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“Kill team” label reflects one side of the story

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on April 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
April 28, 2011 3:26 pm

The phrase “kill team” took off in describing the five Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who stand accused of murdering Afghan civilians last year during their deployment with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. It’s the go-to label summing up heinous crimes.

I use the term in my reports because it’s the easy shorthand to describe the soldiers as they proceed through their courts martial at the base. It’s also the headline for The Rolling Stone story that elevated public interest in the case last month.

The phrase reflects the prosecution’s case that Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs joined a Stryker platoon at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in southern Afghanistan and persuaded four of his fellow soldiers to join him in killing three noncombatants for fun. Gibbs’ alleged sidekick, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, last month pled guilty to helping carry out those murders and agreed to testify against his codefendants.

Here’s the root of the “kill team” phrase, as described by Luke Mogelson in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

“Morlock and another soldier accused of murder, Adam Winfield, have characterized Gibbs as a sociopath who orchestrated the killings, and Winfield further claims Gibbs used his rank as a noncommissioned officer to coerce him into participating. The ‘kill team’ moniker, instantly and unanimously adopted by the news media, comes from a leaked video interview in which Winfield tells an Army special agent that Gibbs ‘thought I was weak and I’m not good enough to be on his quote-unquote ‘kill team.’ Then he asked me if I would be in.’ Gibbs, from the beginning, has denied any wrongdoing.”

Winfield’s fear of Gibbs is just one reason why “kill team” falls short in describing the soldiers facing murder charges. Testimony I’ve watched in court over the past seven months shows that the two other murder codefendants weren’t necessarily on the best terms with Gibbs and Morlock.

Spc. Michael Wagnon, for example, has been described by his platoon mates as a guy who didn’t socialize with Gibbs. Wagnon wasn’t involved in the group that smoked hashish with Morlock, or the allegedly Gibbs-led group that assaulted whistleblower Pfc. Justin Stoner in May. Wagnon’s accused of helping Gibbs murder an Afghan in February 2010. He claims he’s innocent, and says he shot at the Afghan because he believed Gibbs was under attack.

Pfc. Andrew Holmes, another murder codefendant, claims he didn’t know he was participating in a staged killing in the January 2010 incident at the center of the case against him. One of his platoon mates in November testified that Holmes didn’t appear to know the killing was a set-up. Two others who spoke to Mogelson on the condition of anonymity also said Holmes didn’t know at the time that Morlock faked combat to get away with murder.

Sworn statements in the Army’s investigation show that Winfield was on the outs with Gibbs as early as February 2010, when Gibbs punished him for leaving a Stryker vehicle unattended and unlocked. That month, Winfield also tried to draw attention to suspicious killings in his platoon. He wrote to his father, who called Lewis-McChord trying to raise a red flag about Gibbs. The killing that led to murder charges against Winfield took place three months later.

As much as attention as the Stryker soldiers have been getting, some analysts seem to think the story’s being underplayed. Here’s former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West writing in his new book, “The Wrong War.”

“In 2005, a Marine squad in the Iraqi city of Haditha killed women and children. Exhaustive investigations failed to substantiate acts of murder. Nonetheless, Haditha remained on the front pages for months because for many in the press and Congress it conveniently symbolized a disastrous war.

“In 2010, a few U.S. soldiers were charged with randomly murdering Afghan civilians for sport. Most of the press and politicians ignored the story. The Republican majority in the House supported the war, while liberal commentators in the press were loath to weaken Obama by inciting an antiwar movement.”

That’s about where former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld landed when he called the “kill team” a worse scandal than Abu Ghraib.

I’m unlikely to drop the “kill team” phrase in my coverage. It’s too useful in summarizing the worst allegations in the case. But hopefully The News Tribune’s daily coverage of the accused soldiers’ courts martial will demonstrate the differences in the defendants and help readers understand how these crimes unfolded.

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