BAGHDAD – U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Vela spoke in a low voice Thursday at the court-martial for his fellow soldier. Tears slid down the 23-year-old’s cheeks, and the judge prompted him to talk louder.
On May 11, Vela’s sniper team had detained an Iraqi man in Jaf al-Sakr, Vela testified. Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley undid the ropes that had pinned the prisoner’s arms and asked Vela if he was ready, he said.
The dark-haired Idaho native told the court he wasn’t sure what his superior meant. Hensley then cradled the Iraqi’s head, straightened his headdress and moved away from Vela, who gripped a 9 mm pistol.
“I heard the word ‘shoot.’ I don’t remember pulling the trigger. I just came to and the guy was dead. It took me a second to realize the shot came from the pistol in my hand,” Vela said.
Vela is one of three soldiers from the same sniper platoon who are accused of premeditated murder in three shooting incidents this spring. Their cases have provided a picture of mentally exhausted troops and the role they allegedly played in a “baiting program,” in which snipers are believed to have planted fake weapons and bomb-making materials, then killed anyone who picked them up.
The alleged program was revealed in a hearing in July that eventually sent Spc. Jorge Sandoval and Hensley to face court-martial on murder charges.
The Pentagon refuses to speak publicly about baiting or other such tactics but insists that its practices abide by the law.
“My client is no murderer. He is a victim,” said James Culp, Vela’s civilian defense attorney, who suspects “baiting” might have contributed to the slaying of the Iraqi man on May 11. “The rules of engagement are difficult on the best day. The rules for snipers are twice as difficult. You can’t expect to muddy the waters of the rules of engagement for snipers without consequences.”
Vela made his surprise confession Thursday on the second day of Sandoval’s court-martial on charges of murder, dereliction of duty and poor conduct. Sandoval also faces murder charges for allegedly shooting an Iraqi man and then placing a detonation wire on the body in the same region south of Baghdad. Like Vela and Hensley, he faces a possible life sentence.
Vela, who was flown from a detention facility in Kuwait to testify in Sandoval’s defense, told the court that Sandoval was standing guard at a nearby pump station at the moment of the Iraqi man’s execution. Vela has been promised that his statements in the Sandoval case won’t be used against him when he faces legal proceedings in connection with his alleged role in the slaying.
But Vela’s first hearing has been delayed by his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he suffers flashbacks and hallucinations, and he is taking antipsychotic and antidepressant medications
Vela’s account Thursday portrayed a unit that had lost sleep and lost control. In three days, he said, he closed his eyes for less than four hours.
The mission, to watch the house of a suspected militant and to support nearby troop operations, started May 8, Vela said.
The terrain south of Baghdad near Jaf al-Sakr is filled with swamps, sewage-filled canals and tall grass. The men carried rucksacks, which they called “sucks,” weighing up to 150 pounds. After two days, Vela said, one soldier twice had received intravenous treatment for heat exhaustion before being sent to the rear. Only five men were left in the unit, he said.
Vela said he was in a daze the morning of May 11. He couldn’t recall Thursday how the Iraqi had shown up where the men were sleeping. The man seemed to just materialize, he said.
Vela didn’t know what to do, so he woke up Sandoval, who told him to hold the man at gunpoint while Sandoval woke the others, Vela testified. They placed the man on the ground and searched him, he said.
Hensley appeared agitated after waking up and slammed his knee into the man’s back, Vela said. Then Hensley grabbed the man by the mouth and threatened to kill him, he said.
Hensley then strung the Iraqi’s arms behind his back and sent Sandoval and his colleague to guard a pumping station nearby. Vela said he heard Hensley call his platoon commander on the radio and say he had seen a man running, carrying an automatic rifle.
A child wandered up to their camp, and Hensley briefly held the child on the ground, with a poncho over his head, Vela said. He eventually released the boy, who looked at the Iraqi man and called him “father.” Then the boy fled.
Vela said he thought they were going to free the man, but Hensley called their platoon commander and said he saw a “suspicious national” moving toward their position. Hensley then asked for permission to shoot to kill, Vela recalled.
“At this point, I was really confused about what he was saying,” Vela said.
The only other soldier on the scene was so exhausted he slept through the commotion, Vela said.
Hensley then gave Vela the order to shoot the Iraqi, Vela said.
Once it was done, Vela testified, he watched Hensley grab an AK-47 rifle from his backpack and place it by the dying Iraqi man. Hensley radioed his captain and told him that they had engaged AIF, military jargon for firing on insurgents.
The Iraqi man convulsed. Blood covered his face and beard.
“Sgt. Hensley was kind of laughing about it. He hit him in the throat and said shoot him again, which I did,” Vela told the judge.
Addressing the court, Vela’s voice dropped nearly to a whisper and his tears kept streaming, so the judge gave him a break.