Joint base Lewis McChord - Sentences handed down so far by an Army judge appear to be sending a hard message to a group of soldiers linked to the Afghan war-crimes case unfolding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The message: Don’t expect to stay in the Army, even if you’re found not guilty of some crimes, even if you cooperate with investigators, and even if your superior officers think you could still make a good soldier.
Two of the dozen Stryker infantrymen facing criminal charges from their deployment to southern Afghanistan last year already have received bad-conduct discharges. At least two more courts-martial are expected to take place next week.
The latest to get booted from the Army was Spc. Adam Kelly of Montesano. He was convicted Wednesday of joining a seven-soldier assault on a comrade who blew the whistle on drug use in their platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
The charges Kelly faced were on the less-serious side of the spectrum in the group of 12 codefendants, five of whom are accused of murdering three Afghan civilians during patrols.
In addition to assault, Kelly was accused of conspiring to harm the whistle blower, trying to obstruct an Army investigation and smoking hashish during his deployment.
He was found guilty on the conspiracy charge and not guilty of the other two.
Army judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks handed Kelly a bad-conduct discharge, demoted him to private and sentenced him to 60 days of hard labor. Kelly didn’t receive prison time even though prosecutors asked to put him behind bars for at least four months.
A bad-conduct discharge means he can’t take advantage of veterans’ benefits he earned after serving more than five years in the armed forces.
Kevin McDermott, a defense attorney representing one of Kelly’s codefendants, called the sentence “harsh.”
McDermott said it’s unlikely that a soldier would receive that level of punishment in a more straightforward assault case.
But Kelly’s sentence is consistent with the sentence that Hawks gave to Spc. Emmitt Quintal, who faced similar charges.
Quintal was given a bad-conduct discharge and sentenced to 90 days of hard labor despite cooperating with the Army investigation and agreeing to testify against his codefendants as part of his plea deal.
Both Kelly and Quintal asked Hawks to let them stay in the Army, saying they wanted to re-establish their careers.
Kelly pulled out all the stops to make his case on Wednesday. His platoon leader, squad leader and another noncommissioned officer took the stand for him as character witnesses.
Lt. Stefan Moye, Kelly’s platoon leader since March, said the specialist’s performance has been “exceptional.”
“To be honest with you, of all the guys going through the process, he’s one of the guys who’s shown an interest in rebuilding the team as we prepare for our next deployment,” Moye said.
Moye and the two other character witnesses said they were ready to go on another combat tour with Kelly. They said they’ve been giving him more responsibility because he has the potential to lead soldiers again.
Prosecutors contrasted their praise for Kelly with the specialist’s admission that he beat up a private during his last deployment.
Kelly “does not have that judgment. He does not have that character. He does not have that potential for leadership,” prosecutor Capt. Dre Leblanc said.
Hawks is set to preside next week over a court-martial for Spc. Corey Moore, a soldier facing charges similar to Kelly’s and Quintal’s.
Hawks is also the judge for Staff Sgt. David Bram and Sgt. Darren Jones, whose charges mainly center on beating up the whistle blower, then-Pfc. Justin Stoner.
The judge could be harsher with Bram and Jones if they’re found guilty. Army prosecutors have argued that the sergeants should have protected Stoner instead of participating in pummeling him.
Hawks is also expected to preside over the courts-martial for the soldiers facing the most serious charges: Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Each is charged with helping to carry out three Afghan civilian murders, and they face life sentences if convicted.
Eugene Fidell, a Yale University law professor and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Kelly’s sentence is a sign of what his codefendants facing assault and conspiracy charges should expect.
Fidell said there isn’t a hard rule about whether an assault conviction must necessarily lead to a bad-conduct discharge, but he called it a serious punishment.
“A bad-conduct discharge is a stigmatizing discharge,” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military