Six Ohio reservists martialed for ‘justified’ vehicle theft

John Mccarthy and John Mccarthy

COLUMBUS, — 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 yesterday 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 that had already moved into Iraq, one of the reservists, Darrell Birt of Columbus, told The Associated Press yesterday.

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.”

Last week, the military said it would not court-martial any of 23 other Army reservists who refused a mission transporting fuel along a dangerous road in Iraq, complaining that their vehicles in poor condition and did not have armor. And on Wednesday, U.S. soldiers complained to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in Kuwait that they have to scrounge in landfills for scrap metal and discarded bullet-resistant glass to provide armor for their vehicles.

The reservists in the 656th Transportation Company had to move their equipment along with the fuel and likely did not have enough vehicles to do so in one trip, their former battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Wicker, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“That would have required multiple trips back. They do not have many cargo trucks. They are fuel haulers,” he told The Associated Press.

But once the reservists were done with the assignment, they should have sought out the units the vehicles belonged to, he said.

“Instead of taking the trucks back to their rightful owners, the first thing was erasing the identity marks and dumping them off at bases,” Wicker said. “They destroyed it. They did the enemy’s job. … Those trucks could be used for other units.”

Wicker ordered the investigation of the thefts, which occurred before he assumed the battalion post.

“Taking the trucks in my mind was not the worst thing they did,” Wicker said from Fort Hood, Texas, where he is now with the Army’s 13th Corps Support Command.

The 656th’s former company commander, Maj. Cathy Kaus, told the Chicago Tribune in yesterday’s editions that although she knew the equipment had been stolen, she could not determine its owners. The Tribune said the vehicles were never reported stolen, according to court-martial transcripts.

Kaus is serving a six-month sentence. She and Birt have applied for clemency, which could restore their military benefits and change their dishonorable discharges. Birt said yesterday that his clemency had been denied and he is appealing.