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Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

Six Americans dead and 34 wounded. What a terrible waste. I have a hard time understanding why a group of naval warriors gathered closely together out in the open, creating a super-juicy target for an Iraqi insurgent mortar team that’s been hammering Base Junction City ever since our troops first set up there.

“Always spread out, or one round will get you all,” was the First Commandment of Survival when I was a kid serving in Italy. The terrible tragedy that occurred in Iraq last May underscores the importance of this often-neglected rule.

Junction City sits right in the middle of Injun country – in Anbar province about 60 miles west of Baghdad, where the insurgents are serious fanatics and the fighting is fierce. A very bad place.

The word from many surviving Seabees of the gallant Reserve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14 that took these catastrophic casualties is that they were ordered to assemble in an open yard at their base for a pep talk from Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, who, according to a salty Navy commander, was making one of his monthly self-serving visits to Iraq from Norfolk, Va. “Kubic came to Iraq for the last two days of every month and the first two of the next to get tax breaks.”

The same source says: “Several officers argued with Kubic, saying it wasn’t smart to assemble the men. But they were rudely overrode.”

Family members of the dead reservists are furious that heads have not rolled. Their specific target is Kubic, whom they hold responsible for the loss of their loved ones even though he now denies giving the fatal order. Phone calls have been placed and letters written to lawmakers, and the bereaved keep getting promised swift action.

The surviving Seabees, a most patriotic group, love the U.S. Navy and almost to a man want to return to Iraq to finish the job. So they will only speak off-record. But they don’t have kind words for Kubic, since he ordered them to make his bed, bring ice-cold water to his quarters and generally act as his personal houseboys during his trips to Iraq. The admiral’s attitude didn’t go down well with these rugged reservist warrior-builders, the proud inheritors of a legendary tradition: “We’re the Seabees of the Navy, we can build and we can fight; We’ll pave our way to victory and guard it day and night.”

The irony is that Kubic apparently fancies himself as a heroic warrior. In the first days of the invasion of Iraq, he was hunkered down in a bunker with his staff when a Scud missile whistled several thousand feet overhead – for which daring feat he was later awarded a Bronze Star for heroism under fire. He claims he’s run 3,100 combat patrols in Iraq and knows what insurgency warfare is all about.

With all of this combat experience, the braggart must have had brain shutdown that bloody day to lose so many men to one single round of mortar fire. Any knowledgeable, responsible leader would have ordered the assemblage to put on their helmets and flak jackets and spread out.

There are many other questions that need answers, including:

Why weren’t his Seabees properly trained for fighting in an insurgent environment?

Why were they allowed to deploy without armored Humvees a year after the war kicked off?

Why was this Navy construction unit assigned road-security missions for which it wasn’t trained or equipped?

That aside, here’s the kicker: Numerous sailors have told me that Kubic “liberated” a fancy bar from Fallujah and shipped it back to the States on a USAF C-17. For sure, souvenirs are swell – but not when a mission-essential aircraft is dragooned to make an incompetent admiral’s day.

The Navy should do its duty and investigate this mess, because it ain’t going away any time soon. Cheryl Dossett of Wapello, Iowa, the mother of Trace Dossett – who was killed in the mortar attack – said only a few days ago that a member of the Navy Casualty Notification Team confirmed the Seabees “were called out of their quarters into a formation.”

If this is the case, Kubic should be recalled to active duty and court-martialed. Only a thorough and unbiased Navy investigation will reveal the truth and allow justice to at last prevail.

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