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Briefing From U.S. Military Officials in Baghdad

Aired October 17, 2004 - 11:00   ET


TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. military in Baghdad talks about the reservists who apparently refused to follow orders. CNN brings it to you live.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Meanwhile, U.S. tanks and planes pound Fallujah as insurgents hit back hard. We'll have a live report.

HARRIS: And you'll meet a young veteran who's come home from Iraq to dedicate his life to public service.

And good morning, and I am Tony Harris at the CNN center in Atlanta.

And I'm Betty Nguyen. Those stories and more after this check of the stories now in the news.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad are planning a briefing which is expected to begin shortly. This is a live look at the podium there. They are going to discuss the investigation into members of a reserve unit who refused to go on a mission they thought was too dangerous. We will bring that live to you when it happens.

Meanwhile, a minibus carrying Iraqi police officers was attacked with rocket propelled grenades and machine guns last night. Nine of the officers inside were killed in the ambush southwest of Baghdad. Two others were wounded. They were coming home from a training course in Jordan.

We want to take you back to Baghdad right now for that live news conference concerning those 19 soldiers. Let's listen in.

BRIG. GEN. JAMES CHAMBERS, CMDR 13TH COSCOM, BALAD: I'm Jim Chambers. I am the commander of the 13th Core Support Command, also commander of LSA Anaconda. This evening, I am going to give a statement on the recent events involving the 343rd Quartermaster Company. After the statement, I'll take a few questions.

The 343rd Quartermaster Company is from Rock Hill, South Carolina. It's an experienced company that has performed honorable service in combat for nine plus months. This is an isolated incident involving a small number of soldiers that will not affect our ability to support the coalition forces.

First, I will provide some background to show you where the 343rd fits into the logistical picture here in Iraq. The 343rd Quartermaster Company is assigned to the 369th Core Support Battalion, the 300th Area Support Group, which is a brigade level organization. All of those units are stationed in Tallil. The 300th ASG is assigned to the 13th COSCOM, and we are located at LSA Anaconda near Balad.

The 13th COSCOM has 150 company detachment level units spread among four brigade-level organizations stretching from the border of Kuwait all the way to the border of Turkey.

We provide food, water, fuel, ammunition, medical supplies and repair parts, as well as transportation, for all of those supplies for the multinational forces here in Iraq. 13th COSCOM has found that nearly every operating base involved (ph) in Iraq. On any given day, the COSCOM averages 250 convoys on the road, comprised of an average of 2,500 to 3,000 vehicles, which means that there are over 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers on the road delivering goods every single day and night.

These are very courageous soldiers, warriors, who along with our contractor partners climb into the cabs of their trucks every single day, knowing it's not a question of if, but when they will be attacked.

The soldiers are well armed. They're well trained, and they're well equipped for the mission that they have.

In the 24-hour period, the COSCOM delivers on an average 110,000 cases of bottled water, 202,000 meals and over one million gallons of fuel every single day.

The 343rd Quartermaster Company has about 100 soldiers assigned to the unit. They're organized into a supply and a petroleum and water platoon, as well as a headquarters platoon. Their mission is to conduct supply operations and provide bulk fuel and water and for the most part, their missions have been conducted locally within the multinational and division central south area of operations.

On 13 October, at about 7:00 a.m, some of the members of the company allegedly refused to participate in their assigned convoy mission. Initial reports indicate that 18 soldiers from the company may have been involved. As a result of this incident, the convoy failed to depart at its assigned time, but proceeded later in the day with other members from the 343rd. The mission to deliver fuel was completed and the delay had no impact on the support to multinational forces.

Upon learning of this incident, I appointed my deputy commander, Colonel Daryl Roll (ph), to lead a team consisting of the staff judge advocate, the command sergeant major and the inspector general, to go to Tallil and conduct an on-site assessment of the facts and circumstances that led to this specific event. And concurrently, the commander of the 300th ASG directed an investigation to determine if the Uniform Code of Military Justice was violated, and will make recommendations on what actions may be necessary. Both of these investigations are still ongoing.

But preliminary findings indicate that the soldiers involved expressed concerns regarding maintenance and safety. As a result, I have directed that the 343rd conduct a maintenance and safety stand- down during which time vehicles will be thoroughly inspected and the unit will retrain and certify for their mission.

We will also assess armor protection for each of their vehicles and make an assessment to provide additional steel plating if it's required.

I estimate that this process will take 10 to 14 days. During this time, there will be no impact on our ability to sustain the force.

Based on the results of this investigation, other actions may be necessary. However, due to the ongoing nature of the investigation, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss those right now.

This is a single event. It's confined to a small group of individuals, who would -- who would have had an impact on good order and discipline in the unit. If the investigation bears out any wrongdoing, the appropriate action will be taken to ensure discipline is maintained.

To facilitate the investigation, the soldiers involved were moved to a separate location where they could be privately questioned and have their statements taken. All 18 soldiers have returned to duty. Soldiers' rights were protected at all times and it's too early in the investigation to speculate on charges or other disciplinary actions. The command is taking actions to address soldier concerns, as well as to ensure continued good order and discipline in the unit.

The 343rd is an experienced company that has performed honorable service in combat for nine months.

Again, this is an isolated incident involving a small number of soldiers that will not affect our ability to support coalition forces.

I'll take your questions now.

Yes, ma'am.

EMILY HARRIS, NPR CORRESPONDENT: Emily Harris from NPR. I have a couple of questions. One, when you say all 18 have returned to duty, what exactly do you mean? Because I guess with the stand-down, they're not going out on missions. And two, could you address this question of contaminated fuel. Was any of the delivery they were supposed to make that day contaminated? Had it been rejected somewhere else, and if so, why were they being asked to deliver at all to a different place?

CHAMBERS: Right. They had been returned to duty. For most of the soldiers, they have returned back to their squads and platoons. And as part of the investigation process, then, while that is going on, then they'll do maintenance on their individual equipment. They will be involved in safety training and will again recertify that they are trained to do the mission. So they are back in their units, in almost all cases conducting the kinds of things that they do when they're not on mission, which includes maintenance on their vehicles.

In regard to the contaminated fuel, the fuel was not contaminated. The fuel was put into bags (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and checked. It was not contaminated.

We're very sensitive to the quality of our fuel. We receive fuel from Jordan. We receive fuel from Turkey. We receive fuel from Kuwait in various kinds of vehicles, commercial and military. If it's a military vehicle like they were in, it has a fuel/oil/water separator that the fuel runs through to make sure it retains its quality. At each of the storage locations where we dump into fuel bags, they also have filter separators at those locations, and then we do testing of the fuel because we're -- it's part of our business to make sure the quality of the fuel is good.

HARRIS: Thank you, sir for the answer, but you said almost all cases they've returned to duty, or there are a couple that haven't returned to duty? And then just to clarify on the contaminated? Was the fuel rejected somewhere for some other reason than being contaminated?

CHAMBERS: No, they all have returned to duty. All have returned to a duty status and are currently working within their MOS.

One of the issues that came up specifically for one of the trucks is, I believe one of the trucks had a sign on it that said "DF2." DF2 is a diesel fuel. The fuel that they were hauling were JP8. JP8 is the military fuel that goes in most of our vehicles, to include aviation assets. Both are diesel-based fuels. The DF2 is more of a pure diesel that goes in commercial vehicles. We deliver three fuels, JP8, DF2 and mo (ph) gas, which is similar to the gasoline that you put in your automobile. But again, this -- all vehicles were carrying JP8 and all the fuel was good.

Yes, sir?

DEXTER FILKINS, NEW YORK TIMES: I'm with the "New York Times." Dexter Filkins.

General, one of the things that the relatives of the soldiers told us was that when they were speaking to their husbands and their wives here, they described the mission that they were sent out as a suicide mission. They said they didn't have -- the trucks had broken down. They didn't have adequate armor. They didn't have armed escorts.

I don't know about their particular case. I wonder if you could try to address that in their specific case, whether that might be true, but I think that wouldn't be the first time that we've heard complaints like that from soldiers either in the field or soldiers who are coming home, whether they didn't have plates for their flak jackets or they didn't have armor for their Humvees, and that, you know, complaints that have gone as far as to say that people have died unnecessarily because they didn't have the protection that they needed. And I wondered, is that also a problem generally in your division? CHAMBERS: No, absolutely not. All convoys are escorted, whether they're civilian convoys, like our KBR contractors, or they're military convoys. We have escorts on every single convoy. It's for the most cases, one escort vehicle per every five. That escort vehicle is a gun truck. And that can be a five-ton gun truck with a gunner on the back, or it can be 1114 operated by MPs. But every convoy moving up and down the roads are escorted, every soldier is armed. Every soldier has more than enough ammo. In most cases, well, in all cases right now, double the normal load that they carry.

The convoys have become very sophisticated in the areas where we see the most resistance, to include air coverage by Army rotary aircraft, to include each of the combat maneuver elements providing us quick reaction forces, so if we encounter problems along the road, they're quick to react and to help us out.

All of our soldiers have been very well trained. I think in world class training at the Udari (ph) range and convoy live fire exercises. And they're trained to engage the enemy if required, and they're also trained to conduct the mission, and every cab, military cab has two soldiers in the cab. Every one of those soldiers have outer tactical vests with their (UNINTELLIGIBLE) plates.

So what I would tell you is for the most part, we've done -- I mean, I can't think of anything that we're not doing right now to better protect our convoys, and the convoy, the sophistication of the convoys have increased over time from April to today. And we are working constantly to find ways to better protect them.

Now, in terms of armor, I have over 4,000 large trucks in the core support command. All of those come off the manufacturing line without armor. They're trucks with normal steel. So for the most part, I've got some great mechanics that purchase steel. They draw patterns. They cut those patterns out and they provide steel plating around the cab of those vehicles to provide extra protection to the soldiers that are in the cab. We've come a long, long way.

HARRIS: We have been listening to a press briefing from General James Chambers in Baghdad and he is addressing a military investigation into the alleged refusal of members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, actually 18 members of that company, who refused the general's words or allegedly refused a refueling mission in Baghdad. And those reservists reportedly told members of their family back at home that they were being sent on a suicide mission.

Now, just to back up a second, this is 18 members we're talking about of the 343rd Quartermaster Company out of Rock Hill, South Carolina who reported to their family members that they were being sent on a suicide mission. The general responded by saying that all of the convoys are protected and escorted with heavy, heavy firepower. Preliminarily, the military investigation has ordered a maintenance and safety stand down so that all of the vehicles can be completely checked. A routine maybe more than a routine service check at this time and it should last about 14 days. Of course, we will continue to follow this story and bring you updates throughout the afternoon and evening. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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