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2004-10-22

Off to War: The Story of a National Guard Unit’s Journey From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad

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In April 2004, 57 citizen soldiers from Clarksville, Arkansas left their jobs and their families to serve in Iraq as members of the 239th Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard. Embedded with them is the brother filmmaking team of Brent and Craig Renaud who tell their story in a new documentary, "Off to War" featuring on the Discovery Times Channel. [includes rush transcript]

Last week, 19 members of a U.S. Army Reserve platoon were placed under arrest for refusing to obey orders to go on what they considered a "suicide mission."

Stationed at Tallil Air Base south of Nasiriyah, members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company were ordered to drive a fuel supply convoy up to Taji, north of Baghdad. The soldiers had previously only focused on local missions in safer parts of southern Iraq and had never driven through Baghdad more than 200 miles away, where U.S. forces regularly come under fire. On average, American soldiers were attacked 87 times a day in August. Over 1,100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began.

The platoon refused the order considering their trucks to be extremely unsafe. They said the convoy tankers lacked bullet-resistant armor and were not able to travel faster than 40 miles an hour. Some of the supply trucks were in disrepair and prone to breakdown. And while the armed escort of Humvees and helicopters normally provided, was not available. One the soldiers later described the mission as a "death sentence."

After refusing the orders, the U.S. Army placed the men and women of the platoon under arrest.

The place the soldiers refused to travel to, Taji, is just north of Baghdad. That is the headquarters of members of the 39th Infantry Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard deployed in Iraq. On Saturday, the third installment of a documentary series following those National Guard soldiers will air on Discovery Times at 10 PM Eastern Time. It’s called * "Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad."*

The soldiers are stationed at Camp Cooke in Taji. It is the first time since World War II that this many Arkansas National Guard soldiers have been deployed to a combat zone. Many of these soldiers have never traveled beyond the borders of Arkansas and now face an entire year away from home. Back in Arkansas, their families grow more fearful that these guardsmen, who work in sales, farming and other non-military jobs, could become the targets of Iraqi insurgents bent upon attacking Americans.

The soldiers arrived to Iraq in April of 2004, as the security situation in the country begins to deteriorate. Camp Cooke is being mortared on a daily basis, and the Arkansas National Guard begins suffering casualties the very first day that they arrive in Iraq. Embedded with them are the filmmaker brothers Craig and Brent Renaud, our colleagues here at the firehouse from Downtown Community Television. In a moment, we will be joined by them in our studio. But first, here is an excerpt of this Saturday’s installment of Off to War.

  • * "Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad,"* excerpt of Part 3 of the series.
  • Craig Renaud , producer of the documentary series, "Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad" which follows members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deploy to Iraq. On Saturday, the third installment of the series will air on Discovery Times.
  • Brent Renaud , producer of the documentary series "Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad", which follows members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deploy to Iraq. On Saturday, the third installment of the series will air on Discovery Times.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the security situation in the country begins to deteriorate, Camp Cook is being mortared on a daily basis, and the Arkansas National Guard begins suffering casualties, the first day they arrived in Iraq. Embedded with them are the filmmaker team, brothers Craig and Brent Renault. Our colleagues here at the Firehouse at Downtown Community Television, DCTV. In a moment, we will talk to them in our studio. But first, we go to an excerpt of Saturday’s installment, Off To War.

SERGEANT SHORT: I believe the Brigade is up to eight K.I.A. now and pretty close to 20 wounded. You might think we’re dropping like flies. It’s looking pretty bad as far as numbers go, but keep your head in this game. We will win this fight. They will calm down out there, or we’re going to kill them. I think they think that we’re going to run scared. Negative.

SOLDIER: : This will make a good National Guard commercial right here, you know. Except that we’re not building a dam for a flood. We’re — you know, filling the sand bags to put around our houses. These sandbags will stop — well hopefully, they will stop the shrapnel from going through your trailer and killing you while you are asleep.

SOLDIER: : I wish it could have been earlier, maybe saved a life or two.

SOLDIER: : There’s trailers over there that the shrapnel went all the way through, two whole trailers, so I don’t think sandbags are going to help.

SOLDIER: : The mortars — I don’t care how good they make them — if they land anywhere in here, they’re going to get somebody.

SERGEANT SHORT: Let me go ahead and put you this directive out: Body armor and Kevlar will be worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are outside of that trailer, it will be on. Whatever it takes to keep you guys alive, I’m committed to do. If any one of our guys that died had this stuff on, they would probably still be with us. Just for wearing something. Let’s not lose anymore. Wear it. It’s not an option. All hell has broken loose and it’s right outside that gate.

SERGEANT SHORT: Getting ready to suit up and go out on a mission today. What we’re supposed to be doing is security and stability operations, which we basically have just tossed that out the window. There’s no security here and there’s no stability here. You know it’s basically a full-fledged very hot combat zone.

SERGEANT SHORT: All right, guys. Let’s go ahead and move on out. Another wonderful day.

SOLDIER: : Whoo-hoo.

VOICE ON TWO-WAY RADIO: Situation is: A vehicle a pulled up to a U.S. checkpoint, military aged male dismounted from the van produced what appeared to be a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a toy gun cigarette lighter. A gunner from the Diamond element opened fire with 50 caliber fire.

SERGEANT SHORT: A .50 cal. You don’t get shot with a .50 cal anywhere and not be seriously wounded.

VOICE ON TWO-WAY RADIO: The ensuing fire resulted in three Iraqis killed and seven seriously wounded.

SOLDIER: : The evil that getting touched off [inaudible] It is an evil.

SOLDIER: : Any children or women?

SERGEANT SHORT: I think there was a woman in the rear vehicle who went into labor.

SOLDIER: : I think this stuff is crazy. Man, I really don’t want to be here.

SERGEANT SHORT: Unfortunate, but they got to know that we’re serious about this. We’re getting our people killed and somebody wants to jump out with a toy pistol and start brandishing it like he’s a big boy. He’s going to get treated like a big boy.

SERGEANT SHORT: Lock and load, gentlemen.

SERGEANT SHORT: Okay. Let the good times roll.

SERGEANT SHORT: Every time we leave this gate in this truck, it’s a terrifying experience..

SERGEANT SHORT: Okay, gentlemen, today we’re going to Psalms 4: "But know that the lord has set apart for himself him who is godly. The lord will hear when I call to him. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the Lord. For you, alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety."

SERGEANT SHORT: So strange being here, I have always heard about the holy land. This is not what I expected. It doesn’t feel very holy. The garden of Eden was in Iraq. I can promise you, this is no garden of Eden.

SERGEANT SHORT: Where we’re at right now is extremely, extremely hostile.

SOLDIER: : It’s also comforting to know none of this stuff is even on the map.

SERGEANT SHORT: I think this is part of Sadr City. Not being able to read a single sign that’s out here is also frustrating. We don’t know one lick of Arabic. I don’t know if they’re advertising Taco Bell or if they’re advertising lets hey, kill all of the Americans that you can see. And then I know we were told that 98% of the people are glad to see us here. I’m to the point right now where I think 98% of the people don’t want us here… Now to the checking of boots… We won’t stay here very long. We’ll keep moving because we don’t want to set up any one place very long, because all that does is give them a chance to call up ahead and set up an ambush for us.

SOLDIER: : Well there’s a compartment of some kind… It’s welded. Do you want to look through it or no?

SERGEANT SHORT: That’s alright

SERGEANT SHORT: I’m not into going out and meeting the people, you know, pressing the flesh, trying to help them out and see what their needs are. They haven’t given me time to see what their needs are, because they won’t quit attacking me long enough for me to find out what their needs are. I really wish we would have trained more for combat operations. Train for the worst, expect the best. Well, we trained for the best and the worst happened.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Off To War: From Rural Arkansas to Baghdad. We’ll speak with the filmmakers, Brent and Craig Renault when we come back from our break.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, and we are joined by the filmmakers who are doing a six-part series for Discovery Times called, Off To War: From Rural Arkansas To Baghdad. Brent and Craig Renault, we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

BRENT RENAULT, CRAIG RENAULT: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s pretty astounding footage, very honest, the soldiers talking about what they’re going through now. In light of this latest news from Iraq, of the unit that has said no, they wouldn’t go to Taji, which is where the unit you have been covering is —

BRENT RENAULT: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: They wouldn’t go re-fuel them. Now, the top officer there has been relieved of her duty. Had this ever happened in your unit?

BRENT RENAULT: Well, we arrived in Baghdad with the National Guard unit with Arkansas National Guard in these same sort of unarmored vehicles. Right away in April, which was one of the bloodiest months of the war, when we arrived, there were right off the bat, a lot of injuries and deaths, particularly with Echo Troop, who you just saw in the clip. Within that group, there were a number of guys who refused to go out on missions almost immediately. After they had seen their friends and their fellow soldiers die right in front of them. Fortunately for them, Sergeant Short, who you see in the clip, the one talking in the Humvee, handled it internally, gave them time off, allowed them to get it together, and to get back on the job, but I would say right off the bat, I witnessed about three to four guys who were just saying, "It’s too dangerous to go out there. We’re dropping like flies," as you also heard it in the clip, and this is a pretty widespread sentiment.

AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone who refused, who then ultimately did go out, get killed or injured?

CRAIG RENAULT: No, not that I’m aware of. The specific guys that Brent is referring to are all back out on missions. A couple of them were actually in the vehicles that you see there in the clip. So, they have gone back out and none of them have died.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are they allowing you to film this? I mean, the soldiers are making some pretty damning comments about what they are being forced to do to the Iraqis, about alienating the Iraqis?

CRAIG RENAULT: Well, Brent and I both grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. So we are from Arkansas. When we first found out that this Brigade was going to Arkansas [sic], we went to the National Guard, the 39th Brigade in Arkansas and basically said, "We really want to do the film. This is sort of a hometown story for us." This is the largest Brigade since World War II that’s going into Iraq, and we wanted to cover the story. So our promise to them was that we would not use any voiceover narration and no music in the body of the show, and we’ve kept that promise. That’s how we have approached this film. We allow the soldiers to speak for themselves, and they have spoken very candidly as we have gone through the documentary.

BRENT RENAULT: Some things like the issue of the armored vehicles, the National Guard themselves have complained about these sorts of things. They would like to bring it to the public’s attention to understand they are not as well equipped as the regular Army is.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work? Explain that. I think it’s something new to the American public when these National Guardsmen are saying we’re not going to go because we don’t have the armored vehicles. What do they mean?

BRENT RENAULT: Well, the way it works is that the units when they go over to Iraq, bring their home vehicles from their home state. Most of them were never in combat. They were doing things like, you know, helping people after floods, cleaning up after tornadoes. They didn’t have combat-ready vehicles. But since every unit brought their vehicles with them into Iraq, at least initially, that’s the vehicles they had to do their missions with. And the regular Army, by and large, took their vehicles back to the United States with them.

AMY GOODMAN: The documentary airs when?

CRAIG RENAULT: Saturday night, tomorrow night, October 23rd, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time.

AMY GOODMAN: And Discovery Times is also going to air the first two before it, parts one and two?

CRAIG RENAULT: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Then you’re doing four, five and six. Final question, one of the officers saying, we have managed to do almost everything we did not want to do. Repeat that sequence. What did they do?

CRAIG RENAULT: I believe you’re referring to Lieutenant Mason. They came into a mission where they had to tear down a fence where they were being shot at. Their convoys were being shot at from behind a fence. So the Lieutenant in the unit had to go out and basically — inform a farmer that they were tearing his fence down. He said there were three things that he hoped not to do that day. One of those things being upsetting Iraqis. He said that was one thing that they definitely did. Another thing was disrupting their water supply for their house. That was broken as well. And so, that — you know, it’s one of those missions that you will see in the documentary that presents a challenge for these soldiers. Because they’re going out and having to do these type of missions on a daily basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want thank you both very much for being with us, watching on tomorrow night on Discovery Times.

BRENT RENAULT, CRAIG RENAULT: Thank you.

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