War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences, Part X: the Aftermath
Bravo company’s tragedies didn’t stop when the deployment ended. One of the soldiers who promised to watch Watt’s back after he reported the crime is now under arrest for murder in Alaska. Another is homeless and was recently arrested on home invasion and drug charges. At least ten soldiers from first platoon reportedly have serious alcohol or substance abuse problems. In an associated tragedy, PFC Kristian Menchaca’s brother-in-law Conrad Alvarez was killed in Iraq in 2008. Conrad had named his son Kristian Thomas, in memory of Menchaca and Tucker.
And some soldiers from Bravo have committed suicide since their return home. One of those post-deployment suicides was Steven Green.
He had been sentenced to four consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. In prison he became devoutly religious. He requested transfer to another prison, apparently because he was being treated so badly by other inmates. In February of this year he hanged himself, and died days later.
“According to Green’s beliefs, suicide would send him straight to hell,” Watt said. “And he still killed himself. Can you imagine how horrible his life must have been, to choose eternity in hell over prison? I don’t care how bad they were, I can’t smile over someone condemning themselves like that.”
Watt wasn’t the only one who felt that way. None of the soldiers I interviewed for this story were happy about Green’s death.
“After Green was arrested, he never tried to deny anything. He didn’t pull any legal tricks, he didn’t blame anyone else,” Lauzier said. “He admitted what he did, and took his punishment like a man.” When news of Green’s death hit Facebook, some former Bravo soldiers said, “good” or “it’s about time.” Lauzier strained friendships by responding, “Yeah he committed the crime, and now he’s paid for it. Leave him alone.”
“Green was the only one of those guys who took responsibility for what he did,” Tony Yribe said. “He’s the only one I had any respect for.” Yribe said he was devastated when he heard about the suicide, and sees Green as more misguided than evil. “Green once drank someone else’s entire bottle of tobacco spit, because he thought it would impress a soldier he respected. He was that desperate for acceptance.”
When I asked Watt how he felt when he heard about Green, he responded, “I was sad, man. I thought, ‘Oh no, not another one.’ We lost all those guys in Iraq, and now Green. There aren’t that many of us left.” Watt doesn’t hate Green partly because, in his eyes, “Green was just a tool. When we went on raids, someone had to bring a breaching shotgun. When those guys went on their rape and murder mission, they needed someone to kill the family. Green was their tool to get rid of witnesses so they wouldn’t get caught.”
Sympathetic feelings about Green weren’t the only surprise I encountered as I wrote this story. Despite Bravo’s breakdown and the circumstances under which most of them left the Army, the men I interviewed are still fiercely proud of their old company. And none of them spoke of the criminals with hatred.
Yribe probably has more reason to be conflicted than most. After the Yusufiyah investigation, Yribe was charged with a different crime partly based on statements by Cortez, Barker and Spielman. Later, after they were sentenced to prison, they recanted their accusation. Yribe doesn’t know why they did it, since it didn’t benefit them at all. So in a way, they saved him.
For years, Yribe has pondered whether or not he should reach out to them. From what he hears, at least one of them doesn’t want to talk to anyone from first platoon ever again. Lauzier had promised to stand by Barker and Cortez if they took responsibility for the crime. He received a letter from Barker a few years back. After reading it, he chose not to respond. “Barker hasn’t taken responsibility for anything,” Lauzier says.
Watt won’t demonize the murderers, and doubts they would have committed rape or murder in America.
“Those guys were dehumanized over there,” Watt said, almost exactly mirroring Yribe’s thoughts. “Yeah they’re guilty, and they deserved what they got. But they wouldn’t have done that back home.”
Just after the murders, before Tony Yribe had any idea Americans had committed the crimes, he took Cortez and Spielman to the crime scene with him. After the patrol Cortez and Spielman said they needed to go to combat stress. Cortez threw up. Watt thinks that once they saw what they had done “in the light of day”, guilt hit them. They weren’t born to rape and murder. Their crime was a one-off decision.
Having said that, Watt is worried what they might do when they get out of prison.
Barker was sentenced to 90 years, Cortez 110 years, Spielman 100. But in what seems like an intentional judicial farce, Cortez and Spielman come up for parole in two years. Barker becomes eligible in 2026.
“If they come after me, they come after me,” Watt said. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but I’m prepared if it does.”
Yribe doesn’t think the criminals will be paroled for a long, long time. And even if they’re paroled at the earliest opportunity, he’s sure they’ll stay far from any of their former comrades rather than attempt revenge. I see that point, but I also know that criminals sometimes go through an odd process wherein they decide they’re completely innocent, and are only wasting away in prison because someone wrongly blamed them, or set them up, or “snitched”. Before confessed serial murderer John Wayne Gacy was executed for torturing, raping and murdering dozens of young men, some of whom he buried under his house, he recorded a twelve-minute statement declaring his innocence. His last statement to his lawyer complained about “the state murdering him.” Barker, Cortez and Spielman, convicted of raping one little girl and murdering two, are likely having a rough time in prison. They may have convinced themselves all their suffering is Watt’s fault. It’s not too far-fetched for Watt to worry about retaliation.
And Watt isn’t the only one worried about retaliation. According to Lauzier and Yribe, one former first platoon soldier is also scared, but not of the war criminals. He thinks relatives of the murdered Iraqis will track him down in America. This soldier wasn’t involved in the crime, wasn’t involved in the coverup, had no connection or guilt whatsoever. But he watches his back, and brings up his fears whenever he talks to his former platoon mates.
And first platoon does still talk, to some degree. It goes without saying that Watt remains unpopular with some of his former comrades. Lauzier butts heads with a few of them, but Yribe remains popular. Diem stands apart, keeping personal drama to a minimum. It seems to me that the platoon just isn’t as cohesive as others that deployed together.
“Only a few of us stay in contact,” Yribe says. “The lower enlisted guys are totally on different pages. Lauzier and I talk about having a platoon reunion someday, but we can only invite certain people, and then we’d still have to worry about someone getting mad that Watt showed up.”
Chris Payne is another former first platoon NCO I spoke to. He was fortunate to be uninvolved with the crime, wasn’t dragged into any investigations, and came home unscathed. On a subsequent deployment back to the Triangle of Death, he was badly wounded by an IED and medically retired. He doesn’t have the support network every wounded veteran should.
“Since Blackhearts came out, we keep our distance from each other,” Payne says. “Some guys are mad about what other soldiers said about them, about who got blamed for what happened. It’s hard to talk to each other because everyone’s suspicious now. And I don’t think anyone wants to think about it anymore. We just want to forget that deployment.”
In 2009 my close friend Todd was badly wounded by an IED in Afghanistan. The IED strike blew Todd’s humvee in half, killed two other soldiers and almost took Todd’s leg off. I had been Todd’s platoon sergeant until we both went to different units, and we were deployed at the same time. Other friends of ours were also in Afghanistan. When we heard he was wounded, our circle of friends immediately took action. One of them was waiting for the medevac helicopter when it brought him to the hospital at Ghazni, others were waiting when he arrived in Bagram. One friend called Todd’s wife from the trauma center to let her know Todd was hurt but alive. As soon as the rest of us came home from deployment, we made a trip to see him at the Warrior Transition Unit in San Antonio. Even though we’re separated geographically, we still visit him and his family.
Todd knows we’re here for him. That’s how it should be. But because of the Yusufiyah murders and turmoil that followed, that’s not how it is for Chris Payne. Or for Eric Lauzier. After eight years of anger and suspicion, Lauzier is ready for reconciliation with some of the men he stood shoulder to shoulder in combat with.
After a deployment, most of us have right and reason to feel pride. We can usually look back on even our worst days and find something worthwhile. Eric Lauzier should be able to look back proudly on his actions outside Rushdie Mullah, and in any other unit he would have been decorated for valor. Diem provided steady, reliable leadership and kept his head not only through all the combat but also through the turmoil that followed the crime’s revelation. A wounded Tony Yribe stripped off his gear and dove into a stinking, muddy canal to search for his platoon leader, who he knew was almost certainly dead, right after they had been ambushed and hit by an IED. He was told later that he had been recommended for a Silver Star, but the award was pulled. Watt and Lauzier were supposedly both up for Bronze Stars, but those awards were pulled as well. And nobody even considered recognizing Watt for risking his life to report the crime.
I hate the fact that I’m writing about how these men were affected by this crime, instead of writing solely about their bravery and the accolades they should have rightfully earned.
Justin Watt probably summed up everyone’s feelings with this statement: “I didn’t get medals, but I know what I did. I never backed out of a mission. I never failed to bring the fight to the enemy. There were missions where I got blown up three times in one day. There were days I got into three or four firefights. Yeah, I cried like a bitch when I got home on leave. Yeah, I was fucking scared at times. But when those dudes needed me on the wall, they didn’t ever have to ask. I was there, gun up, sending hate downrange. So fuck the Bronze Star. I don’t care. At the end of the day, when people read this, my sins, my good deeds, all of it was there. I laid it all out there. I don’t care what people think. I think that when you weigh my actions, I come out as a good man. If I get a medal someday will it mean anything? Of course it will, but will it ever hold a candle to serving with those men, and seeing that kind of bravery in all of them, day after day, funeral after funeral? Hell no. Most importantly, I earned the right to count myself among them. And nobody can take that shit from me.”
I’m fortunate to not know how it feels to have family members murdered. I hope I never know. Because I don’t have that firsthand understanding, I only feel this war crime’s effects on the family in an objective, dispassionate way. But I do know what it’s like to deploy to war, and come home afterward. I know the conflicting feelings we almost all have. I’ve argued with myself – and switched sides multiple times – about whether or not the wars were right, or justified, or worth it. But whatever my feelings about the wars, however badly I’ve judged my own performance as a soldier, I’m always proud that I was there. Maybe I screwed up as a sergeant, maybe all my decisions weren’t perfect. But to make mistakes in combat, you have to be in combat. You have to be there.
Justin Watt, John Diem, Eric Lauzier and Tony Yribe were there. They willingly charged into the flames of battle. They saw more horror than most War on Terror veterans. They stood up to that horror, and fought well. And if not for this terrible crime their service would be viewed with justifiable pride, instead of being stained by the actions of four dishonorable criminals. I hope their willingness to talk about the crime, their efforts to prevent it from happening again, helps lift that stain.
Next Tuesday: Lessons Learned
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.