War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VII

Part VII: Eric Lauzier, continued

At the end of Part VI, Eric Lauzier had discovered two of his soldiers participated in the Yusufiyah murders. The criminals and Lauzier’s best friend were arrested, and Lauzier watched as his platoon and company began to unravel.

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

A first platoon patrol base
A first platoon patrol base

Not long after they were pulled from the field and assigned to FOB Mahmudiyah, the chaplain invited first platoon to gather at his tent. The chaplain tried to give the men some encouragement, to help them deal with everything they had been through. Then Colonel Kunk and the operations sergeant major came in and joined the conversation. Lauzier remembers Kunk being friendly at first, asking the soldiers how they liked life at the FOB. And a soldier made the mistake of giving a totally benign, honest answer.

“It’s pretty good, sir. We have a gym and everything.”

“The gym?” Kunk roared. “You guys already fucked up the gym! It’s a mess!”

The colonel’s friendly talk turned into a profane, hostile tirade. He told the soldiers they were undisciplined pieces of crap who failed at their jobs. Soldiers made seething, near-insubordinate remarks back at him. The sergeant major stood by and said nothing. When their lieutenant tried to protest, Kunk screamed “You shut the fuck up!”, humiliating him in front of his subordinates. The lieutenant shut up. John Diem wound up being the voice of the platoon, professionally telling Kunk that he was wrong. Kunk wasn’t impressed.

After Kunk stormed off, the chaplain quietly said, “Well, that wasn’t what I expected from this meeting.”

Lauzier walked into the battalion Tactical Operations Center one day while a group of officers were having a discussion. One of the officers saw him and said, “Look, there’s one of them now,” which caused the others to burst out laughing. Furious, Lauzier left the building.

At the FOB the company held a “command climate survey”, where soldiers were asked how they felt about their leadership. After the results came back, the first platoon sergeant gathered the squad leaders. “I came out looking pretty good,” he said. Then he looked directly at Lauzier. “But according to this, some of you should face criminal charges.” Lauzier didn’t know what the hell the platoon sergeant was talking about, but the veiled threat shook him.

Lauzier felt abandoned, then started getting paranoid. One day he left a piece of paper with his Social Security Number, address and wife’s information on his cot, then briefly left the room. When he came back the paper was gone. He confronted the other soldiers in the room, demanding to know who took his paper. One of the men made a smartass comment. Lauzier drew his pistol, chambered a round, and pointed it at the man.

Ares Gear Chickerator BBC 300x100

After a brief standoff, Lauzier holstered his pistol and walked out. When he returned, the paper was back on his cot. He won. But he knew he had lost control, and almost killed someone for no good reason.

The day he got back to the United States, Lauzier had a nice welcome home surprise: an FBI agent with a subpoena. He remembers thinking, Damn, guys, at least let me go home and see my wife first.

Lauzier’s career continued in a slow downward spiral. The effects left by his past combat experiences, threats of jail time over his head, and feelings of isolation combined to suck the drive out of him. He was removed from his position as squad leader and moved to division staff. Lauzier hated staff work. He wasn’t built for PowerPoints and operations orders. As time went on, he felt less and less like a soldier. And in effect, he was no longer treated like one.

In our first conversation, Lauzier summed it up: “They took my honor.”

Despite the fact that I barely knew him, those words stung me. Honor comes from inside, not from others. There are people who truly believe all of us war veterans are deluded fools who were tricked into murdering innocent foreigners so rich people could get richer. Our sense of honor doesn’t depend on their opinion of us. And Lauzier’s sense of honor shouldn’t depend on the opinions of senior leaders who badly failed his entire platoon.

I told Lauzier that. I don’t know if he bought it.

As months went by, Lauzier slid into a deeper and deeper depression. He drank heavily every day. He lashed out at anyone who annoyed him. One day at a division formation, he heard a support company call out “Assassins!”, their company nickname, when they came to attention. Lauzier blew up at them. “Who the fuck do you guys think you are? Assassins? What the fuck ever. Not a single one of you has ever killed anyone!”

In another instance, Lauzier heard an officer talking about the attack on the Alamo. This officer hadn’t been in Bravo in Iraq. The officer told someone “That platoon was all screwed up, they had no idea what they were doing. That’s why the enemy was able to capture those two soldiers.”

Lauzier almost lost it. He angrily approached the officer and yelled, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Sometimes I was at that outpost with just one other guy, because we were stretched so fucking thin that we couldn’t spare anyone else! Don’t tell me we were fucked up, you weren’t there and you don’t know what the hell was going on!”

Someone pulled Lauzier away, and later apparently explained to the officer what had really happened. The officer apologized to Lauzier. Lauzier doesn’t know how he wasn’t Article 15ed for what he did.

With the depression, anger, alcohol abuse and threats of jail time came the almost inevitable thoughts of suicide. Lauzier started setting parameters: he wouldn’t do it unless he personally was court-martialed, he wouldn’t do it unless he was sure he was going to prison. “I can deal with a lot, but I wasn’t going to prison for something I didn’t do. I would have taken myself out first.”

More than once Lauzier sat at home, alone and drunk, with the muzzle of his .45 in his mouth. One tiny motion of one finger would have ended it all. And more than once, the thought of his wife’s horror at finding him with his head blown off stopped him.

Yet he still resisted seeking help. He didn’t relent until a civilian contractor he worked with, a man he barely knew, took him aside one day. The contractor was a combat vet from the 75th Ranger Regiment. He bluntly told Lauzier, “I’m worried about you. You’re fucked up. You can be an absolute killer at work, but still be a total wreck at home. Right now, you’re a total wreck. And you need help.”

Lauzier finally went to a psychiatrist. About twenty minutes into the conversation, the psychiatrist told Lauzier he needed to be chaptered out. Lauzier’s career was almost over.

Months after he came home from Iraq, Lauzier ran into Justin Watt on post. Lauzier was at this point barely hanging on. “By this time, I didn’t give a fuck. I just didn’t care.” And he had heard rumors of soldiers from his old platoon plotting to retaliate against Watt.

If Watt had never turned in the murderers, Lauzier wouldn’t have suffered the loss of his honor. He would probably still have been leading troops, preparing them for their next deployment, instead of fighting alcoholism, depression, anger and suicidal impulses. Lauzier might be forgiven for feeling anger at Watt.

But he wasn’t angry at Watt then, and isn’t now. When he saw Watt that day, he told him he’d watch his back. He offered to let Watt move into his house if he didn’t feel safe on post.

Lauzier is rightfully proud of standing up for Watt, But, oddly enough, he continually blames himself for what he feels are leadership failures. When Lauzier and I talked about the firefight where he directed supporting arms onto the enemy and got his men out without casualties, Lauzier didn’t brag about it. Instead, he berated himself for going on that patrol too light, without enough men or firepower. He gets angry at himself for forgetting details of certain events, an inevitable byproduct of a traumatic brain injury. When we talked about how others in the platoon praised him for always being outside the wire, how they said he always led from the front and never made his troops take risks he wouldn’t take, he didn’t respond with pride. Instead, after several conversations and maybe a few beers, he revealed a not-so-hidden emotion:

Eric Lauzier thinks he didn’t do enough. He thinks he allowed his platoon sergeant to walk all over him and strip his squad of manpower. Because they were stripped so bare, not enough supervisors were around to keep tabs on the men. That lack of supervision at least contributed to the Yusufiyah murders. If he had just stood up for his squad, they wouldn’t have been so shorthanded, supervisors could have done their jobs and the murders would never have happened. Long story short, Lauzier thinks the murders were at least partly his fault.

Lauzier told me that about two hours into a phone conversation. When he discussed other aspects of his story, he was calm. There was nothing exciting in his description of the invasion of Iraq. He mentioned his hand-to-hand kill in passing. The ambush outside Rushdie Mullah where Lauzier and his troops barely escaped death could have been a ping-pong game, for the utter lack of passion Lauzier displayed when he talked about it. But when he talked about his perceived failure to stand up to his platoon sergeant, the tone of our conversation changed. Lauzier became serious, passionate and angry. And guilt poured forth from wounds I never thought he’d have.

“When the company commander’s radioman was killed, our platoon leader’s radioman was moved up,” Lauzier recalled. “So we needed a new platoon radioman. I didn’t think the platoon sergeant would take one of my soldiers, because I barely had any. One of the other squad leaders had all his twelve soldiers, he hadn’t lost anyone. The other squad leader still had ten. I had seven fucking guys left. But the platoon sergeant was friends with the other squad leaders, and always thought I was challenging his authority. So he decided to take Watt from me. He made my squad even weaker than it already was. I was pissed, but I didn’t fight at all. I let him punk me out.”

I challenged his “punked out” comment. “What the hell, man? He was your platoon sergeant. He gave you an order. What options did you have?”

Lauzier nearly cut me off with, “He punked me out! He ran all over me, and I let him!”

I couldn’t let that comment go. I told Lauzier he had done exactly what the Army had trained him to do. Thousands of years of military tradition and discipline, hundreds of manuals, and all of Army doctrine dictated that he should follow the order. His immediate supervisor made a decision he didn’t like, but he had to go with it. We NCOs often fight against stupid orders or those we perceive as bad leaders, but we don’t always win. In the situation Lauzier was in, with the platoon spread so thin and under constant attack, with the constant leadership changes and conflicts in the platoon, he didn’t have a support base. There were no other options. He was stuck.

I explained that I had experienced something similar when I deployed to Iraq. I felt I had been punked by a lower-ranking group of soldiers, not under my command, who were protected by a senior leader in the platoon. For years I was angry at myself for how I handled those soldiers. And, without question, I handled them the wrong way. My mistakes are crystal clear in hindsight. At the time, with the level of stress I was under, and with many other contributing factors, it wasn’t so clear. Lauzier’s deployment was far bloodier, dangerous, stressful and more chaotic than mine. So how the hell, I asked Lauzier, could he have made perfect decisions under those conditions?

And besides that, Lauzier does a fantastic job of ignoring all the positive things he accomplished during his military career. He forgets his status as a two-time infantry combat veteran. He disregards the respect his former soldiers hold for him. He’s mad at himself for failing land navigation at Special Forces selection, instead of giving himself credit for going to selection in the first place. He dismisses his own service in the worst part of Iraq, during the worst part of the war. He’s done things many men wish they were brave enough to try, let alone actually follow through with.

I’m no psychiatrist. I’m just a high-school-educated cop and soldier who shouldn’t counsel anyone. But Eric Lauzier and I have a lot in common: we’re both former Marines who went Army, we’re combat veterans with two deployments, we have wives who inexplicably stayed with us for twenty years despite the stress we’ve put them through, we’re in our early forties with all the dangerous, adrenaline-charged parts of our lives far behind us. So I gave him some advice anyway. “Even if you let your platoon sergeant run you over, that’s maybe one percent of what you did over there. So don’t let this shit own you, man. You have a lot to be proud of.”

Lauzier didn’t feel pride when, against his wishes, he was medically retired after fifteen years of service. Since then he’s searched for something that feels right, but hasn’t found it. He worked in a USDA office for a while, but that office was already scheduled to shut down so the job didn’t last long. He tried working security at a housing project, but one night a suspicious vehicle drove toward him with its brights on. Lauzier thought he was about to be ambushed, his heart rate spiked and he yanked his weapon from the holster. The vehicle turned out to be a police car, with two cops who were checking on him.

Lauzier was almost as charged up as he had been during firefights in Iraq. After he calmed down, he realized security work wasn’t for him. He’s been out of work since then, waiting for inspiration. “I haven’t been very productive since I got out of the Army,” he says.

Today Lauzier is more or less a loner. He still has occasional flashbacks and nightmares, still falls into depressions which are fortunately shorter and less intense than those he suffered after he learned about the murders. Sometimes he’ll have a conversation with a war buddy, and he’ll be reminded of something, and he’ll drink too much thinking about it, and then he’s in a funk that takes a day or two to climb out of. He enjoys riding his motorcycle and working out at the gym because they’re solitary pursuits. His wife remains a steadying presence, and he treasures the time spent with her. Lauzier plans on going to school this year to become a CNC machinist. It’s a job where he can sit by himself in a shop, do his work, then head home to his wife. That’s all he wants.

Eric Lauzier today
Eric Lauzier today

He thinks there’s a reason he survived Iraq; maybe he’s meant to live a happy, fulfilling life, maybe he just survived so he could set the record straight about his platoon and the Yusufiyah murders. Whatever it is, he knows a purpose is out there somewhere, waiting for him to find it.

Toward the end of one of our conversations, I asked Lauzier if his life would be different if he hadn’t been so ostracized from Bravo Company. What if he had never been removed from his position as squad leader, what if the company leadership treated him like a valuable, experienced sergeant? Even if he had still been medically retired, would his life be different now if he had felt like his unit was sorry to see him go?

“I was in third squad, first platoon, Bravo Company, 1st of the 502nd Infantry, 101st Air Assault for five years. I gave up a lot for that unit. I even put Bravo’s needs over my wife’s needs. If I had left there feeling like I was still wanted, yeah, my life would be different now. I’d still have my honor.”

I don’t want to exaggerate anything, and definitely don’t want to minimize the suffering of the four innocent Iraqis who were murdered. They’re the victims in this story. The two young boys who walked into their home to find their parents and sisters murdered are the victims. Other family members who had to carry a raped, mutilated and burned young relative to a crude grave are the victims.

But, in a sense, Eric Lauzier is a secondary victim of this horrible crime. He didn’t commit it. He didn’t defend it. He didn’t condone it. But he was unofficially punished for it. He feels like he lost his honor because of it. And I think Eric Lauzier deserves to have his honor back.

This Friday: Tony Yribe explains his decision not to report Green’s confession.

[Links to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI.]

If interested you can find the Blackhearts book on Amazon here.

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.

Chris Hernandez

Chris Hernandez may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of 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, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog.


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8 thoughts on “War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VII

  • August 19, 2014 at 9:00 pm
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    Hey Chris I just want to say thanks for writing this series of articles I was in Hit when all of this happened so I don’t really remember any of it. I am curious to know though what the Battalion SGM thought of all of this as it was progressing. As it was said in this article he remained silent through the meeting, and through out this series of articles he has stayed silent. Anyway Thanks again for sharing this story.

    • August 20, 2014 at 7:36 am
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      Tyler,

      The SGM seems to have just stayed out of all of it. The SGM at the meeting with the chaplain was actually the ops SGM, the BN SGM doesn’t appear to have ever stood up for the EMs. I’ve left his name out of this story, but he comes up a lot ib the book Blackhearts. The most telling incident with the SGM in Blackhearts happened just after Tucker and Menchaca were abducted. The SGM came to first platoon’s patrol base while the platoon was going nuts trying to figure out where the missing soldiers were. And instead of organizing them and trying to find the soldiers, he got mad about cigarette butts and made police call the FOB.

  • August 19, 2014 at 7:47 pm
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    “They took his honor”, Jesus man that stood out to me. I like to consider myself as an honorable guy, and that means a whole hell of a lot to me. I don’t know if I could carry on if I felt that was gone. You still have your honor brother, you did the right, and nobody can ever take that away. Semper Fi

  • August 19, 2014 at 7:37 pm
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    I remember being at the Chicken Factory in Mahmudiyah… The Bn I was attached to was down to 60% combat effectiveness at one point. You get wore out and tired of fighting everyone (Insurgents & within the Ranks). It sucks that a few good guys had to be dragged down with the bad apples. Surviving the triangle of death was rough enough…

  • August 19, 2014 at 3:32 pm
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    Again Chris, thanks for bringing us this story. Failure of leadership is something that any one that serves has to contend with, but this borders on gross negligence. I just hope that Lauzier can eventually find some peace.

  • August 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm
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    There’s absolutely no way Eric Lauzier failed in his duty. We can (and should) all point fingers at the various points of failure along the way, but I’m inclined to lean forward here. As you’ve pointed out, Staff Sergeant Lauzier has managed to survive some of the darkest days and is still here. That alone speaks to an amazing strength and an incredible love.

    Staff Sergeant, you have my complete and total respect. You’ve place the love of your wife above your own pain. Bless you, soldier. Your honor is not only intact, it blazes brightly. Never quit.

  • August 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm
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    Again, thanks Chris for another piece of this important story. I find myself now at my desk at work sitting here, literally aghast, disgusted, and infuriated. How an institution that so prides itself on integrity, discipline and honor could so completely fail, and at so many levels, is beyond reach of reason. I would propose to you (based on your assertion that, “Lauzier is a secondary victim of this horrible crime”) that there are in fact three different yet obviously entangled crimes in this sequence of events. The first would be the vacuous, toxic command environment that laid the path to the murders. The second would obviously be the murders themselves. And the third would be the egregious manner in which multiple commands responded to the aftermath of the murders.

    Lauzier, Watt, and Diem all will be forced to carry the scar tissue of the latter crime. Babineau, Menchaca, and Tucker (and probably many others) paid the ultimate price for the first.

    Combat, by nature, is an environment of chaos. Under the very best of circumstances it is a life altering experience, even in very small doses. In 2006-7 the Army was up to its walnuts in a war it was (doctrinally) woefully unprepared for. It was struggling to adapt and compensate for the evolving tasks at hand all the while dealing with a vicious and resourceful enemy. In such an environment, the fiber that prevents the entire tapestry from unraveling is leadership and the faith of the troops in it. That leadership starts (obviously) at the national command level and continues down to the newest private on a fire team. When that leadership fails at any level, the next higher SHOULD recognize and compensate as required. That did not happen here. Even given the horrendous lack of leadership (command) prior to the murders, the investigation into them should have resulted in the oversight and appropriate corrective actions that were clearly required. The ultimate failure in the equation (IMHO) was when the brigade / division failed to fully explore the root cause of what happened and clean house as well as insulate those caught in the back-blast from its effects. Men like Diem and Watt should have been identified as having made difficult, gut-wrenching moral decisions and quietly affirmed within their peer communities for their actions. Men like Lauzier should have been identified as the glue that had held together the last vestiges of institutional discipline up to the murders. None of them, by any perversion of justice, should have been forced to endure what they did.

    Anyone who’s done more than a day in uniform recognizes that (despite the propaganda) commanders are just small samples of the overall population. They run the gamut from stellar to shit-head. In the midst of the personnel requirements the army was experiencing in 06-07, it stands to reason that the vetting process was experiencing a higher than normal rate of failure. It obviously failed in a quantum fashion in this instance. The demand for bodies to plug into slots is inevitable in a wartime military, but it pains me profoundly to read what these men were forced to endure as a result. I am old and jaundiced but still naïve enough to believe that no soldier should ever be sacrificed at the altar of operational necessity.

    It’s a miniscule token but any of these men will forever be able to find at my house: an ear, a shoulder, a beer, and if needed, a hug and a roof.

    To each, Thank you for your service. Your actions make me proud to have been in the same Army.

    • August 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm
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      Sir,

      I agree with breaking down the event into the three levels you’ve described. What gets me is that at every level, mitigating options existed but were ignored. I have a hard time finding fault with first platoon (other than the actual murderers, of course), because they were so overtaxed they could do very little other than fulfill every tasking. Obviously no leader is perfect, and every leader at every level makes mistakes. Those mistakes can usually be corrected, as you said, by actions at the next higher level or even at the next lower level. In this case, it seems that battalion leadership was completely stagnant.

      One thing that hadn’t occurred to me until now: why would Watt have been left in country, if he was a witness in a murder trial? I think that’s another example of what you mentioned, the failure to determine root causes and clean house.

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