War Crimes Pt I: Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences

You’re twenty-three years old. You’re a lowly Private First Class with less than two years in the Army. You’ve been in Iraq eight months. Your platoon is overextended, barely able to cover all the patrols and static posts you’ve been assigned. Extra missions take what little rest time you have. Your losses have been horrendous; two men were shot at close range by a seemingly-friendly Iraqi, your platoon leader and a new man were blown apart by a buried bomb, one of your friends at an outpost was just killed and two others captured, tortured to death and mutilated. You’ve been living like animals, spending days at isolated, poorly protected, undermanned checkpoints where you’re regularly attacked with mortars and small arms. Your platoon has devolved into a tribe, where official leadership is almost nonexistent.

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An important foreword from the Mad Duo: One might argue this is a cautionary tale. One could easily make the case this is a painful homage to the young men who did right under appalling conditions. It could be a hard judgment on how Big Army handled the whole thing. In the end, interpret how you read it as you prefer, as long as as you read it.  Here’s why:

Today Breach-Bang-Clear begins a series of articles that every military man and woman should read. It isn’t our normal tongue-in-cheek look at cool gear or stoopid crap. It’s a true story, about real American soldiers, who committed a horrible war crime during their 2006 deployment to Iraq.

The articles are not about the war criminals, though. They’re about the other soldiers in the platoon, the ones who found out about the crime. The ones who were forced to decide between staying silent or turning in soldiers they had stood shoulder to shoulder in combat with. The ones who did right despite the risk. The articles are about the war crime’s long-lasting effects, what the men around its edges endured, and what the Army is doing to prevent crimes like it from happening again.

This series isn’t for entertainment. It’s for education. It’s to get us thinking. It’s to help us make the right decision now, in case the worst happens and we someday find ourselves faced with one of war’s most horrible dilemmas.

First platoon soldiers on patrol in the Triangle of Death
First platoon soldiers on patrol in the Triangle of Death

WAR CRIMES, HARD CHOICES, AND HARDER CONSEQUENCES

“Breach Bang Chris” Hernandez

Imagine this:

You’re twenty-three years old. You’re a lowly Private First Class with less than two years in the Army. You’ve been in Iraq eight months. Your platoon is overextended, barely able to cover all the patrols and static posts you’ve been assigned. Extra missions take what little rest time you have. Your losses have been horrendous; two men were shot at close range by a seemingly-friendly Iraqi, your platoon leader and a new man were blown apart by a buried bomb, one of your friends at an outpost was just killed and two others captured, tortured to death and mutilated. You’ve been living like animals, spending days at isolated, poorly protected, undermanned checkpoints where you’re regularly attacked with mortars and small arms. Your platoon has devolved into a tribe, where official leadership is almost nonexistent.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, you’ve just learned a horrible secret. Months earlier, some of your fellow soldiers committed a rape and mass murder. Two other soldiers knew but didn’t tell anyone. You’re aware that if you turn in the murderers, your life will be in danger. But you believe in honor and integrity. You do the right thing and report it.

Your battalion commander and sergeant major come to your outpost, demanding to see you. And in front of everyone, including one of the soldiers who hid the crime, the battalion commander accuses YOU of lying. He yells that you’re just trying to get out of the Army. He demands to know why you’re trying to destroy other soldiers’ careers. You desperately try to explain yourself but he brushes you off, sends you back to your post, and his convoy drives away.

Astonished, you sit behind your machine gun watching the Humvees roll out. You can’t believe you’re being abandoned; you did exactly what you’re supposed to do when you find out American troops committed a crime. The colonel and sergeant major are supposed to have your back. They wouldn’t just leave you there, would they?

As their convoy turns the corner and disappears, you know, without question, you’re dead. The men you reported are combat-hardened killers. They raped a teenager and wiped out her family, including her six year old sister. Word will spread that you turned them in. On the next patrol, enemy contact or not, you will somehow wind up shot in the back of the head. You’re done. If the battalion commander leaves you there, your life is over.

What do you do?

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What I just described isn’t a hypothetical. It actually happened, eight years ago, during arguably the worst part of the Iraq War. That American troops committed a war crime is depressing but not shocking; all wars produce crimes, and every army has men whose criminal tendencies are barely kept in check by rigid discipline and constant supervision. The unforgivable acts committed by Steven Green, Paul Cortez, James Barker and Jesse Spielman occurred when that rigid discipline and constant supervision evaporated; their actions have been well documented, and I’m not going to focus on them here. My focus is on the men on the periphery of the crime, and the astounding way some of them were treated for showing the integrity and honor the Army claims it wants to instill in its soldiers.

I’m a longtime cop, former Marine and currently serving Army National Guard soldier. I’ve been to war twice, and spent 2005 on a convoy escort team in Iraq. The war crime in question happened a few months after I returned home from that deployment. I had heard of the Yusufiyah murders, and thought one of the soldiers involved had turned everyone in. The case seemed pretty straightforward; a few idiots committed a crime, one of them was overcome by guilt and said something, all the soldiers involved went to prison. Open and shut case.

But I recently discovered there was nothing open-and-shut about it. I was working on a story about two Iraq vets who had filmed an action movie, and one of them offered to put me in contact with his friend Justin, who helped train some of the actors. When the filmmaker told me about his friend, he asked a casual question.

“You remember the soldiers who raped the teenage girl and murdered her family near Yusufiyah in 2006?”

I replied that I did.

“Justin Watt is the guy who turned them in.”

My ears perked up. I started asking questions. Wasn’t the guy who turned them in also one of the guys involved? No, the filmmaker said. Watt had no involvement whatsoever. He found out about the crime months later, and risked his life to report it.

I spoke to Justin Watt that night. He had only a small part in the making of his friend’s movie, and that part of the conversation was brief. But when I asked if he was willing to talk about the Yusufiyah murders, he didn’t just say yes. He passionately gushed information for over an hour, and spoke with an intensity that displayed just how deeply he was affected by his experience. He didn’t sound like he was discussing events eight years past; he was more like a man recounting a tragedy that happened yesterday afternoon.

Justin Watt’s decision to turn in his fellow soldiers was gut-wrenching. The price he paid for his choice was steep. I was stunned at what I was hearing.

As he recounted his story, I wondered, How the hell have I not heard this before? Why isn’t this being taught to every officer, sergeant, and boot private in the Army?

Eventually I talked not only to Watt, but to another sergeant from the platoon named John Diem, and Watt’s former squad leader Eric Lauzier. Diem also played a crucial part in reporting the crime. Lauzier wasn’t in country when it happened, and was blindsided when the story exploded. He suffered a cruel fate because of what his soldiers chose to do in his absence.

Watt, Diem and Lauzier spoke at length about the crime and its effects. All of them bear, to varying degrees, scars from their experience. That deployment, crime and aftermath taught them painful lessons about leadership, human nature and war. Watt and Diem want to pass their knowledge on to others. They don’t want the next generation of warriors to go through what they did, or pay the overwhelming cost they and their comrades paid. At the Army’s request, they’re speaking to military audiences about their experience. Lauzier is more jaded; he’s not sure if anything he says will change the Army in any substantial way.

As I dug further into this story, I unexpectedly received a phone call from a former sergeant named Tony Yribe. Yribe was a central figure in the immediate aftermath of the murders, and made an extremely fateful decision when he learned about the crime. His voice is extremely unique, and only he can answer important questions about why the crime was hidden. This is the first time Yribe has publicly shared his story, and explained his decision.

Their story started in October 2005, when they were deployed to the area south of Baghdad later known as the “Triangle of Death”, around the towns of Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah and Lutifiyah. Watt, Diem, Yribe and Lauzier belonged to 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/502nd Infantry Battalion, 101st Airmobile Division. Lauzier, a former Marine, was regarded as a brave and tactically proficient soldier. Yribe was a highly respected and very aggressive team leader. Diem was a newly promoted sergeant. All three were veterans of the Iraq invasion. Watt had only joined the Army seven months earlier.

Their battalion’s story has already been well-told by former Time editor James Frederick in his book Blackhearts. My goal isn’t to retell the entire history of their deployment, it’s to focus on the choice each soldier made after learning about the crime, and the awful consequences of those choices. But to understand the context, I’ll give a brief recount:

Bravo Company’s sector was, by far, the worst in the battalion. The constant kinetic activity drove the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk, to order Bravo to build a chain of vehicle checkpoints on routes with the highest IED activity. The Bravo commander, Captain John Goodwin, struggled to man the six checkpoints, plus two patrol bases, plus guard an engineer-laid bridge, plus send out regular patrols, plus respond to constant on-the-spot missions from battalion. Even at full strength, Captain Goodwin would have been hard-pressed to fulfill all the mission requirements.

Typical terrain in first platoon's AO
Typical terrain in first platoon’s AO

Ares Gear Chickerator BBC 300x100

But the enemy made sure Bravo didn’t stay at full strength for long, and first platoon bore the brunt of the casualties. Within a few months two highly regarded first platoon soldiers, Staff Sergeant Travis Nelson and Sergeant Kenith Casica, were killed by an Iraqi with a concealed pistol at a checkpoint. First platoon leader Lieutenant Benjamin Britt and a new man, Specialist William Lopez-Feliciano, were killed by a huge buried IED during a foot patrol. Others in the company were killed and wounded, mostly by IEDs, as the months passed. The casualties, coupled with personality conflicts, led to a seemingly constant stream of leadership changes. By the end of the deployment, first platoon had lost two platoon leaders and were on their third platoon sergeant.

As casualties rose and leaders shifted, first platoon began to feel that it had been given herculean tasks compared to the rest of the battalion and even the company. Feelings of resentment grew. First platoon felt abandoned, even betrayed. Much of their leadership seemed to fade into the background, finding administrative tasks to focus on while the lower enlisted carried out all the dangerous and sometimes fatal missions. Unsupervised lower enlisted soldiers bought alcohol and pills from Iraqis, were left on their own for days at a time, and began to develop an unofficial, more tribal leadership structure. The “tribal” leaders, who emerged through force of personality, exerted more influence than they should have while tearing down respect for the appointed leaders who seemed to have failed them.

Their battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kunk, and sergeant major constantly singled out Bravo and first platoon for special criticism. Kunk even went so far as to confront wounded Bravo soldiers and accuse them of causing their own injuries by not following proper procedures. During one of those accusation sessions, a sergeant who had been slightly wounded by an IED while doing exactly what he had been ordered to do yelled “Fuck you, sir!” at Kunk. The soldier suffered no punishment for it, which further degraded respect for their commander.

The feelings of abandonment and resentment, absent leadership, endless turnover of those nominally in charge, constant attacks and casualties, access to drugs and alcohol, and unreasonable blame from above, set the conditions for what happened near the town of Yusufiyah on March 12th, 2006. On that day, six soldiers had been by themselves at a checkpoint for about ten days. The senior man at the checkpoint was an E-4, not even a sergeant. His soldiers were all privates and specialists. Most of the men at the checkpoint were drinking and taking pills. And one of them, Specialist James Barker, proposed an idea: they should rape a young woman who they knew lived in a nearby home.

To do this without getting caught, they’d have to kill her afterward. And kill anyone else in the house. Another soldier at the checkpoint, Private First Class Steven Green, had already been diagnosed by the Army as a sociopath and had been temporarily reassigned for almost getting into a fistfight with his platoon sergeant. Green quickly volunteered to do all the killing.

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The man in command of the checkpoint, Specialist Paul Cortez, listened to the plan, walked away saying it was crazy, then returned and gave the go ahead. Another soldier, PFC Jesse Spielman, heard the plan and volunteered to join them. They geared up, told an eighteen year old private named Bryan Howard that they were leaving, and slipped out of the wire.

When they returned, they left behind a fourteen year old Iraq girl who had been gang-raped, shot in the head and burned. They had also murdered her mother, father, and six year old sister. The four men came back into the wire, told Howard to keep his mouth shut, and disposed of whatever evidence they could find.

Within hours, two young boys returned to find their family slaughtered and home afire. They notified an uncle, who notified Iraqi Army soldiers, who notified the American soldiers, who sent a patrol to investigate. Sergeant Tony Yribe assembled the patrol from men at several checkpoints, including Spielman and Cortez, two of the rapists. When Yribe returned from the patrol and dropped the soldiers at their checkpoints, Cortez and Spielman were visibly disturbed and saying they needed to go to combat stress. That wasn’t like them.

Then Green approached Sergeant Yribe and told him he alone had committed the crime.

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[The series continues: Part II, Part III (Justin Watt), Part IV (you can’t leave him, they’ll kill him), Part V (Sgt. John Diem), Part VI (Eric Lauzier), Part VII, Part VIII (Tony Yribe) and Part IX (Sgt. Major David Stewart on leadership) and Part X: the Aftermath. Coming soon – lessons learned for soldiers, NCOs, officers and the author.

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.


Chris Hernandez has 112 posts and counting. See all posts by Chris Hernandez

12 thoughts on “War Crimes Pt I: Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences

  • Pingback:Link: Examining the roots of honor and loyalty through the lens of a war crime

  • August 10, 2014 at 8:18 am
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    Just a note for ease of use; Please hotlink the rest of this series so it’s easier to find. Thanks for this article. My platoon was the one that found Tucker and Babineau’s bodies on the road. This hits close to home.

    Reply
    • August 10, 2014 at 8:22 am
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      Sorry, Menchaca and Tucker.

      Reply
  • August 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm
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    Blackhearts reads like a case study in leadership failure. It’s as painful as it is necessary to read, and I’ve recommended it many times to NCO and officer alike. I’m following this series with interest because it’s a smaller summary of the book with the human angle and it’s easier to share with other leaders. Glad you’re writing it.

    Reply
  • July 31, 2014 at 12:59 pm
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    I surved with LTC Kunk when he was th S3 and XO for 2-502. He was an intresting man, Hard and honest but a little off at times. I also served with Eric Lauizer. He is a goood man, and I know the events that took place have haunted him.

    Reply
    • July 31, 2014 at 1:48 pm
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      Cameron,

      I think you will find the soldiers’ opinion of LTC Kunk interesting, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate Lauzier’s chapter. Thanks for commenting, and for your service.

      Reply
  • July 31, 2014 at 10:38 am
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    We should praise the men of honor, who had a courage to do the right thing. There is no excuse for a crime!.

    Reply
  • July 31, 2014 at 8:18 am
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    Thank you Chris for shedding more light on this chain of sad events. The trust of command is a sacred one and for it to be neglected so thoroughly in a combat environment is unconscionable. This is the kind of scenario that should be on page one of the Center for Lessons Learned website and vigorously drilled into the head of every student at West Point. Please explore this one to its deepest, darkest depths. Those who had the courage to do what was right need to be vindicated and those who let them down deserve to have the light of truth shone on their miserable faces. I look forward to every installment.

    Reply
  • July 31, 2014 at 1:56 am
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    I was there for this. Let’s see how the story gets told this time.

    Reply
    • July 31, 2014 at 7:55 am
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      Inked,

      I’d really like your input on this. This series of articles is limited to four soldiers within the platoon, who were forced to make the hard choice of whether or not to report the crime. But I’m open to hearing any other perspectives from others who were there. If you’re interested, please email me at [email protected].

      Reply
  • July 29, 2014 at 10:51 pm
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    Please make sure to continue this series, we need better then this from our military and ourselves. These men are heroes more then most will ever understand. To turn in their brothers is a monumental task, with sever consequences. None of these should have been from command. Semper Fi

    Reply
    • July 30, 2014 at 11:38 am
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      Matt,

      We will continue this series for a while. We’ll have a chapter for each soldier I interviewed, plus a chapter from an SGM who is using this incident to make institutional-level changes to Army training. Thanks and Semper Fi.

      Reply

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