At a time when some US 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 on Sunday 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 US forces in Iraq for everything from helicopters to tanks.
The reservists took two tractor-trailers and stripped parts from a 4.5-tonne truck that had been abandoned in Kuwait by other units that had already moved into Iraq, one of the reservists, Darrell Birt of Columbus, said on Sunday.
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 last month.
"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," he said.
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, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Wicker, said in a telephone interview on Sunday.
"That would have required multiple trips back. They do not have many cargo trucks. They are fuel haulers," he said.
But once the reservists were done with the assignment, they should have sought out the units the vehicles belonged to, Wicker 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," he said.
"They destroyed it. They did the enemy's job. ... Those trucks could be used for other units," he said.
Wicker ordered the investigation of the thefts, which occurred before he assumed the battalion post.
The 656th's former company commander, Major Cathy Kaus, told the Chicago Tribune in Sunday'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 the 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 on Sunday that his clemency had been denied and he is appealing.