October 4, 2006

1173rd Transportation Company convoy leader denies ABC News report

By John Cramer
Courtesy of Roanoke Times

A Virginia Army National Guard convoy leader and an American truck driver on Tuesday angrily denied an accusation that the guardsmen abandoned a civilian supply convoy that was ambushed in Iraq.

U.S. Army and Guard officials also criticized ABC News for reporting the accusation last week from one civilian contractor driver without getting comment from military commanders, soldiers and other contractor drivers, all of whom said the U.S. troops reacted properly in the firefight on Sept. 20, 2005.

The soldiers, including several from Southwest Virginia, were members of the Rocky Mount-based 1173rd Transportation Company.

The ABC News report included video taken by contractor driver Preston Wheeler of Mena, Ark., that showed an Army gun truck driving away when insurgents opened fire in the village of Ad Duluiyah in the hostile Sunni Triangle.

Military officials said the convoy got lost because of an erroneous map, putting the 15 soldiers in five gun trucks and 13 unarmed drivers in 12 trucks up against 100 to 200 insurgents firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades for about half an hour before U.S. air and ground reinforcements arrived.

Three drivers with KBR -- a Halliburton subsidiary -- were killed, three were wounded and four trucks were disabled, blocking the street as the front part of the convoy moved forward and the back of the convoy remained stranded. One soldier was wounded.

Wheeler said U.S. troops didn't return to the scene for nearly 40 minutes, during which he watched insurgents execute two civilian drivers.

"I don't know who the driver was of that Humvee, but he abandoned us," Wheeler told ABC News.

The Army's standard procedure, which soldiers and civilian drivers are briefed on before every mission, requires troops to advance through the ambush "kill zone" so they can regroup and counterattack, military officials said.

The convoy commander, Staff Sgt. Marty Herron, who was riding shotgun in the Humvee in Wheeler's video, said he and his soldiers reacted properly by pushing through the quarter-mile-long kill zone, calling in air and ground reinforcements, evacuating the wounded and directing the movements of gun trucks further back in the convoy.

The two gun trucks remaining at the ambush site fired continuously at the insurgents and a third gun truck returned immediately to the scene, military officials said.

"I'm fed up with ABC and Mr. Wheeler," said Herron, 39, a 20-year combat veteran from Ivanhoe. "I'm very angry. They're accusing us of being cowards. If we abandoned him, why is he back in the U.S. telling his story?"

An Army investigation immediately after the incident found that the soldiers reacted properly.

All 15 soldiers in the convoy received military decorations for their actions during the ambush, including Bronze Stars with V for valor, Army commendation medals with V for valor, Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

"The actions of the unit saved numerous lives during this attack," Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, a spokeswoman for the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said in a statement. "At no time did any individuals abandon the convoy. They fought back bravely while waiting for reinforcements and attending to the casualties."

Capt. Mike Waterman, the 1173rd's commander in Iraq, said all the surviving civilian drivers except Wheeler say the soldiers reacted properly.

Soldiers at the back of the convoy fought forward to reach the rest of the civilian drivers, including Wheeler, until reinforcements arrived, military officials said.

"To me, those guys are gods," said civilian driver Rick "Poncho" Wynne of Wellpinit, Wash. "I have all the respect in the world for them. If it weren't for them, a lot more people would have died."

Waterman said two gun trucks were initially about 50 yards behind Wheeler's disabled truck before fighting their way forward to him.

"I'm sure he thought it was the insurgents doing all the shooting," Waterman said. "He was freaking out, but he didn't realize two gun trucks were holding off I don't know how many insurgents."

Wheeler could not be reached to comment.

Wynne, who was in the back of the convoy, said the soldiers and most of the drivers remained level-headed, but that Wheeler was hysterical when they reached him.

Wynne said much of the gunfire Wheeler heard while hiding in his truck came from guardsmen who were standing next to the truck, beyond the view of Wheeler's video camera. Wynne said two gun trucks were behind Wheeler's disabled truck within minutes, fighting off insurgents attacking from all directions.

"They stood toe to toe and brung out everyone alive they possibly could against impossible odds," Wynne said.

Helicopter gunships arrived about 15 minutes after the attack started, and ground reinforcements arrived in about 30 minutes, he said.

Wynne said Wheeler, who was shot twice in the arm, continued to scream into the truck's radio that the insurgents were going to get him until Wynne and a soldier pulled him from the truck. "I know you're under fire, but you have to keep your head on your shoulders," Wynne said.

Herron said he ordered one of the gun trucks to return immediately to the ambush site to defend the drivers.

Wynne said another driver later told him the only female soldier in the convoy, Spc. Caroline Kibogy of Roanoke, didn't hesitate when ordered to return to the firefight.

"That's the kind of guys they are, the 1173rd," he said. "They weren't going to leave anybody."

Maj. Gen. Robert Newman, the Virginia National Guard's military commander, said the ABC News report was incomplete and misleading.

He said it "insulted our brave soldiers" by giving the impression that "my guys are cowards who left a fellow American, a helpless guy, to these 'heathens' over there.

"What really insults me is that at a time when this nation is locked in hand to hand combat ... ABC News does this shabby reporting for the sake of a quick sound bite. I expect them to do what any credible news agency would do and present the entire picture."

Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president with ABC News, said the U.S. Army, the Virginia National Guard and Halliburton refused repeated requests to comment for several days before the story aired Sept. 27.

Schneider said the report accurately portrayed Wheeler's experience during the ambush.

ABC News was unable to reach the soldiers and civilian drivers in the convoy because the military and Halliburton refused to release any information, said ABC News producer Rhonda Schwartz.

The day after the report aired, the Army and Guard issued responses, which ABC News posted on its Web site.

Schwartz said ABC News has no plans for another on-air story at this time.

The original version of this story can be found at the Roanoke Times website by clicking HERE.


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