The Army is investigating officers who oversaw the group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who allegedly murdered civilians and committed other crimes during their recent deployment to southern Afghanistan.
The so-called Article 15-6 investigation is the first sign that the Army is moving up the chain of command in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to review officers who could have halted the alleged misconduct before it escalated to war crimes that have generated international headlines.
Army spokeswoman Kathleen Turner said the review is intended to help determine what could have been done differently in terms of training or communication, but it could lead to discipline up the ranks.
“The Army is currently investigating all aspects potentially related to the allegations of murder, assault and drug use by the 5th Stryker Brigade soldiers while in Afghanistan to include individual and leader accountability and will follow the evidence where it goes,” she said.
Five soldiers in the Stryker brigade stand accused of murdering civilians in combat-like scenarios they allegedly staged under the guidance of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and Spc. Jeremy Morlock. Gibbs is the highest-ranking soldier facing murder charges.
Seven more are accused of lesser crimes, such as smoking hashish and beating up the private who blew the whistle on drug use in his platoon at Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
Turner said the inquiry began in the past month under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty. He’s writing a report that will be submitted to Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commanding general at Lewis-McChord.
“It’s a good sign in terms of accountability, and it seems absolutely appropriate,” said Elizabeth Hillman, a former Air Force officer who teaches law at the University of California, Hastings, and is the vice president of the National Institute for Military Justice.
Hillman said a perception has lingered that high-ranking officers have not been held accountable for misconduct that took place under their watch during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She pointed to the detainee abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison as an example. Two specialists were sentenced to prison time following trials that ended in 2005; Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw the prison, was demoted to colonel.
Some have questioned whether Col. Harry Tunnell, the former commander of the 5th Brigade, set an aggressive tone that enabled the abuses some of his soldiers have been accused of committing. However, he was far removed from the incidents in the case, and it’s more likely that the review will focus on lower-ranking officers who directly supervised the accused soldiers, defense attorneys said.
“It’s so troubling when you see one thing lead to another,” Hillman said. “That’s a part of why they need to look at the leadership, to see why this oversight wasn’t there. Part of your reaction has to be, ‘Wow, you don’t have to get to murder if you just stop this earlier stuff.’”
Twitty is expected to look back into the brigade’s pre-deployment training. The 5th Brigade was preparing to fight in Iraq for two years until its orders were abruptly changed to Afghanistan in February 2009, seven months before it hit the ground in Afghanistan.
News of the investigation broke during a pretrial hearing for Spc. Michael Wagnon, who is one of the five soldiers facing murder charges.
His attorney, Colby Vokey, asked a captain who served at the base with Wagnon whether he had been interviewed for Twitty’s investigation. Capt. Matthew Quiggle, now assigned to a base in Georgia, confirmed that he had given recorded and written statements to one of Twitty’s aides.
Vokey asked the investigating officer leading Wagnon’s case to obtain any information from Twitty’s review. Those documents could be helpful in defending the accused soldiers because they might reveal how the environment at the base played into the alleged crimes, said Eric Montalvo, a defense attorney representing co-defendant Spc. Adam Winfield.
Winfield’s case could involve commanders both in Afghanistan and at Lewis-McChord. His father tried to contact the base in February when Spc. Winfield told him about a civilian killing. Christopher Winfield could not get through to someone who would act on his son’s concerns.
“Our case above all is emblematic of the failure of leadership,” Montalvo said. “If they do determine culpability at a higher level, it does not take away from anything Adam may or may not have done, but it certainly sheds some light on the bigger picture and on where the true blame may lie.”
Wagnon’s Article 32 hearing was cut short Monday because of weather. It is expected to resume today. Wagnon, 30, denies that he murdered an Afghan civilian during a patrol with Gibbs and Morlock in February. Wagnon said he thought he was responding to a combat incident when he fired at a man Gibbs shot.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@thenews tribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military
WHERE THEY STAND
Five 5th Stryker Brigade soldiers are accused of killing Afghan civilians. Here is the status of the cases against them.
SPC. JEREMY MORLOCK
Charges: Three counts of murder, using a controlled substance, assaulting a lower-ranking soldier, attempting to impede an Army investigation, violating a general order by keeping images of Afghan casualties.
Status: Awaiting a court-martial that could result in a life sentence.
STAFF SGT. CALVIN GIBBS
Charges: Three counts of murder, conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline resulting from bones he allegedly took from Afghan corpses, assaulting a lower- ranking soldier, assaulting unarmed Afghans, attempting to impede an investigation, dereliction of duty, violating a general order by keeping images of Afghan casualties.
Status: Gibbs had an Article 32 hearing – a preliminary proceeding in military court – earlier this month; he is awaiting a decision about whether he will face a court-martial.
PFC. ANDREW HOLMES
Charges: Murder, using a controlled substance, conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline resulting from human fingers he allegedly possessed, violating a general order by keeping images of Afghan casualties.
Status: Holmes had an Article 32 hearing last week; it is on hold while an appeals court considers whether to admit photos of the man Holmes allegedly killed.
SPC. MICHAEL WAGNON
Charges: Murder, assaulting unarmed Afghans, trying to impede an Army investigation, possessing fragments of a human skull.
Status: Wagnon’s Article 32 hearing began Monday and continues today.
SPC. ADAM WINFIELD
Charges: Murder, assaulting unarmed Afghans, using a controlled substance.
Status: Winfield’s Article 32 hearing is expected to take place next week.