Stryker Afghan war crimes probe now looking at officers' role

TACOMA, Wash. — An Army investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Stryker soldiers in Afghanistan has grown in scope to include their commanding officers.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty has been otdered to investigate whether officers of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord should have known sooner about the alleged crimes. He’s starting with the training the brigade received before it deployed and he is expected to look at what happened during the year it spent fighting in southern Afghanistan.

Five soldiers stand accused of murdering civilians in combat-like scenarios they allegedly staged. 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.

“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,” said Army spokeswoman Kathleen Turner.

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 the new investigation. Capt. Matthew Quiggle confirmed that he had given recorded and written statements to one of Twitty’s aides.

Vokey asked an investigating officer to obtain any information from Twitty’s review. Those documents could be helpful in defending the accused soldiers because they reveal how the environment at the base played into the alleged crimes, said Eric Montalvo a defense attorney representing codefendant Spc. Adam Winfield.

“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,” Montalvo said.

Turner said the inquiry is intended to determine whether the alleged offenses could have been avoided with better training or communication. It could lead to discipline as well.

“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 are not held accountable for misconduct that takes 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; the brigadier general overseeing 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.

“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.’”