Spc. Michael Wagnon says he didn’t know his squad leader orchestrated a February encounter in which they shot an Afghan man who did not pose a threat to them during a patrol.
The Stryker brigade soldier will have a chance to make that argument Monday in a Joint Base Lewis-McChord court where he’ll appear in public for an Article 32 hearing that will help determine whether he faces a court martial for murdering the Afghan.
Wagnon, 30, is the oldest of five soldiers in his 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division platoon who allegedly killed civilians in combat-like scenarios drawn up by their comrades. Three of the five men have already been through pre-trial hearings. Seven more soldiers await proceedings for lesser charges.
A father of three from Las Vegas, Wagnon was on his third combat deployment when he went to southern Afghanistan last year. His wife, Carrie, lives on base with the children.
Wagnon is “actually looking forward to the Article 32,” said his attorney, Colby Vokey. “He keeps maintaining ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ It’s a little frustrating when you can’t understand why you’ve been accused of anything.”
Wagnon also is accused of keeping skull fragments from a corpse, shooting at unarmed civilians and trying to destroy photographs of Afghan casualties he kept on his computer at Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
His attorney said Wagnon will be cleared of the charges. Wagnon is the only one of the soldiers facing charges who is neither accused of using drugs during their deployment nor of beating up the private who raised concerns about his platoon mates smoking hashish.
Vokey plans to call 45 witnesses to testify. He expects many of them to invoke the 5th Amendment and refuse to answer questions, but some new details could emerge.
The incident that makes up the murder charge unfolded on Feb. 22 when Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs allegedly spotted an Afghan man and instructed Wagnon and Spc. Jeremy Morlock to keep on eye on him while Gibbs put into a motion a scheme to kill the civilian and get away with it.
Morlock in May told Army investigators that Gibbs fired two rounds at a wall from an AK-47 and then shot the man to death with his Army-issued rifle. He reportedly dropped the AK-47 on the victim, and told his platoon mates that the Afghan shot first. Morlock and Wagnon fired in the direction of the Afghan, too.
“Me and Wagnon came to Gibbs’ position to act as first responders, and Wagnon and I fired off some shots from our assigned weapons in the direction of the guy,” Morlock told investigators. “This part was Gibbs’ entire plan and makes the story more concrete and more believable, and lets Gibbs know that we were on board and not a threat to him.”
Vokey, like other attorneys representing Wagnon’s codefendants, likely will attack Morlock’s credibility. Morlock was close to Gibbs, and was taking pain medication when he spoke with investigators. Morlock also told investigators in another interview that Wagnon was not aware that the shooting was staged.
Vokey said it’s difficult for people who weren’t there to gauge whether the incident was staged. Soldiers in the platoon came under fire shortly after Gibbs shot the Afghan.
“They were in a very dangerous part of the country. To try and determine from an outside whether this was a lawful engagement or not, well, who knows?” Vokey said.
In other charges, three of Wagnon’s platoon mates told investigators that he had pieces of a human skull taken from the body of an Afghan several soldiers shot in January when the Afghan walked toward the soldiers despite several calls for him to stop. It was considered a legitimate shooting all the way up the chain of command because the man did not follow commands as he approached the squad.
Wagnon disposed of the bones at some point during the winter, according to witness statements. His attorney says Wagnon “didn’t possess any human bones.”
Wagnon has a group of vocal supporters among soldiers who served with him in two previous deployments to Iraq. Some are expected to attend Monday’s hearing.
“Spc. Wagnon was, and still is, highly respected by every member in Alpha Company and could always be counted on to do the right thing,” wrote Staff Sgt. Adrian Stutzman in a letter posted on a web site for Wagnon’s supporters. Stutzman served with Wagnon in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which was based in Germany.