WASHINGTON — The Army is investigating up to 19 members of a supply platoon in Iraq who refused to go on a convoy mission, the military said Friday. Relatives of the soldiers said the troops considered the mission too dangerous, in part because their vehicles were in such poor shape.
Some of the troops' concerns were being addressed, military officials said. But a coalition spokesman in Baghdad noted that "a small number of the soldiers involved chose to express their concerns in an inappropriate manner, causing a temporary breakdown in discipline."
The reservists are from a fuel platoon that is part of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in Rock Hill, S.C. The unit delivers food, water and fuel on trucks in combat zones.
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 convoy to Taji, located 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 detainees.
"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, but the military did not confirm that.
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 undergo safety inspections, 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 military statement says.
The mission was ultimately carried out by other soldiers from the 343rd, which has at least 120 soldiers, the military said.
Convoys in Iraq are frequently subject to ambushes and roadside bombings.
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 called 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.
Alabama Republicans Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Terry Everett have both requested more information from the Defense Department, their offices said.
The platoon has troops from Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Mississippi and South Carolina, said Hill.
Patricia McCook, of Jackson, Miss., said her husband, Staff Sgt. Larry O. McCook, was also among those detained. She said he told her in a telephone call that he did not feel comfortable taking his soldiers on another trip.
"He told me that three of the vehicles they were to use were 'deadlines' ... not safe to go in a hotbed like that," she said, the newspaper reported.
Contributing: Samira Jafari, Jeffrey Collins.