The staff sergeant who allegedly led a rogue group of Stryker soldiers in Afghanistan last year gave his first public testimony Friday and rejected the Army’s charges that he plotted the murders of three unarmed civilians.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, conceded that he clipped body parts from men he and his platoonmates killed, though he insisted those “war trophies” followed what he thought were legitimate combat engagements.
“I was trying to be hard, a hard individual, and not let it affect me,” Gibbs said, describing his decision to pull a tooth and cut a finger from an Afghan corpse in May 2010.
“In my mind, I was there to take the antlers off the deer,” he said.
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He faces life in prison if convicted on charges that he murdered three Afghan civilians during his deployment with Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Nine platoonmates have been convicted of crimes they committed after Gibbs joined them midway through their deployment.
The Army over the past week presented four days of testimony from witnesses who said Gibbs had little regard for Afghan lives and pressed his soldiers to join him in murder scenarios.
They described him stashing “off the books” weapons and enticing junior soldiers to accept the body parts he collected from dead men.
Gibbs countered the accusations his platoonmates raised, casting himself as a solid noncommissioned officer who wanted to share his experiences from two previous combat deployments to help the soldiers he led.
He contradicted testimony that claimed he bragged about getting away with an illegitimate shooting during his first combat deployment in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of an innocent family.
Admitted “kill team” participant Pvt. Jeremy Morlock testified this week that Gibbs floated that story to feel out soldiers about whether they’d be willing to perpetrate a similar scheme in Afghanistan.
But Gibbs said Friday that he shared his Iraq story to discourage his soldiers from being afraid to shoot in “a tight situation.” At the time, Gibbs said soldiers were griping about strict rules of engagement that they feared would send them to jail for questionable encounters in the fog of war.
Gibbs said he was investigated for the Iraqi shooting, and the Army determined he made the right call. He said he felt terrible about killing the Iraqis, but he put on a tough face to motivate junior soldiers.
“You can’t tell it like it’s a tragic event,” Gibbs said. “Of course I would never tell them how bad I felt.”
He also provided alternate descriptions of the major incidents that make up the Army’s case against him, such as:
• Gibbs denied that he murdered an Afghan man on Feb. 22, 2010 and planted an illicit AK-47 on the corpse to cover up the killing. He insisted the Afghan attacked him. “Luckily his weapon appeared to malfunction and I didn’t die.”
Morlock has testified that Gibbs staged that killing, and other soldiers have said that Gibbs possessed the AK-47 he wasn’t supposed to have.
• Gibbs claimed he was talking to another soldier on May 2, 2010 when he heard gunfire break out behind him. Morlock and Spc. Adam Winfield have testified that Gibbs joined them in staging a killing that day. “I turn and see Morlock and Winfield laying on the ground next to each other firing into a cloud of dust,” Gibbs said.
• Gibbs acknowledged he joined an assault on the private who blew the whistle on misconduct in their platoon, but said it was because he was angered that the junior soldier had falsely accused him of smoking hashish. Gibbs and Morlock paid a second visit to the whistleblower and showed then-Pfc. Justin Stoner severed human fingers because “we don’t need some private who’s been in (the Army) for a year making false allegations against us.” Stoner told investigators he interpreted the message as a threat against his life.
Gibbs appeared nervous during his daylong testimony Friday, acknowledging that he was “terrified” to take the witness stand.
Army prosecutor Maj. Robert Stelle cross examined him for nearly two hours. He highlighted the unlikelihood that an individual Afghan would take shots at a platoon of American soldiers without backup or extra weapons, as Gibbs suggests in his descriptions of the February and May killings.
Gibbs insisted Friday that he was embarrassed by some of his misconduct, such as taking war trophies and posing for pictures with corpses.
“It’s a product of war,” he said. “I’m not proud of it.”
His trial is expected to resume Tuesday with more witnesses for his defense.