War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VIII

Tony Yribe: “This incident doesn’t define who I am.”

“I did that, Sarge. I killed all those people.”

Tony Yribe stopped what he was doing. He looked at Private First Class Steven Green. And he thought, This guy is full of shit.

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

Yribe had just come back from the murder scene. A few hours earlier his platoon leader told him about the crime and ordered him to assemble a patrol to check it out. He grabbed a few soldiers including Cortez and Spielman from different checkpoints, met with Iraqi Army soldiers and went to the house. First they had to clear every room, then they took pictures and collected evidence. Now, as he dropped soldiers back at their checkpoints, there was Green in his face confessing to mass murder.

Green had a longstanding reputation as a liar, braggart, racist and general weirdo. He was constantly in trouble. He had almost no credibility. Yribe brushed him off. He had to be lying.

Steven Green in court. Marine Corps Times photo.
Steven Green in court. Marine Corps Times photo.

Green persisted. And he gave Yribe details of the crime scene, even though he hadn’t been there. Yribe listened and thought it over. In the background, Cortez and Spielman wandered around looking sick. Cortez even threw up.

Someone Yribe knew from childhood had a background in criminal investigation. They had told him how to work scenes: always left to right, always the same way, so they wouldn’t miss anything. Yribe did the same thing at the house. As he worked the scene, he used an iCom radio to call back to Checkpoint 2 and describe what he was doing. Yribe came to a conclusion: Green must have listened to the radio, heard the crime scene details, and decided for some stupid reason to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. Not much of what Green did made sense anyway.

Yribe blew him off, and left the checkpoint. But throughout the day, he kept thinking about it. Suspicion nagged at him. Maybe there was something to it.

That suspicion led him back to Checkpoint 2 the next day. He took Green into a room to ask him about the confession. Barker came with them. And Green again confessed to committing the murders. He told Yribe he had raped the teenage girl. He claimed he did it all himself, and that nobody else was involved or even aware. Barker stood quietly by, showing almost no reaction other than to say he knew nothing about the crime.

“We could have been talking about motorcycles or something, for all the interest Barker showed in the conversation,” Yribe said.

Yribe mulled it over. Yes, Green insisted he had committed a mass murder. No, Green wasn’t credible. And for Green’s story to be true, Barker and Cortez, soldiers who Yribe trusted, would have failed to notice Green leaving the wire or slipping back in. That didn’t make sense. It just wasn’t believable.

Yribe was pretty close with Cortez. They had socialized together back home. Cortez was immature but wasn’t a criminal, and Yribe trusted him. Barker had serious issues and Yribe didn’t expect his life to turn out well, but had no reason to suspect him of rape or murder.

“Barker was basically an opportunist. If he hadn’t gone to prison for the Yusufiyah murders, he would have eventually gone to prison for something else.”

But nobody claimed Barker committed the crime. Yribe had no reason to suspect Cortez would ever do anything like that. And those two, Barker and Cortez, would have to have been blind and deaf to not see Green going to or coming from the house.

Yribe had real, nagging suspicion that Green was telling the truth. But he also had real, nagging doubt, based on plenty of past experience, about anything Green claimed. After careful consideration Yribe decided to go with the doubt, rather than the suspicion.

But he still took action. Even though he thought Green hadn’t committed the murders, the false confession was one more gigantic neon sign screaming “Green shouldn’t be in the Army”. Green had already been diagnosed as a sociopath by an Army psychiatrist, had already come almost to blows with a platoon sergeant, had told the battalion sergeant major that every last Iraqi should be killed, and had thrown adored puppies off a roof. If anyone needed more proof that Green had no business being a soldier, here it was.

Joint Task Force Awesome Member 5.11 Tactical

Yribe told Green to go back to the FOB and see the combat stress counselors. All Green had to do was tell the truth about how much he hated Iraqis and wanted to kill them all. The counselors already knew he had screws loose, they’d recommend he’d be discharged. Problem solved.

So that’s what Green did. He went to combat stress, they recommended him for discharge, and he was out of the Army and back home within weeks. The problem went away.

Tony Yribe kept Green’s confession to himself for three months. Until June 16th, the day Babineau was killed and Tucker and Menchaca kidnapped. He was at Camp Victory for a dental appointment with Justin Watt when the Alamo was overrun. And for some reason Yribe chose that time to finally tell someone about Green’s confession.

“I had just had a dental procedure, and I was pretty messed up on Percoset the dentist gave me,” Yribe says. “I don’t remember exactly what I said to Watt. But I do remember his reaction. And as soon as I told him, I pretty much knew he was going to report it.”

Yribe remembers Watt arguing with him, trying to convince him Green and the others really did it. He remembers a conversation between him, PFC Howard and Watt, in which Howard told him that he knew they had done it. And he remembers telling Howard, “I’m disappointed in you” for not reporting it.

What struck me was, why would Yribe be disappointed in Howard for not reporting it, when Yribe didn’t report it either? Yribe realizes that, on its face, that doesn’t make sense. But he points out that Howard knew for certain the other soldiers had committed the crime, while Yribe only had secondhand info from an unreliable source.

Tony Yribe’s decision, based on his version of events, is reasonable. But it doesn’t exactly square with other accounts of the crime. Yribe’s mention of using an iCom to describe the crime scene was the first I heard of it. Others talked about a recovered shotgun shell that Green left at the scene, which was then thrown away after Green’s confession. Yribe says that he noticed the shell at the scene, but it wasn’t a clear indication of American involvement because some Iraqis had shotguns. He forgot about it, and Cortez must have gotten rid of it. Yribe said he was mostly doubtful, barely suspicious of Green’s confession, which in hindsight seems odd. Watt heard the story third-hand and realized immediately that Green’s confession was probably true. Yribe is a very intelligent man, and would not have been oblivious to the clues suggesting Green’s confession was genuine.

I told Yribe his version of events was hard to believe. Understandably, he got defensive. “In that case, I should probably just back out of this whole project.” I told Yribe I wasn’t trying to burn him; he had already been punished, and I had no reason to interrogate him. Nor did I have anything to offer, other than the possibility that his cooperation might prevent situations like this from happening in the future. And I wasn’t trying to make him out as the bad guy, because I don’t think he is. I think he screwed up in a horrible situation.

He agrees. He knows he screwed up.

We talked it out. Yribe admitted that he was probably more suspicious than he first described, although it’s impossible to pin down how much suspicion he felt compared to how much doubt. Whatever the ratio, yes he really suspected Green had done it, and yes he really thought Green was messed up enough to falsely confess.

If he thought there was any possibility Green was telling the truth, he should have immediately reported it. So why didn’t he?

When we started talking about that question Yribe was very curt and to the point, almost a hardass. But the more we talked, the more he lowered his defensive wall. He’s still hesitant to bare his soul, for various reasons. But he wants to talk about his decision. He wants to give an honest account. Keep in mind, he contacted me to talk. He chose to publicly speak, despite the fact that I could neither entice him with a carrot nor threaten him with a stick. He stuck with it even when I figuratively got in his face and called him out on inconsistencies.

I’ve dealt with thousands of dedicated liars in my two decades of police work, and I can spot them pretty quickly. Tony Yribe isn’t one of them. Once he felt comfortable enough, he eventually started talking about the real reasons why he didn’t report Green for murder.

“Guys here in America tell you ‘I got your back,’” Yribe said. “They say if it’s Red Dawn, they’ll be next to you in battle. You’ve probably had people tell you that too. But we don’t know if they’d really have our backs. They haven’t proven it. Green had proven it. Yeah he was messed up, but he would have taken a bullet for me.”

Many books and movies talk about the bonds men (and now women) develop in combat. They say, correctly, that soldiers under fire become closer than brothers. I’ve experienced it myself. I try to convey to nonveterans the beauty of leaving the wire with a group of people who would literally rather die than let each other down. But I don’t think I convince them. If someone has never had to assign their life less value than the unit and mission, they probably won’t get it.

Yribe gets it. He experienced more war in the first few months of his 2005-2006 deployment than most of us War on Terror veterans did in all our deployments combined. Green was by his side for much of it. And Green the inveterate racist had risked his life many times for Yribe the Hispanic sergeant. The bonds built by combat made Green blind to Yribe’s ethnic background, and helped Yribe ignore Green’s many character flaws.

That’s why Yribe disregarded his real suspicion of Green’s guilt. “It’s like a parent and child,” Yribe explained. “A parent won’t want to believe their child committed a crime. That’s what happened with Green. I didn’t want to believe he did it.”

So he didn’t report Green, and didn’t fully believe that Green did it until Watt confirmed it. Then he realized he had screwed up. By that time, he knew the clock was ticking down.

A few days after Howard confirmed the story, Yribe was at a checkpoint. Over the radio, he received an order to report to the platoon patrol base. Another soldier asked, “What’s that about?”

Yribe remembers answering, “You’ll hear about it on CNN.”

At the patrol base, Colonel Kunk and the battalion sergeant major were waiting to question him about the crime. “Believe me, when a colonel and sergeant major sit you down and ask if you’ve been involved in a murder, it’s scary,” Yribe said.

But surprisingly, the interrogation was friendly. “Colonel Kunk liked me. Once he had asked me about enemy activity in the platoon’s AO, and I gave him a good brief off the top of my head. I found out later he beat up on some officers for not knowing as much about the AO as I did.” So the colonel was laid back and friendly, not pushing Yribe hard for information. As far as interrogations go, it was weak.

By now Yribe knew the accused soldiers had actually committed the crime. He knew Green’s confession the day of the crime had been truthful. And he’d had good reason not to believe Green at that time; after all, everyone who knew anything about Green would have understood Yribe’s decision to dismiss the confession. All Yribe had to say was, “Sir, PFC Green told me he committed the murders. But you know Green, sir. He was always lying, so I didn’t believe him. Now I think maybe he was telling the truth.”

But when Kunk asked about the murders, Tony Yribe flatly denied any knowledge.

When I asked why he didn’t just tell Kunk about Green’s confession then, Yribe answered, “Man, I’ve asked myself the same thing. If I had told him then, I probably would have never been charged with a crime and wouldn’t have been kicked out of the Army.”

Yribe admits he was fully into self-preservation mode by that time. He knew that soldiers he trusted had actually committed a horrible crime. He knew he had been wrong not to report Green’s confession. He was sure he would be the target of an investigation. And his gut reaction was to stick with a denial.

He also had what sounds like a knee-jerk reaction against anything that supported his higher chain of command while punishing his soldiers. Yribe repeated something expressed by every other soldier I talked to: their senior leadership had let them down. The soldiers felt abandoned. Their company commander was caring and compassionate, but was in over his head. He couldn’t do what was required to keep Bravo’s soldiers safe. Colonel Kunk and the sergeant major seemed to not care how many men Bravo and first platoon lost. Kunk overextended Bravo and first platoon. Because first platoon was so overextended, checkpoints that should have been run by staff sergeants were instead run by Specialists. That’s how Cortez wound up in charge of Checkpoint 2. Positions that should have been held by a squad were sometimes held by only three or even two soldiers. That’s why Babineau, Menchaca and Tucker were killed when the Alamo was attacked. Part of Yribe’s visceral resistance to turning in his men rose from a bitter near-hatred toward senior leaders who, in his eyes, just didn’t give a damn what first platoon was going through.

“Kunk was at battalion in an air-conditioned office. We were out there getting shot at and blown up every day. At the company TOC they actually had a count on the wall of how many times I had been blown up. What did Kunk know about what we had to deal with?”

Yribe talked about the day Lieutenant Britt and Specialist Lopez-Feliciano were killed. He was on the patrol when they were ambushed, and on the other side of a canal they could see an RPG launcher that had been placed to remotely fire at them. He heard the company commander on the radio ordering Lieutenant Britt to recover the RPG launcher. To do that, they’d have to either swim the canal or backtrack and cross at the only available footpath. They chose the footpath, and as they crossed it an IED exploded.

Yribe was right behind Britt and Lopez when it blew. He was slightly wounded, but wasn’t even knocked off his feet. Lopez-Feliciano was blown in half. Britt was just gone. Yribe realized Britt was somewhere in the canal, immediately stripped off his gear and dove in to search.

They found Britt’s body hours later. Yribe was sent back to the FOB to have his wounds treated. The company commander met him there. “He wouldn’t even look at me,” Yribe said. “He kept his eyes down, and said it was his fault we got hit. He apologized, but I don’t blame him for it. Kunk was always pressuring him to do things that we didn’t have enough people to do. I don’t think the CO thought we needed the RPG. Kunk probably did.”

So when Yribe found himself face to face with Colonel Kunk, a man he despised, he had no desire whatsoever to throw his men under what he saw as Colonel Kunk’s bus. He instead viewed the interrogation as yet another us-versus-them showdown between those who really fought the war and those who merely visited.

And he still couldn’t view the men as only criminals. He saw them, at least in part, as victims of circumstance. “I don’t think Green or the other guys would ever have done anything like that back here. But over there, they were dehumanized. They felt like their lives didn’t matter. Their hope had been taken away. I’m not saying they’re not responsible for what they did, because they are. But that loss of hope was catastrophic.”

As an outsider to this platoon and secondhand observer to the crime, I’ll never know whether it was caused by dehumanization or something else. But I think this crime resulted in part from a unique confluence of events and factors, what might be called a “perfect storm”. Dehumanization may have been one of those factors. Barker’s lack of self-control and his apparent predisposition toward rape were probably contributing factors. Cortez’s immaturity was likely a factor. Green’s stated desire to murder all Iraqis definitely was.

Take away any one of those factors, and the crime would probably never have happened. If Barker hadn’t already had rape on his mind, he wouldn’t have suggested it. If Green hadn’t been willing to murder the family, the others likely wouldn’t have been willing to take the risk of getting caught. If Cortez had said something as simple as “Shut the hell up Barker, you know we’d never do that,” the plan would have been stopped dead in its tracks.

Yribe acknowledges that the only people at fault for the crime are the criminals. But sees them as beaten down badly by the war, and beaten worse by their own senior leadership. He thinks that psychological beatdown made them more susceptible to criminal urges.

And it doesn’t help that they viewed Iraqis “different”. Yribe even used the term “not human” when he described the soldiers’ attitude toward Iraqis. I asked for clarification on that. Yribe said, “Yeah, that sounds pretty bad.” But he says it wasn’t racial, it referred to them not being American.

“If they weren’t wearing an American uniform, we didn’t trust them,” Yribe said. “We couldn’t. I didn’t take a chance around them, and didn’t let my guys drop their guard either.” Sergeants Nelson and Casica had dropped their guard, had tried to be friendly at a checkpoint. Their reward was to be shot in the head by an Iraqi civilian they thought they could trust.

The loyalty Yribe felt toward his troops, plus his understanding of their dehumanization, loss of hope, feeling that all Iraqis were enemy or potential enemy, and his own desire to oppose Colonel Kunk, compelled Yribe not to report Green. Those same feelings kept him from turning in Cortez, Barker and Spielman after he learned they had been involved. As with Yribe’s parent-child analogy, I understand it even if I don’t agree with it.

When I first asked him what he would do if he was faced with the same situation today, he said, “I like to think I’d turn Green in. If for no other reason, to get that responsibility off me.” He’s happy that Watt reported the crime, because he knows how much damage the criminals could have done if they had gotten away with it, been promoted, and been in charge of soldiers on a later deployment. But as the conversation progressed, Yribe struggled to admit something I don’t understand.

“The truth is, if I was put back in that same situation, even knowing what I know now, I still wouldn’t turn them in. I know turning them in is the right thing. I know I’d be wrong not to do it. But I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t send the guys who saved my life in combat to prison.”

This statement sums up why Tony Yribe’s input is so valuable. I’d guess that almost everyone reading this series has said to themselves, If I had been there I would have turned them in. I would have done the right thing. Because we all imagine ourselves to be moral and righteous, to stand tall before withering danger, to be the good guy doing the right thing no matter the conditions. We understand when good guys do the right thing. We understand when bad guys do the wrong thing.

But we don’t understand when a good guy does the wrong thing.

Tony Yribe isn’t a bad guy. Based on what I’ve heard and read about him, I wouldn’t hesitate to leave the wire with him, and I’d feel perfectly fine inviting him into my home. I don’t think he would ever commit or condone rape or murder. I think he cared deeply about the soldiers in his platoon. He would, and did, risk death for them many times.

When it comes down to the kind of horrible, painful decisions Watt, Diem and Yribe had to make, the Army justifiably expects us to choose loyalty to principles over loyalty to people. If our best friend commits murder, we’re obligated to disregard emotional ties and immediately report him. Yet the Army also wants us to care about our troops, and some leaders even talk about loving the soldiers you serve with. We’re supposed to be loyal to them unto death, but turn that personal loyalty off if they commit a crime.

Tony Yribe couldn’t do it. He chose loyalty to an individual over loyalty to a principle. As much as I personally like Yribe, I’m pissed at him for doing that. If he had passed Green’s confession up the chain, this story would have ended much differently. And one important difference is that Yribe would likely still be in the Army. He’d still be leading troops who need experienced, combat-tested leaders instead of paper soldiers who think building PowerPoints on a FOB equals “combat experience”.

And if Yribe had turned Green in, he could have taken the heat for it. Yribe was a highly respected, aggressive team leader. His bravery was well-known. His status in the platoon would have shielded him from criticism. If someone challenged him he could have probably just beaten their ass (figuratively or literally). Instead, for various reasons, some right and some wrong, he let personal loyalty override his sense of duty. He didn’t do what he knows he should have done.

And today, he still wouldn’t do what he knows he should have done. Even after some of the criminals turned on him, even after he spent months in jail, even after he was kicked out of the Army with an Other Than Honorable discharge, he still wouldn’t turn his men in. Because he can’t turn off loyalty to soldiers he risked his life with.

The Army’s challenge is to cultivate leaders who are loyal to their men unto death, but even more loyal to the principles we fight for. As Tony Yribe shows us, that won’t be easy.

Today Tony Yribe is a family man and full time student. He is actively working toward bettering his life, gaining skills and knowledge that he can use to help others. He wants to someday help struggling veterans overcome their own demons, even as he overcomes his. The terrible events from 2006 left a mark that will always be there, but those events aren’t the last word on Yribe’s life. He was, in many ways, a very good soldier; the bad decision he made, at least in my eyes, doesn’t take all that away.

“This incident,” Tony says, “doesn’t define who I am.”

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

Next Tuesday: How the Army is using this incident to make institutional change

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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3 thoughts on “War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VIII

  • September 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm
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    I get this dilemma having faced circumstances that required me to choose between my principles of leadership and requirements of duty. When you are part of a situation such as the one produced by these circumstances it is easy to see that there are two right ways to handle it. Sadly one is a mirage and one is a reality. Due to one’s perception though the two may be opposite of what they seem to another person. The human factor almost always plays a variable that we cannot control.

    Reply
    • September 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm
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      Wade,

      I think the human factor is consistently ignored by the army. The thinking seems to be, “leadership training produces leaders”, when we all know some people can go to every leadership school out there and suck as leaders, while others become leaders with no special training at all. I know we can’t count on natural leadership ability, but we should at least recognize and cultivate it. It’s a major human factor that could have gone a long way toward stopping the Yusufiyah murders from ever happening.

      Thanks for commenting, and sorry for the delayed response.

      Reply
  • August 22, 2014 at 1:53 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you…to Hernandez and to these soldiers. As for Army leadership 2001-2006…epic fail. I’ve seen Cav Scouts shit more intelligence than the leadership we had in garrison @ Bliss.

    Reply

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