happening is that a truck driver is just as likely to see combat as soldiers in infantry unit," he said. "There's better training now of support units now as they go out. They've gotten better about equipping support units, but those moves have still been incremental moves. There hasn't been a wholesale push to change the Army to face the kind of the threat it faces in Iraq today. There are no rear units in Iraq any more."
The Army officer who discussed the case said service records of the 343rd indicated that it has performed well for the nearly nine months it has served in Iraq.
Though the soldiers have been released from detention, they could face anything from reprimands to courts-martial