Andrew Holmes was eager to join the Army and fight for his country on his 18th birthday two years ago.
By his 20th, the private first class was sitting in a jail at Joint Base Lewis-McChord facing charges that he killed a civilian, had possession of a finger taken from a corpse, kept photographs of casualties and smoked hashish during his recent deployment to southern Afghanistan.
Holmes is the youngest of five Stryker soldiers in his platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who stand accused of murder in southern Afghanistan.
His family says he was in an impossible situation serving under a noncommissioned officer and a team leader both bent on killing civilians. Military authorities say three noncombatants were murdered by Lewis-McChord soldiers on patrol from their base.
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“I blame the Army 100 percent for putting psychopaths in charge of the unit,” said his mother, Dana Holmes, of Boise, Idaho.
Her son is due in court Monday for an Article 32 hearing at which an Army investigating officer will consider whether he should face a full court-martial trial. He’ll likely be flanked by about a dozen friends and family members from back home in Idaho.
Holmes has been up and down while awaiting next week’s hearing. He recently suffered a seizure while talking with his lawyer. He also complains of back pain.
These ailments started to show in April, three months after the killing he allegedly participated in, while visiting his family on leave, Dana Holmes said. He was 40 pounds underweight and ill.
“He was visibly upset,” Dana Holmes said in an interview this week. “He wouldn’t eat. It took him almost two days to eat a sandwich.”
His family hospitalized him so he could be rehydrated and treated for a stomach parasite.
He told his stepfather that “it wasn’t only the Taliban they had to watch out for, they had to watch out for some people in their unit.”
Dana Holmes faults the Army for leaving Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs in a leadership position in the platoon. The family of Spc. Adam Winfield, a co-defendant also accused of murder, makes a similar case.
Chris Winfield, the soldier’s father, called the Army and Lewis-McChord in February to raise his son’s concerns about civilian killings in the unit. He was told nothing could be done until the soldiers returned to the states. That was three months before the killing that led to Adam Winfield’s confinement and murder charge.
The Army “had to have known there was a problem. They can’t tell me they didn’t know there wasn’t a problem,” Dana Holmes said.
Her son allegedly shot his machine gun at a noncombatant during a patrol in January – the first of the alleged orchestrated killings. He shot after his team leader, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, threw a grenade at the man and ordered Holmes to fire, according to case documents. Morlock later told investigators that the killing was a setup and that Holmes knew it.
All three killings allegedly were plotted by Gibbs, the squad leader, who joked about how easy it would be toss a grenade at someone and kill him, according to witness statements.
Daniel Conway, Holmes’ attorney, plans to argue that Holmes did not know the killing was set up. He’s also going to attack Morlock’s credibility. Morlock acknowledged smoking hash during his deployment, and he was taking pain medication at the time he was interviewed by Army investigators.
“This is their star witness?” Conway said.
Holmes might have something of a credibility problem, too. An Army criminal investigator testifying at Gibbs’ Article 32 hearing on Tuesday revealed that he interrupted an interview with Holmes and a military attorney because he thought the private was lying about his relationship with Morlock.
Special Agent Anderson Wagner remembered that Holmes said he was frightened of Morlock, but Wagner said he had seen Morlock and Holmes embrace as close friends. Wagner was under the impression that Morlock and Holmes were close, and that Morlock was withholding information about the January incident to protect Holmes.
Wagner said his exchange with Holmes’ military attorney about that relationship ended the interview.
Conway said he had not heard about Wagner’s observations until reporters described them to him this week.
In other charges, Holmes allegedly had a finger taken from a corpse at some point during his deployment. Spc. Winfield had told Army investigators that Holmes showed it off as if he wanted to keep it.
Conway says otherwise. “Andrew never wanted a finger,” the attorney said. “He was ordered to take it by a superior. He took it and got rid of it.”
Conway plans to call several of Holmes’ platoon mates who have not appeared in court at Article 32 hearings for his co-defendants. It’s not clear whether they’ll testify. So far, most of those soldiers have invoked the 5th Amendment and refused to answer questions.
Dana Holmes anticipates that Conway and her son will bring out new information that will help their case.
Holmes has been in custody since June.
“He’s supported, and we love him, and we know he’s innocent,” Dana Holmes said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military