Taguba’s revenge?

Sacramento Sgt. Marc Guzman accuses the Iraq-prison-scandal hero of threatening soldiers

Abu Ghraib investigator Antonio Taguba testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Abu Ghraib investigator Antonio Taguba testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Courtesy Of AP/Wide World Photos

Just a month after 18 South Carolina reservists made national news by refusing to deliver fuel to U.S. bases in Iraq, allegations are surfacing from another group of soldiers who say their safety and training concerns were met with derision and threats from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. Ironically, the event in question happened shortly after Taguba became a hero for his investigation into Abu Ghraib, during which he told Congress that a key problem contributing to the scandal was the prison guards’ lack of training.

In this case, the accusers are nine members of a military performance group with the Army Entertainment Division. Among them is Marc A. Guzman, an enlisted sergeant and Sacramento native who was officially reprimanded by Taguba after he chose to serve as the unofficial spokesman for the group.

Two weeks after Taguba’s congressional testimony, the major general was back in Kuwait, where he encountered Guzman’s group, USA Express, which performs Top-40 hits for military soldiers at bases throughout the world. Taguba wanted them to play gigs for soldiers fighting in Iraq. After consulting with the rest of the group, Guzman presented Taguba with their concerns.

In statements filed in an Army inspector general’s investigation, the nine Army musicians claim Taguba overreacted with demoralizing comments and threatened them with combat duty after they raised legitimate concerns about a lack of proper training and safety during a May 24 meeting.

Taguba declined to comment on the allegations by the Army musicians, and military officials disputed at least some of the allegations made by the group.

As punishment for speaking out on behalf of his group, Guzman was shipped by Taguba back to the states, where he was reassigned to a former position of intelligence analyst for the Joint Language Training Facility at Maryland’s Fort Meade. But the sergeant from Sacramento received orders in September to report for duty this week to a Louisiana-based National Guard infantry unit.

The infantry unit is currently training at Fort Hood, Texas, in preparation for Iraq deployment.

Sacramento’s Marc Guzman believes Taguba is ordering him to Iraq for speaking on behalf of his fellow soldiers.

Courtesy Of Marc Guzman

The 32-year-old sergeant claims that Taguba is behind the reassignment and is making good on threats he made against the musicians in Kuwait.

According to Guzman, Taguba “said he had our Social Security numbers and said he could bring us back to Iraq any time he felt like it.”

Dov Schwartz, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to address allegations against Taguba, saying the military does not comment on personnel issues or investigations. But another military official disputed the claim that the musicians were not given proper training. Jack Gillund, a spokesman for the Army Entertainment Division, noted that members of USA Express were given a printed itinerary before they left the states that showed them performing at several locations inside Iraq. He said one of the requirements for selection to an Army performance group is that soldiers have received training to tour “remote installations in isolated combat contingency areas.”

However, Gillund acknowledged that the incident involving Taguba and USA Express has prompted officials in the Army Entertainment Division to propose higher training levels for future soldiers sent to perform in combat zones. Army performers do have less training than soldiers sent to fight in combat situations, Gillund said. But he insisted that Army leaders took precautions by providing the performers with a security detail when it traveled within Iraq.

“They are not going in as typical soldiers,” said Gillund. The Army spokesman said the military performers’ demands for more training would be comparable to country singer Toby Keith saying he needed combat training before he could perform for troops in Iraq.

Members of USA Express claimed the security detail they were provided was not adequate. They also said they needed additional training because they became military targets when traveling throughout the war zone in combat fatigues.

“We needed to know how to react if we got attacked,” said Jennifer McMahon, a staff sergeant who was a singer in the group. McMahon said some members of the group had never served in any combat-related positions, had little experience with the M-16 rifles that were issued for protection and had not been taught basic essentials about “rules of engagement” and terrorist threats. One band member even was allowed to leave the states without proper vaccinations, according to McMahon. Other members of the band said the itinerary in question was frequently changed and that their commanders told them it was never certain whether the group would perform in Iraq.

Even Guzman’s current commander at Fort Meade spoke out in defense of the Army musicians, saying in a written response to a reporter’s questions that members of USA Express should have received the same higher-level combat training as other soldiers. “While I understand the soldiers are playing in a [band], they are soldiers first and playing in uniform,” wrote Capt. Michelle Griffith. “They are not non-combatants.” Griffith also heaped high praises on Guzman, calling him “an outstanding soldier.”

Six-string sergeant: Marc Guzman, who was disciplined for raising security concerns for his bandmates, is described by his current commander as “an outstanding soldier” who will “stand up for what is right.”

Courtesy Of Marc Guzman

“I have no doubt that it is in his nature to look out [for the] best interest of his fellow soldiers and stand up for what is right,” she wrote. “SGT Guzman has conducted himself as a constant professional and true nco [non-commissioned officer].”

USA Express was formed at Fort Belvoir near Alexandria, Va., and left the states on a worldwide tour in early 2004. The band performed for troops in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Alaska; and Korea before landing at Kuwait’s Camp Arifjan in May, not long after insurgent attacks against U.S. soldiers escalated. The Army musicians initially were told by their commanders in the Army Entertainment Division that they would not perform in Iraq because such a mission was considered “high risk,” according to Griffith.

But after performing for troops in Kuwait, band members were asked if they would be interested in performing in Iraq, and the request apparently came down the chain of command from Taguba, Griffith said. Guzman and other members say the band talked over the request and reached a consensus that it did not want to perform because of the concerns over training and safety. On May 24, about three days after the group received the request and began raising safety and training concerns, Taguba showed up with a military entourage for a hastily called meeting in one of the tents where the group was housed. The major general, second in command at the time of the 3rd Army’s Coalition Forces Land Component Command, wanted to know about the group’s concerns.

Guzman said he stood up at parade rest and respectfully told the general, “Sir, we’re ill-prepared.” Taguba responded to that simple statement with a tirade of abusive comments, according to Guzman and others members of USA Express. Several of the soldiers characterized Taguba’s comments as demoralizing and threatening. All nine musicians wrote sworn statements supporting Guzman’s account of the incident and accused Taguba of overreacting and misconstruing the group’s concerns. McMahon said the written statements were given to the group’s commanders in the Army Entertainment Division, and Guzman said he filed all of the statements in protest with the Army’s inspector general’s office.

McMahon wrote that Taguba “made statements such as ‘you all are soldiers, not entertainers,’ and ‘if you don’t want to be soldiers and go to Iraq, you can play for the prisoners in the jail down the road.’ These statements were demoralizing to our group because we never said that we wouldn’t go to Iraq.”

Spc. Rechell Sears, another member of the group, wrote that Taguba made derisive statements such as “Do you think … you are going to be on American Idol or Star Search?” “We were disrespected, misinterpreted [and] threatened” by Taguba, wrote Sgt. Charles J. Lier, another band member, in his statement.

The group said Taguba offered to alleviate their safety concerns by showing them a brief training video and sending them to a firing range for a single target-practice session. When Guzman suggested such a move would not be enough to make up for the lack of necessary combat training, the major general ordered the sergeant to pack his bags and leave the tent. Three days later, Taguba issued an official reprimand of Guzman, saying he “lacked professionalism” and that his “conduct had a decidedly negative impact on the morale and attitude” of other USA Express band members. Guzman was yanked out of the group and reassigned to his former job at Fort Meade.

McMahon said the rest of the band went on to perform in Iraq after the incident, and even encountered some mortar and rocket attacks in the process, but made it back safely. Still, she insisted that Taguba’s treatment of Guzman and the members of USA Express was wrong.

After investigating the incident, the Army inspector general issued an opinion on September 8 that said Taguba had the right to reprimand Guzman. Guzman said the orders reassigning him to a combat unit headed for Iraq came down the following day. The orders came in the form of an e-mail that was sent down the Army’s chain of command, and no one, including his current commanders at Fort Meade, has been able to pinpoint who was behind the decision to reassign Guzman. The new orders require Guzman to report for duty this week with the Army’s 256th Mechanized, Heavy Separate Infantry Brigade, the Louisiana-based National Guard unit that is currently preparing for deployment to Iraq at Fort Hood, Texas.

Guzman suspects that these orders prove that Taguba is making good on his alleged threat to bring him back to Iraq. He said it is odd that an intelligence analyst and enlisted soldier would get reassigned to a National Guard infantry unit heading for combat. And he points out that Taguba now holds a new position, deputy assistant secretary for reserve affairs, in which he oversees deployment of National Guard units to Iraq. The sergeant said his commanders at Fort Meade have been sympathetic to his situation. They filed a deferment that blocked his reassignment for 20 days, but that deferment expired this week, leaving the Sacramento sergeant with no other options for now. But he refuses to back down from a fight to erase a black mark on his military record and career.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be my military duty to show up [in Texas],” said Guzman. “I’ll take up this whole problem when I get there. I’ve got to keep on arguing my side.”