it gets worse by the day

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    Revolt in the ranks in Iraq
    The inside story of the Army platoon that refused to carry out a "death sentence" mission.
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    By Mary Jacoby

    Oct. 16, 2004 | The e-mail arrived Tuesday evening. But Kathy Harris didn't see the urgent plea from her son, Spc. Aaron Gordon, 20, until she arrived at work Wednesday morning. By then, Gordon and 16 other members of his Army Reserve platoon were corralled in a tent in Tallil, Iraq, under armed guard, for refusing to drive a fuel supply convoy in what another of the detained soldiers would later describe as a "death sentence."

    "At that point [when her son e-mailed] they hadn't been arrested yet. He was asking my advice about what could happen if they refused an order," Harris told me on Friday by telephone from Mississippi. "He said they had been ordered to take a contaminated load of fuel into a high-danger area. He said that they had already taken this load to one location, and it had been refused, and that they had, in his exact words, a '75 percent chance of being hit' on this new mission. He asked what the potential reprimands were if he disobeyed his commanding officer and, if it came to that point, what would happen to him if he had to get physical."

    Harris quickly phoned a friend who is a judge advocate general (JAG) officer and e-mailed her son back. "I told him if he struck an officer he faced potential three years imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge. I said, 'Do not do that.' I told him to talk to his first sergeant and see if he could help. But I doubt he ever got my reply."

    Indeed, by the time Kathy Harris replied to her son's e-mail, several other military families had received desperate phone calls from their loved ones in Iraq. There had been some sort of mutiny, it was clear. The details were sketchy, but it appeared that the platoon had refused to deliver a load of fuel to Taji, Iraq, because the soldiers believed their lives were at serious and unnecessary risk. According to the family members' accounts, they were detained at gunpoint by soldiers for more than a day.

    But the military denies that the reservists were detained at all. Lt. Col. Dave Rodgers, a spokesman for the 81st Regional Support Readiness Command of the U.S. Army Reserves in Birmingham, Ala., said in an interview Friday that while an investigation into the matter is ongoing, "No soldier has been arrested, charged, confined or detained as a result of this incident."

    That would be news to many family members, who say their loved ones told them that they'd been confined in a tent at gunpoint and refused permission to use the bathroom without armed escort.

    Spc. Amber McClenny, 21, managed to sneak away Wednesday as the detained soldiers were being taken to the mess hall. She phoned her mother in Dothan, Ala. Her daughter's steady but urgent voice on the answering machine jolted Teresa Hill from sleep. Hill saved the message and played it for me Friday afternoon over the telephone.

    "Hey, Mom. This is Amber. Real, real big emergency," McClenny said in the recorded message. "I need you to contact someone. I mean, raise pure hell. We had broken down trucks. No armored vehicles. Get somebody on this. I need you now, Mom. I need you so bad. Just please, please help me. It's urgent. They are holding us against our will. We are now prisoners."

    According to family members, the convoy was being asked to go much farther than usual from its southern base -- on a more than 200-mile trip through and around the extremely hostile Baghdad area. The tankers lacked bullet-resistant armor and, lumbering along at 40 miles an hour, would have made an easy target for insurgents lobbing bombs or grenades. The supply trucks are in disrepair and prone to breakdown. Many of the soldiers hadn't had enough sleep. And – astonishingly -- no armed escort or air protection was to be provided, the family members said.
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