The one-star general who commanded a soldier now accused of murdering two Iraqi cattle herders did not learn about the shootings until more than two years after they took place, he testified Thursday in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
It was a conspicuous lack of reporting at the height of the Iraq War about a deadly engagement in a team led by Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, who is in court this week for a preliminary hearing that could lead to his court-martial.
“That is something I would have had visibility of, or should have had visibility on,” Brig. Gen. Andrew Poppas said, recalling a March 2007 incident when he was cavalry squadron commander leading about 600 soldiers.
Normally, Poppas said, soldiers reported fatal engagements as significant acts that could affect planned military operations. They also were supposed to report violations of the military rules of engagement that govern when soldiers use force.
Three Iraqis died on Barbera’s mission that day. Barbera, 31, allegedly killed two unarmed teenagers, and then soldiers supposedly shot one more man during their retreat from their hideout after Barbera’s gunshots exposed their position.
Several witnesses said they knew immediately that Barbera should not have shot the teenage brothers.
“I thought, ‘What the heck is he doing?’” said former soldier Ken Katter. “I didn’t really understand what or why he did what he did. They posed no threat. They didn’t even have anything in their hands. The second kid, he raised his hands, like to surrender.”
Yet none of the seven soldiers with Barbera during their overnight reconnaissance mission raised concerns about the incident to Poppas during their 15-month deployment with the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
They also did not raise alarms about an unjustified killing in the year after the deployment when Poppas visited one of the witnesses at a Fort Bragg medical unit.
Their silence was one reason Poppas was skeptical about reports suggesting Barbera killed two Iraqi boys in an unjustified shooting. He learned of the accusations in 2009, when Army criminal investigators began looking into the reports.
“Honestly, I would have expected that to be reported at the time of the incident,” said Poppas, who is now the deputy commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division.
The Army declined to press charges against Barbera after its first investigation. It filed charges against him late last year after The Tribune-Review of Pittsburgh published a report on the incident based on witness accounts.
Barbera, from Staten Island, N.Y., faces two counts of murder and two counts of obstructing an Army investigation. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Four soldiers who served with Barbera at the time of the killings have said in court that the boys’ deaths weighed on them even though they did not report their concerns to their chain of command.
“It was always on my mind that something happened,” said Dary Finck, a former cavalry scout who now lives in Arlington. He stayed quiet for years, he said, while he recovered from wounds he suffered in Iraq.
The four witnesses who have testified so far have given significantly different descriptions of the shootings. Two said enemy fighters attacked them after Barbera killed the cattle herders; one said no one shot at them.
They have differed on whether Barbera shot the Iraqis in the face, the back or the chest. They have different accounts about how many shots Barbera fired and whether he reported shooting Iraqis when he called for reinforcements during the team’s retreat.
One witness said another sergeant woke up sleeping soldiers in their hideout to tell them their position was compromised by the cattle herders and they were at risk. Two other witnesses said they did not hear that alert.
Finck said he saw the two cattle herders approach the team but did not shoot them because he could not tell whether they had a weapon.
“It just looked like a shepherd boy running on a berm,” he said. “The body language wasn’t anything that stood out to me as a threat or danger.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646