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Army reviews leadership in alleged thrill kills

By Staff | Nov 23, 2010

GENE JOHNSON,Associated Press

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — The Army has appointed a brigadier general to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Washington-state based 5th Stryker Brigade, after some of its members were charged this year with rampant drug use, photographing and mutilating corpses, and slaughtering Afghan civilians for kicks.

Maj. Kathleen Turner, a spokeswoman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, confirmed the administrative investigation Monday. The review is focusing on “all aspects potentially related to the allegations of murder, assault and drug use by 5th Stryker Brigade soldiers while in Afghanistan, to include individual and leader accountability,” she said.

Five soldiers are charged with murder and conspiracy in the deaths this year of three civilians during patrols in Kandahar Province. According to statements by some soldiers, they were led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the highest ranking defendant, who is accused of putting together a “kill team” to slaughter civilians.

Gibbs, of Billings, Mont., maintains the killings were all appropriate engagements.

One of the soldiers, Spc. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, Alaska, gave investigators extensive statements describing the alleged plot. Seven more face charges including drug use and beating an informant in a drug investigation.

Among the allegations is that Gibbs collected fingers from Afghan corpses and illicitly obtained weapons that he could drop next to the bodies of civilians to make them appear to be combatants. Several soldiers are accused of passing around photos of mangled corpses as though they were trading cards.

Some experts have questioned how soldiers could have carried on such activities without their leaders stepping in — and said the case raises troubling questions about how the Army handled it.

One of the defendants, Spc. Adam Winfield, sent Facebook messages home to his parents in Cape Coralafter the first killing in January. He warned that members of his platoon had killed one civilian, planned to kill more and they had warned him to keep quiet about it.

Winfield’s father said he called Lewis-McChord that day to urge the Army to intervene but no action was taken until May, and by then, two more civilians had been killed. The younger Winfield is accused of participating in the final killing, and his lawyer insists he was following orders from Gibbs.

Capt. Roman Ligsay, who was a first lieutenant and led the unit for much of its stint in Kandahar Province, has invoked his right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify in criminal proceedings arising from the case.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty of U.S. Army Forces Command in Atlanta is conducting the review, which could lead to administrative changes, such as additional training for troops, criminal charges or other discipline, Turner said.

The inquiry began within the past month, Turner said.

Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University and heads the National Institute of Military Justice, said he expected such an investigation and said the fact that it’s being conducted by a brigadier general shows the Army is taking it seriously.

“This is what any responsible chain of command would do,” Fidell said. “The reports suggest a very lax environment over there. It’s certainly enough to raise a red flag.”

Colby Vokey, a lawyer who represents Spc. Michael Wagnon II, of Las Vegas, one of the five defendants, said Monday he had spoken with some people being questioned as part of the investigation, though he declined to identify them. The questions focused on whether “there was some breakdown” between the troops and their leaders — “how active the leadership was, whether there were failures in the leadership, whether things could have been done better.”

Wagnon is accused of participating in the second killing. The Army held a preliminary hearing Monday in the case to help establish whether enough evidence exists to send it to a court martial. Vokey criticized the lack of physical evidence against his client. The hearing continues on Tuesday.

The other defendant is Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho.