“If you leave him out there, they’ll kill him,” his Battalion Commander was told by a junior NCO.
Justin Watt secretly reported several members of his platoon for committing the rape and murders, and was desperately hoping he wouldn’t be found out.
War Crimes, Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences: Justin Watt’s story (continued)
The day after John Diem’s report was forwarded to the company commander, the battalion commander and sergeant major went to the checkpoints where Cortez, Barker and Spielman were assigned. Colonel Kunk questioned them about the reported crime. All denied any knowledge or involvement. Then Kunk and the sergeant major went to Watt’s patrol base. Yribe was also there. Watt, on duty behind a machine gun in a Humvee turret, watched Kunk’s convoy drive in. He was scared out of his mind, hoping he wasn’t about to get outed.
Oh, shit. He climbed out of the turret and jogged to Colonel Kunk and the sergeant major. They took him to a small, dank room in a dilapidated building. The colonel and sergeant major sat on MRE boxes, but told Watt to stay at attention. A few soldiers at the checkpoint watched what happened next.
Kunk screamed that he should charge Watt with filing a false report. He accused Watt of trying to get out of the Army. He asked why Watt wanted to ruin his fellow soldiers’ careers. He and the sergeant major said Watt was just repeating third-hand information and had no idea what he was talking about.
Watt was sweating bullets. He knew that Yribe was standing behind him, watching it all. He desperately tried to explain to Colonel Kunk why he reported the war crime, and why he believed his squad mates were guilty. Kunk brusquely told Watt to shut up and go back to his post.
Incredulous at what had just happened, Watt slunk back to the Humvee. He watched the battalion commander load up with his convoy. The vehicles drove out the gate, turned the corner and disappeared.
The exact thing that Watt had been afraid of had happened. He had been publicly identified, then abandoned. Word would spread. Retaliation was almost certain.
“I can’t explain to you how I felt watching that convoy drive away,” Watt told me. “I thought I was a dead man.”
But then Watt heard a voice on the radio. Sergeant John Diem, at another checkpoint just down the road, had seen the convoy leaving the patrol base. The twenty-three year old junior sergeant, who wasn’t Watt’s team leader and wasn’t responsible for him, had done his job and reported the crime. The platoon sergeant and platoon leader had in turn pushed the information. The company commander had sent the report up the chain. But Diem wasn’t at all sure Colonel Kunk had done his job.
Diem keyed up and bluntly asked the battalion commander a question.
“Do you have Watt in your convoy?”
Colonel Kunk replied that he didn’t.
“You have to go back and get him. If you leave him there, they’ll kill him.”
Watt heard the radio traffic. He remembers that moment as a life-changing event. “Man, I’ll tell you something,” Watt says. “John Diem didn’t have to make that call, but he did. He’ll always be my hero for that.”
Kunk turned the convoy around and pulled Watt out of the patrol base. He had to leave two soldiers behind to make room, which is something Watt is still furious about. “He had no intention of taking me out of there. He didn’t have a single empty seat in his convoy. He was going to ask a few questions, call me a liar, and leave me there with the guys I had just reported for murder.”
Of all the shocking, horrible aspects to this story, Colonel Kunk’s decision to leave Watt at the patrol base stands out as one of the worst. As a leader, I can’t imagine leaving a soldier with the same people he just turned in for murder. I’ve asked several other senior enlisted men and officers what they would have done. Every single one said a soldier reporting something like this must be immediately shielded from the people he’s accusing. Even if the report is false, the whistleblower still has to be protected. If Colonel Kunk had heard this report ten minutes after he watched a captured insurgent video showing insurgents murdering the Iraqi family, even if he knew with 100% certainty that his soldiers didn’t do it, he still should have known that Watt’s life would be in danger for making the accusation.
And I don’t get why Kunk would even investigate this accusation himself. I understand trying to determine if what’s been reported is an actual crime; for example, if a soldier reports that someone from his unit sexually harassed another soldier, a commander might try to determine if what happened actually meets the definition of sexual harassment. But in this case, the incident reported was obviously a crime. There was no question it had occurred. The soldiers accused could realistically have done it. So why didn’t Kunk immediately turn it over to the Army’s criminal investigators?
I’d guess Kunk was already feeling the heat. His battalion had suffered an inordinate number of losses. Two of his soldiers had just been abducted, arguably because security at their site was so poor (and at this point Kunk was claiming he didn’t know how poor their security had been, even though he had seen the company’s personnel reports showing how many soldiers were at each checkpoint and had driven through that position more than a dozen times). On top of all the other black marks on his record, having soldiers under his command exposed for committing a war crime would make him look like he had lost control of his unit. So I’d bet he was simply making a show of “investigating” the crime, giving himself plausible deniability. “Oh, yes sir, I’m aware of that report. I already looked into it, it wasn’t credible.”
And the cynical, jaded part of me wouldn’t be surprised if someone just wanted the problem to magically disappear.
But John Diem’s question on the radio stole Kunk’s ability to sweep the incident under the rug. A lot of people heard the radio traffic; if Watt conveniently died on the next mission, everyone would know that Kunk knew Watt was in danger, yet took no action. So Kunk was forced to take Watt back to FOB Mahmudiyah.
When they arrived, Kunk delivered Watt straight to what amounted to solitary confinement. His weapon was confiscated and he was left alone in a tent, with orders to go nowhere other than chow or the Combat Stress clinic. Guards were posted to watch him at all times.
Hours passed. Watt was nearly frantic with worry. As he waited, he took a hard look at his situation and realized something: there were reasons not to believe his story. There was no physical evidence linking Green, Cortez, Barker or Spielman to the crime. Nobody could go back and collect evidence now, since the house had never been secured. The crime happened months earlier, giving the murderers plenty of time to perfect alibis. And Colonel Kunk’s actions had convinced Watt that senior leadership simply didn’t want this accusation to be true. Nobody really wanted to investigate it. Watt could only hope that someone was talking to the accused soldiers, and that one of them would break.
But that seemed like an impossible dream. Chances were, Watt’s accusations would be dismissed, and he’d be charged with a crime in addition to eventually being returned to his platoon, where someone would take revenge. The thought scared him out of his mind.
Finally, two Army Criminal Investigation Division agents came to interrogate him. Their first question?
“Why are you trying to get out of the Army?”
Watt went through the same argument as he had with his battalion commander. He explained that he wasn’t trying to get out of the Army. He believed soldiers from his platoon had committed a war crime. He explained why. The agents asked him to write a statement. He did. They left. When they came back hours later, they asked him to write a statement again.
He rewrote the same story. They left. Hours later, they came back. And asked him to write the statement again.
As a cop, my guess is that Colonel Kunk tried to drive the investigation. He told the CID agents that Watt was a disgruntled soldier making up accusations in an effort to get out of the Army. He tried to remove Watt’s credibility before the agents ever laid eyes on him. The investigators, who Watt says were National Guardsmen and police officers in civilian life, walked into the tent with “This guy is full of shit” as their baseline. They weren’t looking into a credible war crime report, they were looking at just another screwed-up private trying to get the hell out of Iraq.
Watt waited by himself in the tent. The CID investigators came back. They asked him to write the statement for the fourth time.
This time Watt wouldn’t do it. He balled up the statement form and threw it into an investigator’s chest. “Fuck you. I’ve already told you what happened. I’m not writing another statement.”
The investigator he hit said ominously, “You’re going to regret that.” Then he and his partner left. Watt was fed up, nearing a breaking point. He had expected to be in danger if he reported the crime, but he hadn’t expected to be treated like the guilty one.
Before the colonel had pulled Watt from his checkpoint, the platoon’s two missing soldiers, Tucker and Menchaca, had been found dead, mutilated and booby-trapped. Their memorial service was going to be held that day at FOB Mahmudiyah. Watt decided he was going. Against orders, he walked out of the tent. When the guards tried to stop him, he said, “I don’t care what you say, I’m going to my friends’ memorial.” Seeming unsure what to do, the guards followed him.
As he approached the memorial service he saw PFC Howard. Two soldiers who looked like investigators were with him. One of them approached Watt.
“Howard just gave a full confession. You were right, those soldiers did murder that family.”
Watt nearly collapsed in relief.
A reasonable person might think a now-vindicated Watt was treated with respect for doing the right thing. A reasonable person would be wrong.
Watt was transferred to a Psychological Operations team at FOB Mahmudiyah. A few days later first platoon was pulled off checkpoint and patrol duty, and was assigned to security at Mahmudiyah. Watt’s former platoon members wound up living a stone’s throw from his tent. Friends told Watt that some lower-ranking soldiers were talking about getting revenge on him. Diem, Lauzier and another soldier named Vermillion promised to look out for him, but he constantly had to watch his back.
Shortly afterward, Watt was transferred to Charlie Company, at a different base. Then Charlie took over first platoon’s old area. And Watt would up right back where he had been for eight months, dodging IEDs and small arms fire.
One day at Mahmudiyah he ran into Captain John Goodwin, his former Bravo Company commander. Goodwin was wracked with guilt over losses he felt responsible for. He had been removed from command because of the war crime his men committed, his career effectively over. Watt did and still does think highly of Captain Goodwin, and knew his decision to report the crime had been the final nail in Goodwin’s coffin. When Goodwin approached Watt, Watt was nervous. He didn’t know if Goodwin was going to blow up at him for ruining his life.
Instead, Goodwin gave him a commander’s coin that Goodwin himself had been awarded years earlier. It was a treasured keepsake, a symbol of patriotism, hard work and dedication. And he told Watt, “You did the right thing.”
Eventually, Bravo Company’s year was up. They rotated back to the United States. But Watt was temporarily assigned to Charlie, which had arrived later. He wound up staying in Iraq longer than his former platoon mates.
Neither Colonel Kunk nor his sergeant major ever contacted Watt’s family to let them know he was safe. Watt’s father was at that point writing congressmen to ask if the Army was protecting his son. The Charlie Company commander sent his parents a reassuring email, in which he mentioned that Watt’s former platoon leader and company commander had been removed from command; he was quickly given a written reprimand by the brigade commander.
After over a year in Iraq, Watt came home. His unit didn’t exactly welcome him. A soldier from Bravo who Watt thought was his friend asked for a ride to a hotel; when they arrived, several other Bravo soldiers were waiting in a room to beat the crap out of him. “I drove myself to my own ass-beating,” Watt says.
His old platoon was disbanded and spread among the battalion, and soldiers he respected suffered for standing by his side. Watt’s former squad leader Eric Lauzier had been ostracized and assigned to an administrative job, apparently because Colonel Kunk blamed him for not keeping his troops under control. Lauzier had been dragged into the investigation while he was still in Iraq, and had become so paranoid that he pulled a pistol on another soldier who had taken a paper off Lauzier’s cot. He was in something of a downward spiral.
Life as a soldier comprised Lauzier’s entire identity. In Watt’s eyes, Lauzier was one of the most effective and dedicated NCOs in the platoon. He had always led from the front, never ordered his troops to do anything he wouldn’t do, and had been the thick of the fight many times over. But he was being brushed aside. He and Watt had been recommended for awards, and Lauzier had been about to receive a Bronze Star for valor. Their recommendations were rescinded.
Lauzier was another man whose suffering Watt felt responsible for; if he had kept his mouth shut, Lauzier wouldn’t even know about the crime and wouldn’t be getting screwed by the Army. Lauzier had reason to hate Watt.
But when they ran into each other, Lauzier told Watt he had been right to report the crime. He promised to protect him from threats of retaliation. He even offered to let Watt move in with him and his wife if he didn’t feel safe in the barracks.
Watt became embroiled in the legal battles surrounding the murders. He was finally assigned to a different unit, one of the Ranger training battalions. His constant absences for court appearances left the unit shorthanded, which made Watt feel like more trouble than help.
For reasons Watt didn’t understand, all of the accused soldiers called him as their witness. At every trial he wound up in the defense witness room, sitting silently as Green’s, Cortez’s, Barker’s and Spielman’s family members glared at him. When Spielman was sentenced to 90 years in prison, Watt watched his grandmother collapse in tears on the courtroom floor. He felt at fault for her pain.
Watt spent a lot of time struggling to stay sane. He was still under investigation himself for writing a statement in support of Tony Yribe when Yribe accidentally killed a civilian at a checkpoint. The Army was trying hard to get Yribe, and Watt felt like he was being dragged down with him. The constant stress affected everything in Watt’s life.
Around this time he decided to apply for Special Forces selection. If the problems in Bravo Company were an indication of what all normal Army units were like, Watt wanted to be in Special Operations. So he submitted his request, just before going to another court appearance with other soldiers from his platoon.
During a recess from court, Watt and a few others went to Starbucks. Several Special Forces soldiers, in civilian clothes, were inside. The trial was a well-known public event, and one of the SF soldiers approached to ask Watt if he and the others were there for the trial. Watt said they were.
“You tell those guys on trial that this whole thing is bullshit,” the SF soldier told Watt. “Whoever ratted them out should have kept his mouth shut. You never turn on your teammates like that.”
That sealed it. No Army career for Watt. He looks back at all that turmoil and recalls, “I was under investigation, getting handcuffed by investigators, had fifteen years of charges over my head for the checkpoint shoot, and was coming home to my new wife having to put on a happy face and pretend everything was okay. And I couldn’t do it anymore. I lost my mind. The institution I tried to uphold, the institution I almost gave my life for more times than I can remember, the institution that tried to take my credibility once before was coming after me again. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was done.” He was out of the Army not long afterward.
Watt was the first person I interviewed about this story. When he told me about Kunk’s reaction to his claim, a thought popped into my head: veterans will think, “This Watt guy must have been a squirrel, or dirtbag. There must have been a reason the battalion commander didn’t believe him.” So I asked Watt to get me in contact with others who could verify his reputation. He put me in touch with Jim Frederick, author of Blackhearts, and with John Diem and Eric Lauzier from first platoon. Lauzier, in turn, talked to Tony Yribe, who called me. All of them said Watt had a solid reputation in the platoon. None said he was a hero or badass, but they did say he was reliable.
Diem observed, “The NCOs noticed Watt because he was a little smarter and a little older than the other privates.” Lauzier emphasized that Watt was chosen to be the platoon leader’s radioman, a position that requires a sharp, brave soldier. Frederick noted that out of all the soldiers he talked to about Watt, even those who disliked him or were angry at him for reporting the crime, none said he was a bad soldier. Even Tony Yribe, who doesn’t see eye to eye with Watt on many issues, agrees that he wasn’t a bad soldier and that his word was credible.
Try as I might, I just can’t find any reason why Watt should have been disbelieved when he reported the crime, or why he should have been treated so poorly afterward.
Today, Watt lives in Utah and co-owns a budding tactical training company. His primary job is web design. He and John Diem have spoken over twenty times to Army audiences, from the Association for the United States Army to West Point cadets to groups hand-selected by the Sergeant Major of the Army. He thinks the perception is that he makes money off Blackhearts and gets paid for speaking to Army audiences. But he hasn’t received anything. His decision to report the crime didn’t earn him medals, and speaking about the crime and aftereffects hasn’t gotten him anything more than travel expenses.
He was the subject of a very successful Reddit “Ask Me Anything” episode, which had a lot of hits but no real impact. He once answered a few questions by email for a student in another country who was doing a book report on Blackhearts. Without asking permission, the student turned Watt’s answers over to a newspaper, who also without his permission published those answers as if they were from a face-to-face interview. Since then he’s pretty much done with the media.
As I said in the intro chapter, when I first talked to Watt he eagerly poured out details of his experience. At the time, I thought he was just eager to talk to someone. Now I know that’s not the case; yes he wants to talk, but he only wants to talk to people who can use his story to make a real difference. He’s turned down requests for interviews from the British Broadcasting Company and, just last month, the Huffington Post. “I won’t talk to anyone in the media who wants to paint us as victims. Yeah, we went through some bad stuff, we lost friends, but we’re not all broken toys. So I do this for the Army because I believe in the Army. It isn’t fun. If you think it’s fun to face a room full of people Monday-morning quarterbacking the hardest decision you ever made, during the worst part of your life, you’re insane. I don’t do it for attention. I do it because I don’t want this to ever happen again.”
Watt still maintains contact with a few other members of the platoon, including occasional conversations with Tony Yribe. Yribe had been granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Green and the others, and was kicked out of the Army with an Other Than Honorable discharge. Watt respects Yribe, but has strong opinions about the effect Yribe’s hyper-aggressive leadership style had on the platoon. As Watt explained, “Yribe saved soldiers’ lives. He led from the front, and wasn’t afraid to shoot. It’s important to have a leader who isn’t scared to pull the trigger. As much as it sucks to say it, Nelson and Casica were picked out by the enemy because they were friendly. They weren’t aggressive, so they were targeted. Yribe was an asskicker, and the Iraqis knew not to try any tricks when he was running the checkpoints. But that aggressiveness was a double-edged sword. Some guys saw that aggressiveness and thought, ‘Screw the stupid rules from higher, they’ve abandoned us anyway. We should act like Yribe.’ And that contributed to the discipline breakdown in the platoon.”
But Watt acknowledges, “Yribe owned his decision. He took responsibility. Out of everyone who got in trouble over this, he’s the only one who owned what he did.” Years after everything was over, Watt and Yribe talked and made peace with each other’s decisions. They’re not friends, but Yribe respects the decision Watt made, and Watt thinks he understands Yribe’s. He doesn’t agree with it, but he understands it.
“At the end of the day, murder, rape – that’s black and white,” Watt says. “I care about what being a soldier means. I care about the colors. I would do what I did a hundred times out of a hundred. This was morally irreconcilable. There’s no room to negotiate what happened, there’s no room to interpret, there’s no context that would make it justifiable. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times I look back at Yribe’s decision, look at the pain and suffering everybody went through after I reported the crime, and wonder if he was right.”
And maybe most of all, Watt wants the myths about this case to disappear. He wants people to know that the attack on the Alamo wasn’t in retaliation for the rape and murders; that attack happened before the insurgents knew who had done it. He’s run across many people who believed what I did, that one of the murderers turned himself in. Watt thinks it’s important that the public knows this wasn’t a case of a criminal being overcome by guilt, it was a case of the Army fixing its own problems.
“If someone came at me today badmouthing the 1st of the 502nd Infantry, we’d have a fistfight. I’m proud of the 101st. I’m proud of the Army. And one of the reasons I’m proud of the Army is that we handle our own shit. If we do something wrong, we have to fix it. As bad as this crime was, nobody had to catch us. We took care of it. We handled our own shit.”
Next Tuesday: John Diem’s story
If interested you can find the Blackhearts book on Amazon here.
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.