Monday, December 13, 2004

 

Military shafts scrounging soldiers with court-martial

Last week we had Rummy being embarrassingly confronted by his own soldiers. This week, we have soldiers, including at least one from central Ohio, Darrell Birt, being punished and expelled from the military for using abandoned vehicles and parts to enable them to complete their mission. Unfortunately, at least one reporter isn't telling the whole story and seems to be mainly giving the brass's spin.

First some background. John McCarthy is a pedestrian Statehouse reporter for the AP. Newspapers across Ohio - especially for weekend stories - use the AP for stories out of Columbus. Usually these stories run with an "Associated Press" byline, but occassionally they mention the reporters name. McCarthy was on duty when this one broke this weekend. In the version that ran in the Plain Dealer Monday, McCarthy wrote:
At a time when some U.S. troops in Iraq are complaining they have to scrounge for equipment, six Ohio-based reservists were court-martialed for taking Army vehicles abandoned in Kuwait by other units so they could carry out their own unit's mission to Iraq.

The soldiers say they needed the vehicles, and parts stripped from one, to deliver fuel to Iraq, but their former battalion commander said Sunday that the troops should at least have returned the vehicles to their original units. Members of the 656th Transportation Company based in Springfield, west of Columbus, said they needed the equipment to deliver fuel that was needed by U.S. forces in Iraq for everything from helicopters to tanks. The reservists took two tractor-trailers and stripped parts from a five-ton truck that had been abandoned in Kuwait by other units.

Those units had already moved into Iraq, one of the reservists, Darrell Birt of Columbus, told the Associated Press on Sunday. Birt, a former chief warrant officer, and the others were charged with theft, destruction of Army property and conspiracy to cover up their crimes. Birt said he and two others pleaded guilty and the other three were convicted. All received six-month sentences.

"Nobody ever reported these trucks stolen. The deal was, when you are moving, if it was going to take more than 30 minutes to fix it, you left it," said Birt, who was released in November. "I'm a Christian man and I can't ignore what we did, but it was justified to get us in the fight and to sustain the fight."

[. . .]

"Instead of taking the trucks back to their rightful owners, the first thing was erasing the identity marks and dumping them off at bases," [battalion commander Lt. Col. Christopher] Wicker said. "They destroyed it. They did the enemy's job. . . . Those trucks could be used for other units."
When we first read this, we had mixed emotions. On one hand, these guys seemed to do some justifiable improvising. On the other hand, they apparently destroyed some property, and plead guilty to it so maybe there are some facts that the soldiers don't want to come clean on.

But, Robert Vitale of the Dispatch paints a significantly different picture, beginning with his lede:
What Darrell Birt did in Iraq earned him the Bronze Star.

What Darrell Birt did in Iraq also got him six months in military prison.
So now we are thinking, WTF? A Bronze Star. McCarthy didn't mention anything about these guys being awarded a Bronze Star for these activities - only the court-martialing.
Birt, who served as a maintenance technician with the 656 th Transportation Company based in Springfield, used abandoned U.S. military vehicles and parts to better protect his own unit as it headed into Iraq on fuel-delivery missions.

For that, he was cited in May 2003 for "leadership, unwavering commitment to mission accomplishment and technical expertise . . . above and beyond the call of duty." A year later, he was among six unit members court-martialed, convicted of theft and destruction of Army property, and sentenced to six months’ confinement.

Birt pleaded guilty, he said, "because I’m a Christian, and I did do it."
So, Birt's guilty plea was a lot more nuanced than one might initially think. Vitale also fills in more of the background.
He said the 656 th arrived in the Persian Gulf with Humvees equipped with soft vinyl doors and didn’t have enough vehicles for vital equipment.

A fellow soldier wrote on his behalf that Birt’s actions helped save lives in his 160-member unit. The 656th suffered just four injuries and no battlefield deaths during its year in the Persian Gulf. It did take fire from Iraqi insurgents.
And about Wicker's claim that they destroyed Army property? Vitale reports:
Lt. Col. Christopher Wicker, the former battalion commander in charge of the 656th and other units, said Birt and others should have returned the vehicles after they completed their mission. Instead, he said, they erased identity marks before "dumping them" at military bases.
Again, this is somewhat nuanced stuff, but it's clearer here than in McCarthy's story that 1) the vehicles, themselves, weren't destroyed; 2) Birt and the others returned them to a military base; and 3) at worst, Birt and the others removed some identifiers from the vehicles which may have made sense if this identified the vehicles as part of the 656th.

Let's see if we get this straight. Show some leadership and initiative to get you mission done. Earn a Bronze Star. And, oh - by the way - we are going to court-martial you, too. Joseph Heller's ghost is circling above.

And to make matters worse, because dozens of small and large papers use the AP, McCarthy's version of this story is going to get much wider play than Vitale's .

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