Justin Watt: “I was literally just doing my duty.”
Justin Watt’s personal turning point came barely a month into the deployment.
He was on duty at a patrol base when the battalion commander arrived with his Personal Security Detail. Watt’s best friend Tyler Mackenzie was with them. Mackenzie had been Watt’s roommate back home and was assigned to the PSD in Iraq, probably because he was freakishly tall and the battalion commander wanted big guys as bodyguards. Watt and Mackenzie were ecstatic to see each other.
When Watt first came to the unit Mackenzie had been the one guy who didn’t give Watt the standard new-guy hard time (several soldiers in the platoon would kid Watt about being a “pussy”; his squad leader, Eric Lauzier, remembered Watt once asking “Sergeant, do you really think I’m a pussy?”, which guaranteed he’d be jacked with mercilessly from then on). Watt and Mackenzie were roommates, and “Mackenzie was the biggest, nicest Mormon kid I ever met,” Watt said. “He never cursed, never drank, and had a huge crush on a girl he was too afraid to talk to.” Watt wrote strongly-worded letters to Mackenzie’s girl for him, but Mackenzie chickened out and wound up rewriting them all.
At the patrol base Watt and Mackenzie spent a few minutes together. Watt had been at the base for almost thirty days straight, and one of the first things Mackenzie mentioned was how bad Watt smelled. Watt told him he hadn’t been able to contact his family because they had no phones or internet at their base. Mackenzie said, “Write a letter to your parents and give it to me. I’ll call tonight and read it to them.”
Watt quickly wrote the letter and gave it to his best friend. He and Mackenzie hugged, then Mackenzie and the PSD loaded up in their Humvees and rolled out. Minutes later, Watt heard the blast that killed Mackenzie and two other soldiers. A fourth soldier lost a leg. An IED had been planted less than a kilometer outside the gate.
After Mackenzie’s death, tragedies seemed to pile upon tragedies. Nelson and Casica’s deaths, which were more like murders, were horrific. The company First Sergeant was blown up and sent home. Everyone who went outside the wire had close calls with IED strikes and small arms fire. Civilians were killed by accident at checkpoints. Within three months, Bravo lost all three of its platoon leaders to IED attacks. As more men became casualties, Watt felt his chances for survival diminish. But he stayed in the fight, never faked an illness, never found excuses to keep him off missions, never took any fewer risks or shirked any responsibilities.
Then first platoon was called to one of the patrol bases and given good news. They were being pulled off checkpoint and patrol duties, and from then on would only guard bases. Watt openly wept in relief; by that time he had become convinced he would die if he stayed outside the wire.
The relief lasted a few hours, until word came down that the previous order had been a mistake. They were going back to the checkpoints, back to patrols, back to daily IED and gunfire attacks. Crushed, Watt made a deal with God: if he could survive until he went home on leave to see his family once more, he’d accept his death in combat afterward.
He made it home for leave. Almost as soon as he walked in the door his parents dropped a secret on him: they had gotten divorced while he was away. That night over dinner he told them he didn’t expect to survive the rest of his tour. It was the only time they discussed his possible death. He spent the rest of his mid-tour leave in a drunken, skirt-chasing stupor. On the last day of leave, as his mother drove him to the airport, she offered to send him to Canada.
Watt expected to die once he went back. He had no desire to be shot or blown up in Iraq to no purpose. But he believed in duty; he wasn’t going to be a hero, but he wouldn’t choose to be a coward. He passed on the chance to go to Canada, and headed back to war.
When he got to DFW airport he found a hidden area, out of sight of everyone, and broke down again. Then he spotted a chaplain at the gate. Watt had never been the most religious guy, and his faith was starting to flag. Hoping for reassurance, he asked the chaplain if a good person could go to heaven even if he didn’t believe everything Christians were supposed to. The chaplain said no; if someone didn’t believe in the Genesis story or accept Jesus as their savior, no heaven for them.
Deflated, Watt arrived back in Kuwait, where everyone transited through for leave. As soon as he got there he found out a huge fire at FOB Yusufiyah had destroyed what little he owned in Iraq. Laptop, family pictures, movies, books, music, all gone.
That night he finally slept for the first time in forty-eight hours. When he woke up, he gave up being scared. Fear left him right around the time he completely lost any faith in any God.
Mackenzie’s death was Watt’s turning point. After Mackenzie died, Watt slowly stopped believing in his leadership, and eventually gave up hope for survival. But for the rest of the platoon, the turning point was the day Lieutenant Britt and Specialist Lopez were killed.
On that day, Lieutenant Britt was leading an IED sweep on Route Caveman. Caveman was one of the most IED-laden routes in the company’s area of operations; it was also, in Justin’s and many other soldiers’ eyes, completely irrelevant. The route wasn’t critical to Bravo Company’s movement, and patrolling it wouldn’t restrict the enemy’s freedom either. The route just didn’t matter. But the battalion commander ordered Bravo Company to keep clearing the route, patrols kept getting hit by IEDs, first platoon and Bravo Company argued the route was too dangerous to patrol, Lieutenant Colonel Kunk demanded the route be cleared, and nothing changed.
Watt had a conversation with Lieutenant Britt before that sweep. When Watt talked about how dangerous Route Caveman was, Lieutenant Britt brushed it off. “Just consider the percentages, Watt. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed to Iraq. Less than two thousand have been killed. The chances of you dying here are statistically remote.”
Hours later, Lieutenant Britt’s patrol was ambushed with small arms and a remote-fired RPG. When Lieutenant Britt followed an order to recover the RPG launcher, he walked over a buried IED. The explosion blew his body into a canal and tore Specialist Lopez in half.
The next day, Route Caveman was declared “black”. Closed, never patrolled again. Caveman was supposedly so important it had to be cleared no matter how dangerous it was. But as soon as they took those two casualties, Bravo Company effectively ceded the route to the enemy. Which is what Watt and everyone else thought should have been done in the first place.
Britt had been a highly respected leader, loved by his men. Lopez had just come home from a deployment to Afghanistan, been transferred to the 101st and sent to Iraq to replace another soldier killed earlier. Two tragic, and stupid, losses, which accomplished literally nothing.
Britt and Lopez’s deaths stripped the platoon of its last vestiges of trust in senior leadership. The battalion commander and sergeant major seemed to have no understanding, or concern, about what was happening to Bravo Company. From that point, it seemed to Watt that first platoon gave up on the traditional rank and authority structure. The platoon’s first platoon sergeant had surreptitiously found a noncombat job, its second platoon sergeant lasted a month before being removed, the third platoon sergeant exerted a lot of authority but almost never left the wire. Of the three squad leaders only one, Lauzier, consistently led his troops from the front. The others hung back, leaving lower-ranking troops to lead dangerous missions. The missions were stupid, most of the leaders obviously didn’t believe in them, and the soldiers felt like their deaths and therefore their lives meant nothing.
When Watt told me about this loss of faith, I understood exactly what he meant. While my deployments were nowhere near as bad as his, I did experience something similar in Afghanistan. I had never been a blind idealist, and didn’t believe for a second that we would turn Afghanistan into a democracy. But I believed in the fight. I believed that the losses incurred fighting America’s enemies were worth it. Then I rolled into a valley where Americans and Afghans had been ambushed and were pinned down. The plan had been to advance through the valley, or to hold ground if we were stopped. I expected to stay overnight and fight off constant attempts to force us out. Instead, we lost four coalition troops killed, the Afghans soldiers pulled out, and all of us were ordered to retreat. Yet the fight was reported as a win.
I was disgusted. Why, I wondered, should we risk our lives for this? We won’t commit to a fight, and if we lose, the Army will just call it a victory anyway. Nothing we do matters. I could die in one of these valleys, nobody would care and it wouldn’t change anything.
Idealism dies hard, and a lot of mine died after that fight. After hearing Watt’s story, I imagine he lost about a hundred times more idealism than I did.
The massacre of the Iraqi family outside Yusufiyah happened in March 2006. Watt saw the pictures, and thought the scene just didn’t make sense. The village where the murders happened was religiously mixed and largely free of sectarian violence. He had never seen a young girl murdered and burned. Her family members looked they had been shot and left where they fell; the girl, however, was separated and singled out for especially brutal treatment. Watt had seen families killed before, but not like this. But he let the incident slip his mind as he struggled to survive the war.
The platoon had suffered four killed by the time Specialist Babineau, PFC Tucker and PFC Menchaca were attacked while they guarded an Army-installed bridge. The position was so vulnerable it was christened “The Alamo”. For months, the bridge had been held by only one Humvee with just three, or even two, soldiers. No barricades had been set to protect the men. Repeated requests for barrier material had been denied. When the attack came, it was so sudden that the soldiers never fired a shot.
Watt was waiting on a dental appointment at Camp Victory with Tony Yribe when he heard the news. Babineau was dead, and he knew Tucker and Menchaca would be dead soon if they weren’t already. In eight months that was seven dead and many more wounded, out of thirty-four men.
Then Yribe dropped the secret. Private Steven Green had confessed to murdering the family outside Yusufiyah. He told Yribe he had raped the young girl. Yribe had kept it quiet. Watt’s already trying, traumatic deployment suddenly became worse than he ever imagined.
Watt remembers how he reacted to what he had just heard.
Like Yribe, Watt initially had a moment of disbelief. Then, without any conscious attempt to figure it out, puzzle pieces started to fall into place. The murdered family’s home had been just a few hundred meters from Checkpoint 2, an easy distance to cover. Watt remembered how the murders hadn’t really made sense, how he had never seen Iraqis do that to each other. And he thought about who had confessed: Steven Green.
Green was, in Watt’s opinion, a complete psychopath. During the few months he had known Green before deployment, the two men had a few conversations. Green usually started those conversations with something like, “You know, the abolition of slavery was the worst thing to ever happen to America.” He was an avowed racist with a history of drug use, but wasn’t stupid. He had read Mein Kampf and could discuss it intelligently. In Iraq Green had told anyone who would listen that every last Iraqi needed to be killed. He had almost gotten into a fistfight with the platoon sergeant. He had actually been diagnosed as a sociopath by the Combat Stress psychiatrist.
And then there were the puppies.
At one of the patrol bases, a mama dog and her litter of puppies kept wandering inside the wire. The military had strict orders against pets, but no rule can stop Americans from loving dogs. First platoon’s soldiers got attached to the dogs, and the company leadership kept giving halfhearted orders to get the dogs off base. Every soldier who was ordered to get rid of the dogs simply took them outside the gate, and a few hours later they’d be back. Nobody tried to hurt them.
During my Iraq deployment a local support base had a dog hanging around the fuel point, and she was probably the most spoiled mutt in Iraq. Then an already-hated colonel made himself even more hated by personally executing the dog. In Afghanistan the US Marines I worked with always kept dogs in their compound, and on one mission we kidnapped a puppy from a village because they wanted a new pet. I was on a French firebase, and several stray dogs were hanging around inside the wire. The French Marine battalion commander ordered all the dogs shot, and French Marines killed about half of them before they just couldn’t do it anymore. Within a month one of the strays was not only still on base but had taken up residence just outside the Tactical Operations Center, where the French battalion commander worked. Numerous French and American troops, including me, visited and fed the dog every day. I was genuinely saddened to leave the dog, and even today I worry about what happened to her.
Joes love dogs. First platoon loved dogs. But when the order to get rid of the dogs eventually made its way to Green, he put two puppies in an MRE box, carried them to the roof a of two-story building, and threw them off.
“Whenever I was around Green, I felt like I was in the same room with Jeffrey Dahmer,” Watt said.
Watt believed Green was more than capable of committing mass murder. But something nagged at him. Yes, Green could have done it. But just from a tactical perspective, there was no way he could have done it alone.
The teenage girl who was shot and burned was in one room. But her parents and sister were in another. Watt didn’t see how Green would have been able to control them all without help. And there was no way Green could have left the wire, committed the murders, and slipped back in unnoticed. More soldiers had to have been involved.
When Watt asked Yribe why he hadn’t reported the crime, Yribe replied that he had gotten Green out of the Army, and “the rest is between Green and God.” Watt insisted that Green must have had help. Yribe suddenly shut the conversation down, saying “Forget I ever said anything about it.”
Watt shut up, but didn’t forget about it. Months earlier Watt was selected as the platoon leader’s new radioman, after another radioman higher up in the company was killed. As the radioman, he kept a log of what soldiers went where. He went straight to his radio log and checked to see who else had been at the checkpoint. The log jogged his memory; he recalled that just before the murders, Specialist Cortez, who was in command at the checkpoint, specifically requested certain soldiers to stand duty with him. Cortez was more or less a wannabe street thug in uniform, likely to drink on duty and slap people around, not the kind of guy to commit murder. But one of the soldiers he requested was James Barker.
Barker was, in Watt’s opinion, a truly dangerous man. He was known to have stabbed someone out in town before they deployed. On a patrol not long after they arrived in Iraq, the squad had seen two young Iraqi girls. Barker had made the comment that the patrol could rape them and get away with it. Watt remembered that Eric Lauzier, the patrol leader, had stopped the patrol right there. He told them, in very clear language, that he would personally kill any of his soldiers who committed rape.
Watt remembered Barker’s comment as a “joke”. I don’t think that’s what it was. One thing I’ve learned is that when they’re considering doing something insane, some people will make comments or “jokes” around others to gauge their reactions. Sometimes the “jokes” are actually probes, to see who thinks the idea is nuts and who might be interested. I don’t think Barker’s joke was a joke at all.
When Watt checked his radio log, he saw that PFC Howard had also been at the checkpoint. Green was already out of the Army, and Watt didn’t believe that Barker, Cortez or Jesse Spielman, who had also been there, would admit to anything. But Howard might talk.
Watt found Howard and started an innocent conversation about the platoon’s missing soldiers. When Howard mentioned how “fucked up” the situation was, Watt saw an opening.
“Yeah, it is. Just as fucked up as what Green and those guys did to that family.”
Howard was stunned. As far as Watt was concerned, Howard’s reaction proved the story was true. Howard tried to say he didn’t know what Watt was talking about. Watt said, “Come on man, don’t lie to me. I already know. The whole platoon knows.”
Howard bought the ruse. He confirmed that Green had killed the family, but didn’t do it alone. Cortez, Barker and Spielman had all participated. When they did it, they left Howard and one other soldier alone at the checkpoint. The other soldier was completely oblivious to what was going on, but they told Howard what they had done, and ordered him to stay quiet about it.
Now Watt had a painful decision to make.
If Watt reported what he knew, any number of horrible things could happen. Sergeant Yribe, his former team leader and a man he respected and considered a friend, would doubtless be punished for not reporting Green’s confession. Staff Sergeant Eric Lauzier, their squad leader, would likely be blamed for what his soldiers did, even though he was on leave when the crime occurred. Punishments could extend all the way up to the company commander, Captain Goodwin. And once the news broke, insurgents might single the battalion out for retribution.
And Watt could become a target. He didn’t think any of the three remaining murderers in the platoon would think twice about killing him. If he talked, and the unit didn’t protect him, he could die.
As Watt told me, he wasn’t a “peaceful warrior monk”; he never claimed to be the most saintly soldier in the Army. He had slapped detainees around, he had been pretty rough on Iraqis who tried to drive through the wire at checkpoints. He did things he’s now ashamed of. But rape and murder were something else.
Watt decided to do the right thing. He could have just stayed quiet (as some other members of the platoon reportedly did). But he didn’t take the easy way out. He chose to report the crime, as soon as he could.
In the conversations I’ve had with Watt, he’s never claimed to be a hero. He never said he massacred millions of enemy, never said he wasn’t scared, never held himself up as a paragon of bravery and virtue. About his decision, he says, “When I reported what I knew, I was literally just doing my duty.” And I agree; he’s not a hero. But he risked his life to gain justice for anonymous victims he owed no allegiance to. He did it simply because they were fellow human beings. That decision, made during the worst and most dangerous time of his young life, was in fact heroic.
Watt was nothing special before he joined the Army. He never really stuck with anything and was making a living as a blackjack dealer when he decided to enlist. In the Army he was just a regular guy. After the Army he’s led a normal life. If he were to suddenly pass away in a car wreck, he wouldn’t be remembered for living heroically. But he would be remembered, by me at least, for making a heroic choice.
After Watt made the decision to report the crime, the problem existed of how to do it. He strongly suspected that if he reported it to any of the sergeants available, not only would they keep it quiet but they would also let the murderers know that he was talking. Watt trusted his former squad leader, Eric Lauzier, but Lauzier was stuck at a distant checkpoint. Reporting the crime through the chain of command wasn’t feasible.
But the next day Watt and Yribe went back to their base at Mahmudiyah. By this time Yribe was suspicious that Watt would report the crime, because of Watt’s reaction when he learned about it. Watt saw a chance to report it, but through a different channel.
Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah had a Combat Stress clinic. Watt knew the Combat Stress counselors because they had given the platoon several “critical incident debriefs” after the platoon’s many casualties. As soon as he was able, Watt rushed to the Combat Stress clinic. A staff sergeant he knew was inside.
The staff sergeant gave Watt a friendly greeting. Watt cut him off.
“Sergeant, listen to me. I don’t have much time. I just found out that some soldiers in my squad raped an Iraqi girl and murdered her and her family. I need you to report it for me. Write this down, quick.”
Stunned, the staff sergeant started writing. Watt quickly laid out the facts. Then he said, “Now give me some sleeping pills. I need an excuse for being here.”
The staff sergeant gave him a baggie with two Ambien tablets. Watt walked out of the tent. Yribe was waiting for him.
“What were you doing in there?” Yribe demanded.
“I needed sleeping pills, Sarge. So much shit has been going on, I’ve been all screwed up and can’t sleep.”
“Show me the pills.”
Watt showed him the Ambien. Yribe accepted the explanation, and walked away. Now Watt was really nervous. He found John Diem, a sergeant from another squad who he trusted, and told him, “Sarge, I need you to watch my back. I just found out something, and some of the guys might kill me to keep it quiet. But I can’t tell you what it is.”
Diem replied, “No. You need to tell me what’s going on.”
Watt reluctantly explained the situation. He told Diem he had already reported it (Diem, however, doesn’t remember that). Then he asked, “But please, Sarge, don’t say anything.”
Diem’s reply didn’t put Watt’s racing mind at ease. “Listen bro, you know I have to report this. I can’t keep it a secret and I can’t protect you unless I do my job. So you’re going to have to trust me.”
At this point, Watt was pretty much in freakout mode. Within a day, he heard the platoon sergeant call the company commander on the radio and tell him he needed to come to the platoon’s patrol base. When the CO asked why, the platoon sergeant said he couldn’t explain it over the radio, but he gave a hint: “Haditha”, referring to the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha village by Marines in 2005. Watt knew what the platoon sergeant was talking about. He hoped nobody else in the platoon did.
That day, Yribe came to Watt and asked if he had reported the crime. Someone up the chain was asking questions. Watt almost panicked. “Shit no, sergeant, I didn’t say a word.” Then he blue-falconed PFC Howard. “Howard or someone else must have said something. Or maybe someone else knows about it.”
Yribe accepted his denial. Watt knew he had dodged a bullet. But his luck couldn’t hold out. He hoped he would be pulled from the platoon before the news broke.
Next installment to follow Friday.
NOTE FROM CHRIS HERNANDEZ: Last week we heard the sad news that Jim Frederick, author of Blackhearts, died unexpectedly at the age of only 42. Jim was a trusted friend to many of the soldiers involved in this story, and gave me enthusiastic support for this project. He accomplished much in his short life, and left us far too soon. Rest in Peace, Mr. Frederick.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of nearly two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.