May 18, 2007
Rep. Jackson Lee wants the Army to answer Houston family's questions on attack
By Michael Hedges, Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Texas lawmakers Thursday said they would seek Pentagon assurances that it had corrected serious deficiencies found by an Army report detailing the abduction and murder of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca of Houston and another soldier in Iraq last year.
"We've been asking the Army for this report for a long time," said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Brownsville, after the probe's findings were first reported by the Houston Chronicle on Thursday. "Based on what I've read, I can almost assure you we will have a hearing on this."
Menchaca and two other soldiers — Pfc. Thomas Tucker and Spc. David Babineau — were manning an isolated observation post near the town of Mahmoudiya June 16 when they were attacked by insurgents. Babineau was killed, and Menchaca and Tucker were captured. Their mutilated bodies were recovered two days later during a massive search by U.S. troops.
Menchaca's family lives in Ortiz's congressional district.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, whose district Menchaca called home, said she would work with House leaders to draft a letter to the Army seeking answers as to why the soldier's patrol was left isolated for a long period of time. The report said the three soldiers were assigned to a 24- to 36-hour mission at the observation post.
"These soldiers were vulnerable and overextended. It is important that the Pentagon provide detailed answers to any questions the family has," she said. 'Readiness shortfalls'
Ortiz chairs the subcommittee on readiness of the House Armed Services Committee. He attended Menchaca's funeral after his body was returned to the Brownsville area.
"We know that readiness shortfalls have a direct effect on the work of our soldiers, and this report speaks to that with a heartbreakingly local angle," he said Thursday. "Readiness is about proper equipment, training and preparation for missions; the report found that Menchaca's unit lacked proper planning and rehearsal of missions."
The Army's report, released Thursday after its findings appeared in the Chronicle, was dated June 28, less than two weeks after the attack on the soldiers, who were serving in the 101st Airborne Division.
It recommended that the soldiers' company and platoon commanders be relieved of duty. Those officers were relieved. The soldiers' battalion and brigade commanders received letters of reprimand, according to officials.
Among the report's findings:
*The attack was caused by "numerous acts of complacency and a lack of standards at the platoon level."
*The platoon's training and discipline had been seriously eroded by casualties, poor equipment and indifferent training. "Although the leaders in this platoon care ... the platoon is frayed," the report said.
The report was highly critical of the decision to leave the three soldiers with a single vehicle isolated in a dangerous spot. The investigator found the shift given the soldiers was far too long to maintain alertness. Iraqi unit was nearby
Also, the report said a nearby Iraqi unit likely knew about the attack, but chose not to come to the aid of the Americans.
An Army spokesman at Fort Campbell, Ky., the home base of the 101st Airborne, said he had not had a chance to read the report and declined comment. A call to the Army's public affairs office at the Pentagon was not returned.
In an tragic echo of that encounter, seven American soldiers and their Iraqi translator were attacked this weekend about 400 meters from the area where Menchaca and Tucker were abducted. Four soldiers and the translator were killed, and three soldiers are missing.
"It was so sad to have a reoccurrence of this tragedy," said Ortiz. "We were hoping that lessons were learned, but it has happened again."
Jackson Lee said, "I think this shows just how difficult it is for the American military to act as a police force in Iraq."
Paul Rieckhoff, a former platoon leader in Iraq who now heads the veteran's advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said soldiers recently returned from Iraq have told him that "our people are seriously overextended."
He said the report on the June abductions showed an Army forced to put soldiers into vulnerable positions. "Guys feel like Custer in Indian country," he said. Report details Army missteps
The investigation into the kidnapping and murder plot that left three soldiers dead last June concluded there were a series of missteps by their commanders, including:
*The mission was inadequately planned, supervised and executed.
*The observation post was staffed by only three soldiers with one vehicle.
*The soldiers had inadequate training and the platoon's readiness was degraded by combat losses.
*Their vehicle was left unprotected for 36 hours.
*No immediate fire support was available.
*The quick-reaction force was 15 minutes or more away.
*No noncommissioned officer was at the post.
*The soldiers remained at their post too long to be alert.
*The unit failed to adequately assess the risks at that observation post.
*Iraqi army forces were not prepared to offer support at the bridge.