Soldiers who fought in Iraq alongside Spc. Michael Wagnon don't recognize their friend when they read reports of his alleged role in a plot to kill civilians while deployed in Afghanistan this year with a Joint Base Lewis-Mc-Chord Stryker brigade.
They knew him as a professional who did “the right thing,” mentored young soldiers and kept his comrades alive.
“The only way Michael would even shoot, let alone use deadly force, is if he felt his fellow buddies were in danger of losing their lives. It just kills me,” said David Downing, 27, an Oklahoma veteran who fought with Wagnon in Iraq six years ago during a rough deployment marked by persistent roadside bombings.
Yet Wagnon is among five soldiers in confinement at the base south of Tacoma awaiting trials on charges that they murdered civilians while deployed to southern Afghanistan with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
He could face life in prison, or possibly even the death penalty, if he goes to trial for his alleged role in a February killing of an Afghan civilian. Seven more soldiers from his platoon face other charges, such as using drugs during their assignment and beating up another soldier.
Friends have rallied to show their support for Wagnon, writing letters to appeal for his release from a military jail and posting their testimonies to a website, defendmichaelwagnon. com.
They’ve been more public in their advocacy for Wagnon than supporters of the other soldiers accused of crimes at Lewis-McChord. Some plan to attend a pre-trial hearing later this fall in which Wagnon is expected to appear before an investigating officer at the base. The hearing was supposed to be held this week , but was postponed.
Wagnon stands apart from his co-defendants in his Stryker company in a number of ways.
He is the only one of the dozen men from the company who’s neither accused of using drugs during that time nor of assaulting a whistleblower who spoke with investigators about soldiers in the company smoking hashish.
At 30, Wagnon is the oldest of the 5th Brigade soldiers accused of killing civilians.
He’s a father of three from Las Vegas who married the sister of one of his platoon mates from his first deployment to Iraq. Wagnon met his wife, Carrie, when her brother set them up during a visit to his hometown in Western Pennsylvania on their post-deployment leave.
“To this day I still have unwavering confidence in him,” Wagnon’s brother-in-law, Carl Wermter, now a staff sergeant based in Germany, wrote in a letter of support for Wagnon.
With three combat deployments behind him, Wag-non has experience that contradicts the storyline several defense attorneys are floating – that squad leader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs intimidated younger soldiers into carrying out schemes to kill Afghan civilians.
Wagnon “has his goals, his morals, and his views, and he’s not the type of person to be intimidated,” said Downing, a full-time student who had to leave the Army because of a combat injury he suffered in Iraq in late 2004.
But at least two of Wagnon’s comrades from his Afghanistan deployment told Army investigators in May that he was among a group of soldiers who participated in schemes to kill Afghan civilians in combat-like scenarios, according to witness statements and trial documents.
The evidence against Wagnon mainly comes from Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Spc. Adam Winfield, who are among the five soldiers facing murder charges. The Army declined to release Wagnon’s service record.
Morlock told Army investigators in one interview that Wagnon had a specific role in a staged killing Feb. 22. In another interview, Morlock changed his story and said Wagnon did not know the killing was set up by Gibbs.
In one account, Morlock said Gibbs spotted an Afghan civilian who was alone in a compound, and Gibbs saw the moment as a chance to put into a motion a scheme to kill a civilian. Morlock said Gibbs called on Wagnon and Morlock to stand watch while Gibbs fired two rounds at a wall from an AK-47 he was carrying. Gibbs sent Wagnon and Morlock away to form a security perimeter, Morlock said.
Gibbs then reportedly shot the Afghan with his Army-issued M4 rifle. He allegedly tossed the AK-47 at the Afghan’s feet to make it appear as if the Afghan had fired at Gibbs. Wagnon and Morlock reportedly fired in the direction of the dead Afghan and did not dispute Gibbs’ account of the incident, according to Morlock’s statement to Army criminal investigators. The Army’s charges against Wagnon suggest he shot the Afghan.
Colby Vokey, Wagnon’s attorney, said Wagnon did not shoot the civilian, was not part of a conspiracy and did not know the engagement was staged.
The other piece of the case against Wagnon largely comes from Winfield, who told investigators that Wag-non kept a human skull fragment from a shooting and that Wagnon tried to destroy a hard drive containing photographs of Afghan casualties when investigators came looking for it.
Wagnon’s supporters contend the skull fragment was from an animal, and they say Wagnon didn’t make a play to destroy a hard drive.
“Michael Wagnon never possessed any human bones, ever,” Vokey said.
“There’s nothing,” the defense attorney added. “There’s no forensic evidence of any kind. We’ve got the word of Morlock and Winfield, and that’s it.”
Chris Grey, spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division, would not confirm that the bone fragment was left in Afghanistan.
“We are not releasing any information at this time that could jeopardize or impede the integrity” of the investigation or looming judicial hearings for Wagnon and his co-defendants, Grey said.
WAITING FOR JUSTICE
Wagnon’s friends and family are exasperated while they wait for military justice to unfold.
“I just want my husband back,” said Carrie Wagnon, 28.
She said her husband did not describe any suspicious activity in his unit to her while he was deployed. They spoke during the Army’s initial investigation into the unit, and Wagnon assured her.
“He said ‘I didn’t do anything, everything’s fine. What do I have to worry about?’ ” Carrie Wagnon said. “That’s why it was hard. There was never anything that made me think there would be a problem.”
Carrie Wagnon didn’t realize her husband would be detained until the June day she waited for his return from Afghanistan. She received a call late in the day saying Wagnon would be kept in pre-trial confinement.
Since then, she’s visited him on Saturdays and Sundays. She lives on the base and brings their children to at least one visit each weekend.
“He deserves to be back with his family,” said Staff Sgt. Adrian Stutzman, who served with Wagnon in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which was based in Germany.
“He spent a year over there fighting for his country and got stuck in jail for it,” said Stutzman, who continues to serve in the Army and is now based in Texas.
Stutzman and Downing both fought alongside Wag-non in Samarra, Iraq. Soldiers in the unit nicknamed Wagnon “Pugsly,” and they counted on him as a skilled driver.
Some of Wagnon’s friends from his Iraq deployments appear to take aim at the charges against him in the letters they wrote for him.
“His engagement decisions were never once called into question,” wrote Capt. Michael Weisman, who was a platoon leader during Wag-non’s first Iraq tour and an officer in Wagnon’s company during his second deployment . “Spc. Wagnon was held in high esteem in the company because he was a soldier who could be counted on to do the right thing morally with little or no supervision.”
Vokey said Wagnon is in relatively good spirits, though he’s eager to get out and spend time with his family.
“When the evidence finally does come out, it’s going to exculpate him completely,” the attorney said. “In the end, he hasn’t done anything wrong and that’s really what’s keeping him going.”