Lt. Roman Ligsay already was feeling pressure to keep a close eye on his platoon in southern Afghanistan. Then a superior officer questioned why Ligsay's soldiers had shot and killed a seemingly unarmed Afghan walking toward them along a highway.
By that point in January 2010, soldiers in Ligsay’s Stryker platoon from Joint Base Lewis-McChord already had shot and killed another young Afghan. They’d also developed a reputation for shooting weapons without cause.
“I was pretty worried,” Ligsay later told Army investigators, recalling his conversation with Capt. Matthew Quiggle moments after the highway shooting death. “We had a negligent discharge the night before and now my (company commander) is telling me that to him this didn’t seem like a threat.”
The shooting was one of several red flags that could have tipped off officers to misconduct in a group of soldiers trained at the base south of Tacoma who now stand accused of murdering three Afghan civilians.
In some cases, records show that officers did notice their soldiers’ unusual encounters with Afghans, but that any doubts and concerns were set aside.
The timeline raises questions about what punishment, if any, the officers in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division should face for missing the misconduct that took place under their watch.
Some officers have been reprimanded but remain in the Army. Ligsay was promoted to captain.
After the highway shooting that worried the lieutenant, soldiers searched the scene and uncovered a magazine from an AK-47 rifle near the Afghan’s body. That allayed concerns that the shooting was unjustified.
The brigade didn’t look back on that incident until two more alleged murders were staged and the platoon became ensnared in a full-blown Army war crimes investigation.
Eventually it became clear that the January highway killing might have been staged, too. Pfc. Justin Stoner, one of Ligsay’s soldiers, told Army investigators that his platoon mates planted the magazine on the body to cover up what they’d done.
Other early signals that were missed or minimized by officers but that suggested something was wrong in the platoon included:
• Alleged widespread drug use among a group of soldiers beginning as early as September 2009, two months after the unit hit the ground in Afghanistan. The drug use allegedly took place in housing units near where officers lived, as well as in Stryker vehicles.
• Gory photos of American soldiers posing with Afghan casualties that were traded among platoon mates in violation of Army orders. Some of those photos have been published in the news media. Sworn statements obtained by The News Tribune show that Ligsay appears in one photo posing with a corpse. That image hasn’t been published. A defense attorney also has alleged that Ligsay encouraged a private to pose with a casualty after another incident.
• A February 2010 phone call to Lewis-McChord from a soldier’s family expressing fears that the Stryker platoon was staging combat incidents to get away with murder. It preceded two of the murders and showed that soldiers in the platoon were aware of the conspiracy even if they weren’t part of it.
“All of it was ignored” by officers, said Eric Montalvo, a defense attorney representing Spc. Adam Winfield, one of the soldiers facing murder charges.
Five Stryker solders including Winfield are accused of participating in the murder schemes. One of the men, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, pleaded guilty last month to the murders and agreed to testify against his codefendants at their courts martial.
Seven more enlisted soldiers from the platoon face other charges of misconduct. Three have been kicked out of the Army.
Some supporters argue the enlisted soldiers should be given a measure of leniency because they didn’t receive proper mentoring or leadership from officers.
“It’s my opinion that what happened in their platoon was a breakdown in leadership,” Capt. Glenn Nieradka, who had supervised some of the soldiers in the past, testified at a recent court martial. “I truly believe that with different leadership most likely we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Army officials counter that they’re holding soldiers accountable and they’re willing to widen the net to prevent similar crimes from happening again.
The Army investigated the brigade’s command in a 500-plus page report written by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty. The document remains sealed under a judge’s order, but copies were leaked to Germany’s Der Spiegel and The Washington Post.
Those who’ve seen it say it paints a disparaging picture of former brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell, chastising him for opposing the counterinsurgency strategy adopted by then-Afghan war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Tunnell has since moved to a position in Fort Knox, Ky. He and officers under his command were admonished for the misconduct in the brigade, according to press reports about Twitty’s investigation.
Nonetheless, The Washington Post reported that Twitty did not find a causal relationship between Tunnell’s leadership and the alleged war crimes that took place in his brigade.
But Twitty reportedly wrote that the platoon at the center of the kill team investigation had an “alarming” lack of discipline, with soldiers shooting at dogs and falling asleep in a Stryker vehicle while on patrol.
For that, officers reportedly were given letters of reprimand that could hinder their ability to earn promotions.
Army reports obtained by The News Tribune show that platoon leader Ligsay, company leader Quiggle and company leader Capt. Patrick Mitchell each had doubts about how soldiers in the platoon described their contacts with the enemy.
In January 2010, for example, Mitchell was surprised to hear soldiers tell him that an Afghan teenager walked up to them and threw a grenade at them. That tactic was one the Taliban just don’t use when engaging American soldiers.
“I just thought it was weird that someone would come up to us and throw a grenade at us,” Mitchell told investigators in May.
Later, Morlock told investigators that he initiated the contact; he threw the grenade at the Afghan and had another soldier shoot at the boy.
Soldiers accused of misconduct allegedly covered for each other, making it difficult for officers to question faulty reports.
In February 2010, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs allegedly shot at an Afghan with an AK-47. He then killed the Afghan with his Army-issued rifle and planted the AK-47 on the Afghan, according to charges.
Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the murder schemes, told Ligsay the Afghan fired first. Prosecutors allege Morlock and Spc. Michael Wagnon backed up Gibbs’ account even though they knew he was lying.
Afghan villagers told Ligsay that the victim was religious, didn’t own an AK-47 and didn’t know how to use one, according to court records. The consistent stories from Gibbs, Wagnon and Morlock, however, made it unlikely that Ligsay and others would believe the locals.
Gibbs and Wagnon deny the Army’s allegations and are awaiting courts martial.
Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University, says the administrative discipline handed down to Tunnell and other officers is insufficient.
He pointed to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as an example of enlisted soldiers bearing the brunt of the punishment for widespread misconduct.
Two enlisted soldiers there were sentenced to prison time for abusing detainees.
“What’s happening in the war on terrorism since Abu Ghraib is they’re sending low-ranking soldiers to jail and high-ranking colonels and officers get little more than a letter of reprimand,” Mestrovic said. “They’re not learning these lessons, and the cost is really high to the United States.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org