Capt. Patrick Mitchell was puzzled by a Taliban attack reported by some of his soldiers on a January patrol in southern Afghanistan.
In this region, insurgents most often tried to kill Americans by hiding bombs beneath roadways or trails, or firing at them from hidden positions. But this Afghan man reportedly walked toward soldiers and tossed a hand grenade before he was killed. An Army investigator would later ask Mitchell if he ever had any suspicions that the soldiers accurately reported the event.
“I just thought it was weird that someone would come up and throw a grenade at us,” Mitchell said in a sworn statement. “However, I had no evidence that it happened differently.”
Army prosecutors now say the man was the first of three unarmed Afghans allegedly murdered during a four-month period by soldiers from a troubled platoon from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
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The charging documents also cite drug use, possession of body parts, obstructing justice and other crimes.
A review of these documents raises questions about the oversight by the soldiers’ leaders. Why through most of the winter and spring months did they fail to uncover wrongdoing and remove rogue soldiers from the unit?
Some officers and enlisted soldiers with direct oversight roles did have clues that something might be amiss, according to information in sworn statements they made in May to Army criminal investigators.
But these leaders appear to have given the benefit of the doubt to their men, enmeshed in a difficult deployment in the heart of Taliban country. Between mid-January and early May, there were no serious inquiries into the activities of the 11 soldiers from the platoon now accused of crimes, including five alleged to have been involved in one or more murders.
Things changed when those soldiers turned violent against one of their own, allegedly beating up a fellow platoon member who had blown the whistle on drug use. That attack was reported to officers, and by the second week in May a full-blown criminal investigation was under way.
The platoon of more than 25 soldiers was part of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, which was based in Kandahar province.
Many soldiers were involved with training local police, helping to organize the rebuilding of irrigation dams and other efforts to aid Afghan villages. Their work gained considerable recognition and was showcased to visiting U.S. politicians as evidence of progress in southern Afghanistan.
But the platoon involved in the alleged crimes was split off from its company and attached to a cavalry troop that often was focused more narrowly on keeping the highways open and tracking the Taliban. Soldiers constantly faced the risk of getting blown up by roadside bombs.
“Every single day, you are going through (in your mind), ‘Is this the day I am going to hit an IED (improvised explosive device) and not come back?’” said Spc. Jeremy Morlock, in a videotaped interview with Army investigators. “My buddy, I sat there holding his hand while he was bleeding out after he lost his leg.”
Morlock, who is charged in all three killings, said the platoon’s leaders had no knowledge of the plans to carry out the killings.
But he also described a platoon atmosphere at odds with the command climate that French sought to establish.
Morlock believed no one in the platoon, including the leaders, appeared to care about the Afghans, so when you came back from a mission that resulted in death, “You’re going to get a pat on the back good job. Stuff like that.”
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who headed up a six-man squad and is accused of helping to carry out all three slayings, has been portrayed as the ringleader by other soldiers accused of the crimes. Morlock said Gibbs often told platoon members, “It’s too easy. Everyone sticks with the same story and you got nothing to worry about.”