AUSTIN, TEX., FEB. 7 -- Forty Louisiana National Guard members who complained that they were being mistreated and overworked at Fort Hood in nearby Killeen were declared absent without leave (AWOL) after riding a bus to Shreveport, La., but most were expected to return by tonight, authorities said.
Twenty-seven other Guard members left with the group Wednesday, but they had 24-hour passes, authorities said. By midday, 37 of the 67 were back at Fort Hood, saying they had accomplished their goal by drawing attention to conditions there.
All of the troops are part of the 4,300-member 1st Battalion, 156th Armor, 256th Infantry Brigade, a Guard unit activated and sent to Fort Hood for training in November. Many Regular Army troops normally posted there have been shipped to the Persian Gulf region.
At Fort Hood this afternoon, Brig. Gen. Gary Whipple, the brigade commander, told reporters that the complaints would be investigated. "The training is very intensive, very difficult, physically demanding and stressful," he said, "but that's what combat is like."
In New Orleans late today, Maj. Gen. Ansel Stroud, head of the Louisiana National Guard, said the incident had "a platoon of four-star generals concerned," the Associated Press reported.
In Washington, Martin Binkin, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, called the action a "massive breach of military discipline." In a telephone interview, he said, "I'd guess that the Army is trying to make training as realistic as possible to prepare these kids for war, and the kids are just not up to the task."
Sgt. Thomas Baker, 24, of Pine Bluff, Ark., a member of the unit, told the Associated Press that the soldiers who left were tired, homesick and angry that they had not been given promised leave.
"This isn't a rebellious thing," Baker said. "We just wanted some time off. We'll be back Saturday."
The soldiers complained they were not given enough time off or their promised days off, that they were required to train 18 hours a day and that they had no time to attend church services and were not getting enough food or medical attention.
A statement released by the Fort Hood public affairs office said that while the soldiers "have had a difficult time making the adjustment from civilian to military life . . . we would be remiss if we didn't provide these soldiers with the training necessary to survive, fight and win."
Punishment for being AWOL can involve imprisonment, fines and loss of rank. "We were willing to risk that to get some time off," Baker said. "We were just that desperate."
Maj. James Whorton, a Fort Hood spokesman, said punishment for the 40 declared AWOL would be determined after an investigation.