War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VI

tom kunk
| August 15, 2014
Categories: Op-Eds

Eric Lauzier: “They took my honor.”

War Crime, Hard Choice and Harder Consequences, Part VI

[Continued from Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.]

First platoon soldier on guard at the Alamo bridge

First platoon soldier on guard at the Alamo bridge

Staff Sergeant Eric Lauzier heard the gunfire at the Alamo. Sudden and heavy, multiple weapons opening up on full auto at once. And Private First Class Tucker screaming on the radio that they were being overrun.

Lauzier was at a patrol base maybe 1300 meters away when it happened. He and several other soldiers scrambled to load up and haul ass toward the gunfire. When they arrived a few minutes later, Lauzier didn’t see a soul. Just a Humvee with two M4s on the hood, and spent AK shells. Dozens of them.

Less than half an hour before the attack, Lauzier had driven past the single Humvee pulling security at the bridge they called the Alamo. PFC Kristian Menchaca and Specialist David Babineau had been standing on opposite sides of the hood, while PFC Thomas Tucker manned the turret machine gun. Lauzier and the others ran around trying to find their soldiers. The only thing Lauzier saw was a huge pool of blood where he had last seen Menchaca.

Someone spotted a trail of AK shells leading away from the Humvee, along the road. They followed it to a spot a short distance away. And there was Babineau in a canal, helmet off and weaponless, half submerged in muddy water, dead from multiple gunshot wounds.

Lauzier was on his second tour of Iraq. He knew the enemy. He knew what was happening to the captured soldiers. He thought Tucker had been taken alive, but actually hoped that Menchaca had died at the Alamo.

Lauzier kept it together. Like everyone else in the platoon, he had been through a lot already. The constant stream of casualties, incessant IED and small arms attacks, and near-total loss of faith in senior leadership had taken their toll. Their company had lost all three platoon leaders in less than three months, something that probably hadn’t happened to an American infantry company since Vietnam. Five helicopters were shot down in their area of operations during their deployment, and helicopters stopped supporting them except in the direst of emergencies. Medical evacuation requests for wounded Americans were sometimes denied, sometimes birds wouldn’t provide air support during firefights. But they’d always come out for a wounded Iraqi civilian. It would be difficult to describe how bitterly angry this made first platoon.

Lauzier had been dealing with all this for eight months, usually getting no more than four hours sleep a night. He was worn out. And he felt he was being singled out by the platoon sergeant, who overloaded his squad with tasks while simultaneously stripping the little bit of manpower he had left. But he hadn’t shut down, hadn’t backed off his responsibilities.

Just weeks earlier, Lauzier had led a small team on a patrol near the town of Rushdie Mullah and was ambushed by insurgents firing from multiple positions. The team was pinned down and in trouble. Lauzier kept his calm, directed mortar fire onto one group of enemy, had his men suppress the remaining insurgents, and managed to pull everyone out without a single casualty.

Lauzier was widely regarded as a dedicated and proficient squad leader. He had served an enlistment as a Marine Corps infantryman before joining the Army, and planned on retiring from the military. Before Iraq he had tried and failed Special Forces selection, and was planning on going back after the deployment. He liked combat, and was one of very few soldiers in the Army who had a confirmed hand-to-hand kill. He knew war, and expected pain and tragedy from it. The loss of three more first platoon soldiers at the Alamo was a hard blow, but Lauzier could take it.

A few days later, just after their missing soldiers were found, Lauzier heard the platoon sergeant call the company commander on the radio. The platoon sergeant told the commander he needed to come to the patrol base, but wouldn’t tell the company commander why. Then he dropped the hint, “Haditha.”

Word started floating around that something bad had happened. This obviously wasn’t something like a lost sensitive item, and as far as Lauzier knew there had been no serious incidents between any soldiers in the platoon. It couldn’t be any of the normal things that the Army says are bad, it had to be something far worse. He went over the possibilities in his head. Nothing stuck out. Nothing, except for the murder of the family near Checkpoint 2 back in March.

Lauzier had been home on leave when the family was murdered. When he came back to Iraq, the platoon sergeant showed him photos from the scene. Lauzier had never seen anything like it. He had been to Iraqi homes where the father and oldest son had been murdered, but had never seen women and children targeted. And the young girl had been left on the floor with legs spread, her body burned. Lauzier thought she had probably been raped.

Lauzier hadn’t connected his soldiers at Checkpoint 2 with the crime. But when the battalion commander came around asking questions, it suddenly hit him. After Tony Yribe came out of his interrogation, Lauzier asked him what it had been about. Yribe said, “I can’t tell you.” Lauzier held up two fingers and mouthed, “Checkpoint 2?” Yribe nodded. And Lauzier thought, Those motherfuckers.

Later, the platoon sergeant took Lauzier aside and told him everything he knew. Two of the accused soldiers were in his squad. The others, Spielman and Green, had been temporarily loaned to Lauzier’s squad when the crime occurred.

Within days, the platoon knew that the accusation was true. Lauzier’s soldiers Cortez and Barker along with Spielman and Green had raped and killed a young girl, and killed her family. The guilty men were arrested, along with Howard and Lauzier’s best friend Tony Yribe. When Lauzier heard that Green had confessed to Yribe but Yribe hadn’t reported it, he could only wonder, Why? Why the hell would Tony do that?

What was left of the platoon was pulled out of the field and assigned to security at a forward operating base. Withdrawn from direct combat duties, because of what Lauzier’s soldiers had done. The rest of the battalion looked on them like screw-ups and quitters. Like they couldn’t hack it.

Eric Lauzier could take a lot. But this was different. It was worse than being shot at.

Lauzier had always been clear about what it meant to be a soldier. He had tried hard to impart his beliefs in his troops. To Lauzier’s way of thinking, a warrior killed the enemy and protected the innocent. Rape and murder weren’t part of a warrior’s life.

He remembered the patrol, early in the deployment, when they ran across two young Iraqi girls. Specialist James Barker made a comment, “You know, we could fuck those two girls and get away with it.” Lauzier had stopped the patrol right then, and told his soldiers that he would kill them if he ever caught them committing rape.

Justin Watt had been on that patrol and remembers Barker using the word “rape” instead of “fuck”. Lauzier remembers “fuck”, but knew that Barker meant rape. Lauzier was livid. He encouraged his men to be brutal in combat, and to make sure potential enemy knew who was in charge. But he didn’t expect them to victimize civilians.

“If I had been in country when they did it, and I had found out about it, I would have been on the radio saying I had them zip-tied and at gunpoint, and somebody better come get them before I killed them myself,” Lauzier said. “If I had actually caught them raping someone, I would have killed them on the spot. And I would have been within the laws of war if I had done it.”

Eric Lauzier in Iraq

Eric Lauzier in Iraq

Grey Ghost Gear

Barker’s involvement bothered him the most. Barker had been sent to Lauzier’s squad because he was constantly in trouble, both in his military and personal lives. At only twenty-three he had two kids from an ex-wife and had just had a third with his girlfriend. And he was tiny, maybe 5’4” and 125 pounds. Lauzier was an old-school, Marine-trained NCO who had no problem threatening physical violence if he thought his soldiers needed it. He often told Barker “You’re the size of an average woman. Try me and I’ll beat your ass.” Barker’s small build and youthful appearance made him very popular among local Iraqi soldiers, and Lauzier once hand-receipted Barker to them as a joke. Barker grabbed a shotgun and nearly panicked when he heard Iraqi soldiers demanding, “Bring me the Barker!”

And he was known to be a scavenger, which in the Army is someone who steals from anyone but his own platoon. Once when he was going back to the company’s patrol base, Lauzier told Barker to ask the First Sergeant for extra weights from the weight room. Barker came back with weights. Not long afterward, the platoon sergeant called Lauzier to his patrol base to scream at him about stolen weights. It turned out that Barker had followed orders and asked the First Sergeant for weights. When the First Sergeant said no, Barker just took them anyway.

However, Barker had always been reliable in combat.

Cortez wouldn’t freeze up under fire, but he was an immature smartass who was just proficient enough to do his job. Barker, on the other hand, was a steady, skilled and brave soldier. Lauzier even found himself confiding in Barker sometimes, violating the leader/subordinate rule, because Lauzier just didn’t have anyone else to talk to. When they cleared buildings, Barker was usually the first man in the door, Lauzier the second. When Lauzier’s team had been ambushed just before the Alamo attack, Barker had been beside him. Whenever Lauzier checked a possible IED or ambush site, Barker would be right on his ass. Lauzier would yell at him to back off, but he wouldn’t; Barker wouldn’t let Lauzier face danger alone.

Like me, Lauzier has a somewhat idealized view of soldiers. He views service in combat as something of a holy calling. Yes, soldiers can be dumbasses who constantly screw up and cause problems. On the other hand, even dumbass screw-ups like Barker can perform amazingly selfless acts under fire. Your average twenty-three-year-old American male does his best to avoid lethal danger, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s reasonable and prudent. Barker, on the other hand, had already risked death many times in combat, yet stayed close to Lauzier when Lauzier walked up to possible IEDs. Barker’s close proximity to Lauzier didn’t do anything except virtually guarantee that if Lauzier got blown up, Barker would get blown up too.

But Barker was ready to make that sacrifice. He wasn’t going to let his squad leader die alone. The average American I spoke of earlier will never have to take that kind of risk. If they ever even have the opportunity, nobody would criticize them for backing away. But Barker faced death for Eric Lauzier, many times. Because that’s what soldiers do. That’s why Lauzier, and I, have such a rosy view of those who volunteer to serve in combat.

The downside of that view? When guys who we think are stellar, courageous human beings with relatively minor temporary flaws actually turn out to be murderers and rapists, we don’t see them solely as individuals. We see them as representative of the kind of people we respect most. We don’t just ask, “How could he have done that?” Instead, we wonder, “How could a soldier have done that?” And our faith in what it means to be a soldier, in what we’ve dedicated ourselves to being, is shaken. Barker’s actions, among all the other horrible effects they produced, tore at Lauzier’s core beliefs about himself.

Several days after the men were arrested, Lauzier was able to visit his accused soldiers. Even though they had done something horrible, they were still his men and he wasn’t going to abandon them. Unless they refused to take responsibility for what they had done.

He spoke to them briefly. “I’ll be here for you, but only if you own up to what you did. If you don’t, you’re on your own.”

Barker nodded and replied, “I can accept that.”

Within days, the prisoners were gone from Iraq. But almost the entire platoon was being investigated for possible involvement in the crime and coverup, and for other incidents like warning shots that had killed civilians. First platoon became the platoon to stay away from. Camaraderie between platoons dissolved, then first platoon’s squads turned against each other. And Lauzier unexpectedly found himself an outcast in the unit he had dedicated much of his life to.

Rumors started floating around about a “murder squad” in first platoon. Lauzier heard someone say that he and Tony Yribe had each member of the squad shoot a civilian, then report the deaths as “confirmed kills”. Soldiers from other platoons stopped talking to Lauzier and his remaining men. He was interrogated several times by CID, and always asked the same questions. Did he know anything about the murders before the attack on the Alamo? Was he lying to protect his soldiers? He gave the same answers: he hadn’t known about it, hadn’t covered it up, and would have turned his men in immediately if he had found out.

Like Watt, Lauzier was told he’d be in prison for years if he was lying. On top of all the other tragedies, danger and stress he had already suffered, being threatened with prison was too much. Overwhelmed, he began to withdraw from everyone.

Lauzier remembers, “I was having flashbacks, nightmares, always stressed the fuck out from all the shit I had been through before the murders were reported. And now I was dealing with the possibility of going to prison. It messed me up, man.”

Next Tuesday: Eric Lauzier, continued

breachbangclear.com_site_images_Chris_Hernandez_Author_BreachBangClear4Chris 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.


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