An Army prosecutor on Thursday let two photos of a Stryker soldier covered in cherry-red bruises help make his case: that the young man's superiors failed him when they assaulted him for blowing the whistle on drug use in their platoon.
Attorney Capt. Dre Leblanc sought to persuade an investigating officer at Joint Base Lewis- McChord that Staff Sgt. David Bram should face a full court– martial. Bram, a squad leader, allegedly played a leading role in a May 5 assault on Pfc. Justin Stoner during their deploy - ment to southern Afghanistan. “A staff sergeant should be protecting Stoner,” Leblanc argued while holding up the photographs of Stoner’s bruised chest. “Instead, he gets this. I think it’s clear that this is maltreatment.”
Bram is one of 12 soldiers from the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division awaiting hearings for alleged wrongdoing earlier this year at Forward Operating Base Ramrod. Five of them are accused of killing civilians.
Prosecutors say the whole plot began to unravel once Stoner raised concerns about soldiers smoking hashish in his unit. In court Thursday, a platoon sergeant described a frenetic environment as accusations mounted last spring.
Never miss a local story.
“The whole situation was chaos,” Sgt. First Class Justin Ditmer said. “It went from soldiers doing drugs to murder.”
Bram, 27, of Vacaville, Calif., could face 11 years in prison if he’s convicted at a general court-martial trial. He’s also accused of keeping photographs of Afghan casualties and wrongfully holding on to an AK-47 he picked up on the battlefield.
Stoner told Army investigators in May that Bram kicked off the assault by pinning him against a wall by his neck, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.
Bram did not speak in his defense Thursday. His military attorney, Capt. Sandra Paul, unsuccessfully challenged much of the evidence Leblanc presented. She contended that prosecutors did not make their case that Bram should go to a full trial.
Several sergeants testified about how they learned of Stoner’s allegations against his platoon mates, and what happened when their company began looking into his accusations.
Ditmer was the top noncommissioned officer in the platoon from March until the brigade returned home in July. He said he learned of the charges during two meetings for company leaders.
He then shared the information with his four squad leaders. That group included Bram and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who now stands accused of killing three Afghan civilians and assaulting Stoner.
Ditmer said he included Bram in the briefing even though Bram was among the soldiers whom Stoner alleged had been smoking hashish.
The next morning, Ditmer said that he walked by Stoner’s housing unit and found other soldiers clearing out Stoner’s belongings. They told Ditmer they were moving Stoner for his own safety because he’d been assaulted by other soldiers.
Staff Sgt. James Compton was one of the first soldiers Stoner told about the assault. Compton supervised Stoner in providing security at the base.
Stoner “was very hesitant to speak with me, and he told me why. It was because he was afraid of repercussions from his platoon,” Compton said.
Compton said he escorted Stoner to a medical office, where Capt. Melissa Kitto examined his bruises. She testified that the bruises were centered on his torso, and none would have been visible over the neck of a T-shirt.
Bram was the second soldier of the dozen co-defendants to appear in open court for an Article 32 hearing, in which an investigator considers evidence before recommending whether a trial is warranted. Maj. Eric Haas is expected to make that recommendation for Bram within a week. The final decision rests with Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Lewis-Mc-Chord’s new Army commander.
Haas called 20 witnesses to testify. Eleven of them declined, citing their 5th Amendment right not to give testimony that could be used against them. Stoner made a brief appearance but also declined to testify.
In his closing argument, Le blanc described one of the casualty photographs that the Army seized from soldiers in Bram’s platoon. The military is concealing more than 60 of those images out of concern that they could incite violence against U.S. soldiers.
Leblanc said Bram is seen in one image with Lt. Roman Ligsay, smiling over a dead Afghan. Ligsay led Bram’s platoon in Afghanistan from July 2009 until March.
“It’s clear it’s not for official purposes. There’s no reason both these soldiers should be smiling,” Leblanc said.
Soldiers told military investigators that they were expected to take photographs of Afghan casualties for reporting purposes.
Ligsay was among the witnesses who declined to testify Thursday. He has not been charged with a crime. He told Army investigators in May that he took a photo of a dead Afghan with Bram while they searched the scene of an attack on an Apache helicopter. He said he took the photo because “it was the first dead body that I had ever seen.”