The Soldiers Who Said No

A pair of Mississippi women challenge the army brass on behalf of their soldier-husbands in Iraq

No matter how the military ultimately decides to deal with Staff Sergeant Michael Butler for disobeying orders, once the war in Iraq is through with him, he'll be welcomed home by an adoring family and the big yellow ribbon that is pinned to the tall long-leaf pine tree outside his one-story brick house in Jackson, Mississippi.

"I am very, very proud of him. He is a definite leader, someone who is capable of doing many things," said Butler's wife, Jackie, as she sat in her living room facing a wall of awards earned by her husband during his 24 years of duty in both the regular army and the reserves. There are a half-dozen Army Achievement Medals and a plaque for "1997 NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] of the Year." Four short words of high military praise are inscribed on it: "Can do. Damn good."

Iraqi pipeline: Patricia McCook (left) and Jackie Butler on the home front
photo: Jaro Vacek
Iraqi pipeline: Patricia McCook (left) and Jackie Butler on the home front

It was that same type of leadership that Butler, 44, was exhibiting this month, his wife insisted, when he and 17 others in his army reserve platoon did the militarily unthinkable by refusing direct orders to drive a convoy of fuel trucks from their post at the Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq to Taji, north of Baghdad. Butler told his wife that their breakdown-prone trucks—and the lack of steel-plated armor on the vehicles—made them sitting ducks for hostile fire along the 200-mile route. According to Jackie Butler and family members of others in the unit, commanders of the 343rd Quartermaster Company reacted by arresting the soldiers at gunpoint, reading them their rights, and holding them in a tent under guard for 24 hours—actions denied by army spokesmen.

A day later, after Jackie Butler and others spread the alarm, the incident was worldwide news, providing sharp focus to charges that many troops in Iraq lack adequate equipment, criticism that dogged the Bush administration even before Democrat John Kerry made it a stock element of his stump speech. It has also rekindled memories of the last days of the Vietnam War, when there were incidents of demoralized U.S. troops refusing orders they believed would accomplish little other than placing themselves in peril.

Jackie Butler said she was less concerned with the big-picture implications of her husband's actions than the fact that he was in trouble and needed her help. That news had come in an alarming call in the early morning of October 14 from a stranger who said he was a lieutenant in the army in Iraq and friendly with her husband. "He said, 'Your husband snuck this note to me to call you, that you should call your sister-in-law and she should call the lawyers she knows, because he needs their help.' I asked him what was going on, and he said, 'Your husband has been charged with disobeying orders.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Yes, your husband has been falsely accused. He is being held under guard right now. I have to go.' Then he hung up."

Butler said she immediately began calling family members. She also left a message at the local daily paper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

A couple of miles away, Patricia McCook, whose husband, Sergeant Larry McCook, 41, was also serving in the 343rd, was awoken at 5:12 that same morning when he called from Iraq.

"He was saying, 'Baby, baby, wake up, wake up please. Get a paper, take this down.' He sounded panicky. He said they were trying to make them go to a place called Taji—I can't even pronounce it. He said the trucks didn't have protection, that it was a suicide mission. He said, 'They've arrested us. They've got military police armed with guns guarding us; they read us our rights.' He said, 'Write these names down, these are the others in trouble with me.' "

Among the names her husband gave her was that of Michael Butler. The two wives had never met, but within a few days, Jackie Butler and Pat McCook were granting joint interviews to media from around the country, holding court in Butler's living room, so much in tune with each other's concerns that they noddingly finished each other's sentences.

It was a sudden and unexpected thrust into the national spotlight, putting them at the crossroads of a volatile issue at the heart of the presidential election.

In many ways, they are an unlikely pair to be taking on a mighty military establishment. Both are devout churchgoers: Butler at Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist, McCook at the Jones Chapel Church in nearby Flora, Mississippi, where her husband is a deacon. McCook is raising a pair of teenagers; Butler, a hairstylist, is stepmother to two children, ages 10 and 14. The trunk of Pat McCook's sedan bears a "Support Our Troops" yellow-ribbon sticker. Another urges people to find guidance through prayer. McCook was born in Flora and raised in Jackson; Butler has lived here all her life. Her modest but comfortable home is on a street of well-groomed lawns and spreading magnolias, a quiet neighborhood located in the city's northeast, where the only discordant note is the protective metal bars that cover most windows. It is about a mile and a half from another pleasant neighborhood of single-family homes, where Jackson civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway in 1963 by a virulent racist.

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