Spc. Jeremy Morlock said Wednesday that he lost his “moral compass” when he joined schemes to murder three Afghan civilians last year during a deployment with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
The Alaska soldier was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to the killings and other misconduct. He gives the Army a key conviction in its investigation of an alleged “kill team” among the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Morlock said knowledge of the murder conspiracy was widespread in his platoon, and a prosecutor suggested even more charges against other soldiers may follow.
It could have been worse for the 23-year-old infantryman. He faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole before he struck a plea deal that requires him to testify against four co-defendants who stand accused of murdering the noncombatants with him.
Instead he’ll be demoted to private, will forfeit his pay and could apply for parole in as few as seven years, his attorney said.
Morlock will be a key witness against Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who allegedly plotted to murder Afghan civilians and brought his comrades along with him. Gibbs denies the charges and is expected to face a court-martial in June.
Morlock painted a damning picture of his platoon, even as he expressed remorse for his role.
“The plan was to kill people,” Morlock said in recalling murder scenarios he said he plotted with Gibbs.
He told Army Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks he smoked hashish at his base in southern Afghanistan at least three times a week starting in September 2009, and he admitted beating up a private who raised concerns about drug use at the base.
“This is not us,” prosecutor Army Capt. Dre Leblanc said in condemning Morlock’s crimes. “We don’t do this. This not how we’re trained. This is not the Army.”
The platoon’s misconduct has gained international attention, more so since a German newsmagazine last week published a photograph of Morlock grinning over the corpse of an Afghan man he admitted killing in January 2010.
Morlock said in court that he’s had a lot of time to evaluate how he lost his way. He said he wasn’t ready for war, even though he was eager to follow in the footsteps of his father, a 20-year Army veteran who died in a boating accident a year after Morlock joined the service.
He said he was especially close to his father and regretted disgracing his legacy.
“If he had been alive when I went to Afghanistan, I know it would have made a difference,” Morlock said.
More than 20 friends and relatives attended Morlock’s court-martial. They broke into sobs as Morlock apologized to the families of his victims, the comrade he beat up and his fellow soldiers.
His mother, uncle and two former mentors testified that Morlock’s crimes were out of character and said they wanted to welcome him home to Wasilla, Alaska.
“There are lots of people who would take care of Jeremy,” his mother, Audrey Morlock said in tearful testimony. “I can’t count the doors that would open for him.”
Twelve soldiers in Morlock’s platoon faced charges of wrongdoing during the deployment. Leblanc said in court that the Army might file more charges.
“This case is so expansive,” he said. “The potential for charges against soldiers other than Spc. Morlock is a strong possibility.”
Morlock said the murder schemes were common knowledge in his platoon.
“It was almost the entire platoon, give or take a handful of soldiers,” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646
5th Brigade dysfunctional, report says
Two generals who oversaw the training for a troubled Stryker brigade told an Army investigator that they regretted not removing the brigade commander before the unit left for Afghanistan, according to a defense witness who has studied the investigation and who testified Wednesday in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“The brigade was dysfunctional,” said Texas A&M sociology professor Stjepan Mestrovic. He testified on behalf of Spc. Jeremy Morlock, who pleaded guilty to murdering three Afghan civilians during his deployment with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division last year.
Mestrovic’s description was the first public discussion of the report. It was commissioned last fall by Lewis-McChord commander Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti to investigate whether officers should have known that enlisted soldiers were using drugs and carrying out schemes to murder civilians after deploying to southern Afghanistan in July 2009.
The Army has concealed the 500-page report, written by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, and given it only to defense attorneys representing soldiers who now face misconduct charges. The News Tribune has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of it.
Mestrovic testified that he spent more than 200 hours studying Twitty’s report and interviewing officers in the brigade. He’s a specialist in war crimes who has written books about atrocities in the Iraq War.
Mestrovic said the review of the Stryker brigade concluded that the strategy of former brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell was fundamentally at odds with the one articulated by the war’s top commander at the time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal instructed soldiers to follow the tenets of counterinsurgency warfare, which stress protecting civilians and improving local governance. Tunnel eschewed that philosophy, favoring offensive counter-guerrilla warfare, Mestrovic said.
“You were good in Col. Tunnell’s eyes if you were aggressive and the body count was high,” Mestrovic said.
His observation is consistent with what some of Tunnell’s soldiers told journalists who visited them as they fought in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province in 2009 and 2010.
Mestrovic said the brigade nearly failed to gain approval to go to Afghanistan after it completed its pre-deployment training in Fort Irwin, Calif. He said Tunnell’s aggressive style created an environment that enabled the misconduct that allegedly occurred under his command.
For example, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of three Afghan civilian murders, served on Tunnel’s security detail before Gibbs joined the platoon at the center of the war crimes investigation. Gibbs denies the charges and is awaiting a court-martial.
“There seems to be connections between direct proximity to Col. Tunnell and the chaos that followed,” Mestrovic said.
Tunnell has his defenders.
“He was a confident, aggressive leader,” one officer who served under the brigade commander told the Christian Science Monitor last year. “To make any connection between Tunnell and what the (alleged kill squad) did just because he was enemy-focused is a stretch. That was about leadership at a much lower level.”
Sworn statements from Gibbs’ platoon mates also suggest he may have killed civilians on previous deployments, to Iraq, when he served under different leadership.
Mestrovic said Twitty urged the Army to remove Tunnell from any command. He’s now serving at a post in Fort Knox, Ky.
“I anticipate that he never will command again in the United States Army,” said Morlock’s attorney, Frank Spinner.