The Soldiers Who Said No

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

Despite the unexpectedness of the crisis, both women quickly rose to the challenge posed by the emergency messages from the other side of the world. Armed with a mutual bedrock belief in their husbands' integrity, they enlisted friends, relatives, and local politicians in a campaign to expose what they called "a terrible cover-up" by the army.

"It's a leadership problem," said McCook. "They knew those vehicles were unsafe. Why in the world would you send soldiers out unprotected like that?"

Probably their most effective calls were those to The Clarion-Ledger, where reporter Jeremy Hudson got the military to acknowledge the incident and wrote the initial account. National and international coverage followed. "I thought, Well, The Clarion-Ledger has it, that'll be it, just a local story," said McCook. "We're surprised at all the national attention."

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

They share the same analysis, however, of what's driving the news. "It's because it's election time," said McCook.

Both women declined to discuss their own political preferences. "I don't deal with politics," said Butler. "I vote for the best person."

They both said, however, that they believed President Bush to be badly misinformed in his assurances to the public that troops in Iraq have all necessary equipment. "He should go to the 343rd," said McCook.

"I don't know how he says these soldiers are all so enthusiastic," said Butler. "He is getting some bad information from someone."

The issue of shortages isn't new, they said.

"It's not as though this hasn't come up before," said McCook. "Even General [Ricardo] Sanchez [former commander of coalition forces in Iraq] wrote a letter to the Pentagon about the equipment problem."

"From what I was told there have been many direct orders disobeyed before this," said Butler. "But it was just one person. This was so many, all at the same moment."

"They all stood together, they made a united front, that's what makes the difference," added McCook. "It's like a fist, it makes a mighty blow. I know you don't have any clout when you stand alone."

Pat McCook has a first-person understanding of how the military works. She spent three years on active duty, serving as an army administrative specialist in 1983 in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where she met her husband. "I loved everything about him," she said. Larry McCook followed her home to Jackson and, about 10 years ago, joined the army reserves. He was working for the Hinds County Sheriff's Office as a detention officer when he was called up last year. In February, he was shipped to Iraq from Rock Hill, South Carolina, where the 343rd is based.

Iraq is Michael Butler's second round of combat in the Middle East. He served in the 1990–91 Gulf War and came home to Jackson, maintaining his enlistment in the reserves. He married Jackie three years ago. When he was summoned for active duty last fall he was working as a carpenter for the Jackson public school system. "I asked him why he was in the army," said Jackie Butler. "He said, 'Baby, I volunteered. I was looking to serve my country, and I wanted to go to school.' He did, too. He got himself licensed as a mechanic and learned carpentry skills. He did well by the army."

Jackie Butler gave her husband a pre-paid telephone calling card when he left. When he was able, they managed to speak two or three times a week. Not all of the calls were reassuring. "I've been talking to him on the phone when I hear the bombs coming in. You hear that sound, 'Ssssss,' and the explosion, and then my husband says, 'Got to go, baby.' "

Michael Butler was home for a two-week leave at the end of August. "He was fine. We didn't go out much; we had the family over, had a lot of fun, eating and laughing. At night, though, me and him would sit together and talk. He talked about the problems he was having over there, the trouble with the equipment. He told these stories. I said, 'Just go to him, your commander.' He said, 'She's a female, and I tried that. She's not going to do anything.' "

Pat McCook also noted changes in her husband after he went to war. "Most of all I love his sense of humor; he is just a naturally funny man. People say he even looks like Eddie Murphy so he should be funny. But ever since he went over, I don't hear it as much in him. I can tell he's worried."

Their husbands' complaints kept coming back to the trucks, both women said. "I remember him pulling out of Rock Hill, South Carolina," said Jackie Butler. "They had to drive down to Fort Stewart, Georgia. Even then the trucks were breaking down. He said he could've outrun those trucks, they went so slow. They were just no good."

In Iraq, breakdowns had occurred while the trucks were on their way to deliver fuel and supplies, the men told their wives. "He said they just sleep on top of the trucks when that happens," said Jackie Butler.

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