June 16, 2010 in Nation/World, Region

Four more soldiers charged in Afghan civilian deaths

Specialist charged earlier this month; all are members of Lewis-McChord Stryker Brigade
Nick Perry and Hal Bernton Seattle Times

The five soldiers accused of killing three Afghan civilians over a period of months earlier this year allegedly threw grenades at them and shot them with rifles, according to charging papers released Wednesday by Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Two of the soldiers also are accused of beating and spitting at a fellow soldier who might have been an informant, while a third soldier is alleged to have tried to impede the investigation by obtaining a hard drive which contained evidence of the killings and asking a colleague to erase it.

In all, five soldiers from the same unit — the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team — now face charges. The men are accused in a series of slayings that took place between January and May this year in Kandahar Province.

The investigation comes a blow to the credibility of the U.S. military, which is seeking to win over local populations in advance of a major offensive. Kandahar Province is a focal point of the campaign against insurgent forces.

The Army has implicated two of the soldiers in all three killings as well as an attack on a fellow soldier. The other three soldiers are alleged to have been involved in one killing each. Lt. Col. Tamara Parker, a spokeswoman at Lewis-McChord, said she didn’t expect any other soldiers to be charged in the case.

Pfc. Andrew Holmes, 19; Spc. Michael Wagnon, 29; and Spc. Adam Winfield, 21; were each returned to the base Monday and charged with one count of murder Tuesday. They are each being held in pretrial confinement, in the military equivalent of a jail.

A fourth soldier, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 25, was charged last week in Kuwait with three counts of murder and one count of assault, said Parker. She said Gibbs is being transported back to the base and is expected to arrive sometime this week.

Earlier this month, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, 22, was returned to the base from Afghanistan. He also is charged with three counts of premeditated murder and one count of assault.

“Sometimes soldiers do not live up to the values that we would expect,” Parker said. “These men are charged with very serious crimes. I’m not aware of another case like this.”

The investigation comes as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander, has put a big focus on trying to reduce civilian casualties caused by American and other NATO forces, which has been a major point of concern of the Afghan government. McChrystal has issued more restrictive rules of engagement, and in policy memos said that key to success in Afghanistan will be based on winning over civilians populations.

Parker, the base spokeswoman, said she knows “there is a lot of concern” about how the case will play out in Afghanistan, given that the military is trying to win not only battles but also hearts and minds.

Agence France-Presse, in an earlier report that cited two unnamed officials, said the assault allegations involve one soldier who blew the whistle on his comrades over possible drug use, and then suffered a severe beating in retaliation.

While recovering in hospital, that soldier recounted his comrades’ alleged role in the deaths of three Afghan civilians, said the two officials cited by the news service.

Parker said that in the case of Morlock, the base already has called for an Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a grand jury. A hearing date has yet to be set.

A military magistrate has reviewed Morlock’s pretrial confinement and concluded it is warranted given the seriousness of the allegations, Parker said. Because the military doesn’t have a bail system, that means Morlock likely will remain locked up until his case is concluded.

Morlock has a history of U.S. criminal charges.

Two years ago, his wife sought a domestic-violence protective order against him. Last year, he was charged with assault and disorderly conduct and found guilty of the latter charge. When he was 15, Morlock was charged in Alaska with leaving the scene of an accident involving an injury or death and received a deferred prosecution.

Premeditated murder, the crime that the soldiers are charged with, is the most serious of four murder charges that can be levied under the military code of justice, according to Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University. It carries the death penalty.

In cases involving multiple soldiers, military prosecutors, like their civilian counterparts, may sometimes cut deals with some defendants to gain evidence against other defendants.

“The prosecutors door is likely to open, and they may have to make some wrenching decisions about whom to make a deal with to gain evidence,” Fidell said.

The soldiers were part a contingent of more than 3,800 soldiers in the 5th Brigade, a high-tech infantry unit that travels in eight-wheeled. The brigade headed over to Afghanistan last summer, and plunged into the thick of the fighting season in southern Afghanistan. The brigade has lost 36 soldiers in Afghanistan, including 7 from the 2nd Battalion that includes the soldiers charged with civilian murder

Morlock, Winfield and Holmes were each on their first deployment, while Gibbs and Wagnon were each on their third.

Four of the soldiers are from Western states: Morlock is from Wasilla, Alaska; Gibbs from Billings, Mont.; Holmes from Boise, Idaho; and Wagnon from Las Vegas. The fifth, Winfield is from Cape Coral, Fla.

A group of about nine soldiers from the Stryker Brigade was initially investigated on suspicion of drug offenses

The soldiers were deployed at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, an outpost west of Kandahar city.

The military reported that the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command started investigating “after receiving credible information from the soldiers’ unit” during May. The investigation is ongoing.

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