Lost platoon: Lax oversight of JBLM Stryker unit in Afghanistan allowed mischief, misconduct and murder, investigation shows

Staff writerOctober 15, 2011 

Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, Spc. Michael Wagnon.

HANDOUT PHOTO, U.S. ARMY

More than 75 Afghan elders filed into a meeting with U.S. Army officers early last year to deliver a disturbing message: Soldiers patrolling villages in southern Afghanistan were out of control.

Stryker platoonmates from Joint Base Lewis-McChord were shooting dogs. They were breaking cultural taboos by searching homes with only women and children around. And they had killed two innocent young men.

The elders said the two victims did not fit the profile of insurgents: One suffered at the hands of the Taliban because his family supported NATO forces; the other was mentally disabled.

They didn't deserve to die, the elders said.

"Your soldiers lie to you, " one man told the officers. "Please investigate and find out why your soldiers in this area are treating our people badly."

The elders were on to something the U.S. military couldn't yet see and wouldn't nail down for another four months.

Two more Afghans whom investigators say died needlessly were targeted by members of the same platoon in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division before the Army would catch on. Eventually, five soldiers were arrested on charges that they murdered civilians as part of a rogue "kill team."

But their alleged wrongdoing did not start with the two shootings that inflamed the Afghan elders in the January 2010 meeting recounted by a battalion civil affairs officer.

A 532-page Army investigation obtained by The News Tribune shows it escalated over months in which the platoon idled in Afghanistan, away from the steady fighting others in the brigade had endured. Platoonmates craved whatever enemy contact they could find or manufacture, the report says.

Meanwhile, Army commanders shuffled leaders in and out of the brigade. They lost sight of a platoon that needed close scrutiny, according to the report by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty.

"Soldiers who would never make poor choices when it was known they would be held accountable for their actions were able to form their own ideas of right and wrong, " Twitty was told by Sgt. 1st Class Robert Bates, a noncommissioned officer in the battalion that oversaw the platoon in question. "People who should have been setting the example were unavailable."

Twitty found that the soldiers in that platoon came under fire five times in their year overseas. The Army now considers three of those engagements to be murders orchestrated by members of the platoon.

They were in a brigade of nearly 4,000 that lost 37 soldiers in a tough year of fighting in southern Afghanistan, but they were overlooked in part because they weren't the ones suffering casualties, Twitty found.

"Several soldiers discussed how often they were bored due to lack of missions for days, remaining on (the base), " Twitty wrote in a report commissioned by Lewis-McChord senior Army officer Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti. "Soldiers said when they heard gunfire in the distance they wanted to go 'get some.' "

lapses in oversight

Twitty's investigation was intended to evaluate the command climate of the brigade and whether it had anything to do with the war crimes that took place in 3rd Platoon, B Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment.

His report, finished in March, stresses that brigade commanders could have done little to halt crimes carried out by 3rd Platoon soldiers determined to fool them. But it reveals how lapses in oversight set the conditions for the misdeeds that unfolded at Forward Operating Base Ramrod.

The investigating one-star general found a range of misconduct and lax supervision in the 3rd Platoon during the 2009-10 deployment, including:

*A private destroyed a housing unit on his base when he accidentally discharged a round from a grenade launcher. His squad leader had not done the correct checks to make sure all of the weapons were turned in. The private was Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of the five "kill team" codefendants who recently pleaded guilty to killing a noncombatant.

*The entire platoon of nearly 30 soldiers fell asleep in Stryker vehicles outside of a base after a patrol without posting a night watch. A senior noncommissioned officer caught them when he watched them through an aerial drone.

*Leaders at multiple levels above 3rd Platoon failed to conduct routine urinalysis tests and other inspections that could have identified misconduct earlier.

*Soldiers wrote graffiti at least once, scrawling the word "crusader" on a road crossing.

*At least one soldier shot dogs and chickens during patrols.

*Another soldier kept fingers from corpses in his housing unit and had access to weapons he should have turned in to his leadership. He was alleged "kill team" ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.

*Soldiers used their first names when they addressed their leaders and showed poor uniform care, even in the context of relaxed war-zone standards.

*At least 15 soldiers reported smoking hashish.

The lowest point of the misconduct was publicly revealed when five soldiers came home early from the deployment in the summer of 2010, accused of murdering three civilians during patrols with 3rd Platoon.

Seven more soldiers were charged with other misdeeds, such as assaulting a private and smoking hashish. Nine have been convicted of various crimes over the past year; three more await courts-martial at Lewis-McChord.

Trouble began for them well before they hit the ground in Afghanistan.

the leadership

Soldiers started making their way to Fort Lewis in 2006 to join the 5th Brigade as the Army built up the new unit.

Like the 3rd and 4th brigades before them, 5th Brigade troops trained at the base south of Tacoma to fight in Iraq. They took pains to learn Arabic and studied tribal cultures.

The mission changed suddenly in January 2009 when the Army announced it instead planned to send the brigade to Afghanistan the following summer - the first Stryker brigade to go to that country.

Their leader from the outset in 2007 was Col. Harry Tunnell, who made it clear that his old-school "counterguerrilla" focus would be on destroying the enemy rather than the new-school "counterinsurgency" approach of protecting foreign civilians to "win more by fighting less." Among the trainings he led was a session called "Sometimes War is Just War."

Senior officers assigned to the brigade just prior to the deployment were frustrated and confused, according to Twitty's investigation. They were fresh from service schools where they had studied the Army's new counterinsurgency manual.

Some had seen the Army strategy succeed in Iraq and wanted to implement it in Afghanistan. They felt stymied by Tunnell.

"Col. Tunnell was only interested in actions that pertained to his view, and his view was solely focused on the destruction of the enemy, " Col. William Clark told Twitty. Clark reported to Tunnell in Afghanistan as the commander of the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment.

Lt. Col. Richard Demarree was the commander of the battalion that oversaw what would eventually become the "kill team" platoon. He and Tunnell did not get along. Tunnell replaced Demarree just before the deployment with a new leader, Lt. Col. Jeffrey French.

The platoon was further splintered from the leaders it had trained with once it arrived in Afghanistan. It was attached to a troop from Clark's cavalry regiment instead of its original infantry company, a move meant to balance different-sized units.

None of those leaders lived near the platoon. Even the officers who shared the same base had their living quarters more than 200 meters from the soldiers, breaking from standard practice, Twitty wrote.

As a result of those late changes, 3rd Platoon's soldiers answered to a cavalry captain who didn't know them.

They belonged to a battalion commander who hadn't seen them until just before they left for Afghanistan.

And they reported to a brigade led by a colonel who was out of step with Army strategy.

the lieutenant

The cavalry troop leader, Capt. Matthew Quiggle, met his new soldiers reassigned from the 2nd Battalion just before he took them on their first mission in Afghanistan. The soldiers from 3rd Platoon were under the command of Lt. Roman Ligsay.

Quiggle recounted how he didn't think much of the young lieutenant that day.

"My initial impression of Lt. Ligsay was that he was very inexperienced and a potential liability, " Quiggle told Twitty for the investigation. "As a brand-new platoon leader, he had never been on a Stryker, let alone led a platoon, and especially not in combat."

Ligsay's shortcomings should have been offset by his platoon's senior noncommissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Julio Bruno. But Bruno was distant early in the deployment. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and a back injury that compelled him to stay at the base while his men went outside the wire on missions.

Army crime reports obtained by The News Tribune show that Ligsay set the wrong example for the 3rd Platoon the first time his soldiers encountered a dead body. It was a gory scene made by an Apache helicopter strike on a Taliban insurgent.

One soldier stabbed the corpse. Others gawked and smiled with their thumbs up. Ligsay joined in one of the poses even though the Army had handed down orders barring soldiers from taking photographs of corpses for personal use.

He has testified that he didn't know it was wrong, and said he wanted to take the photo because it was the first corpse he saw in combat.

Quiggle told Twitty that Ligsay's performance improved in time, and the cavalry captain came to rely on the lieutenant for the relationships Ligsay nurtured with Afghan leaders. Ligsay was later promoted to captain, though he was censured for the misconduct that occurred on his watch.

Back at the base, Twitty found that Ligsay wanted to be liked too much to crack down on his team.

"Ligsay considered time on the (base) as 'down time' for his soldiers unless preparing for mission, " Twitty wrote. "This mindset allowed soldiers to roam the (base) and find opportunities for misconduct."

In hindsight, said battalion executive officer Lt. Col. David Abrahams: "I think that Lt. Ligsay's jovial nature allowed his soldiers to take advantage of him. . . . I think that Lt. Ligsay is an average LT that was put into a very difficult situation that he never was able to fully contain."

Conditions were ripe for someone to step in and fill the leadership void.

The soldier who would seize that opportunity was Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646
adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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