A former soldier who witnessed one of his peers shooting two unarmed Iraqi boys in 2007 stayed quiet about the killings for more than two years because he feared retaliation from his command.
The witness assumed the Army would protect the shooter, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, in part because he believed their unit “covered up” an earlier incident in which Barbera and a lieutenant injured four soldiers in a grenade incident.
“I didn’t have any faith or trust in (the command’s) decisions, so who am I going to report it to?” said Ken Katter, a former Army sergeant who served with Barbera in Iraq in 2006-07.
Barbera is in court this week at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a preliminary hearing that could lead to his court-martial on charges that he murdered the two Iraqi teenagers on March 6, 2007. If the case goes to trial and he’s convicted, he’ll face a mandatory minimum life sentence.
No one among the seven soldiers with Barbera on the day of the shootings reported concerns about him until April 2009, when Katter was assigned to a medical unit at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Katter said he wanted to report the crimes right after leaving the military. He contacted Army criminal investigators while he was in a transitional unit. While there, he said he was disciplined in such a way that he believed Barbera and other soldiers from his Iraq deployment were trying to sabotage his remaining time in the military.
Five soldiers from Fort Bragg’s 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment who were with Barbera on the day of the shootings have testified this week. They said they did not consider the boys a threat when they approached a hideout the soldiers were using to observe a hostile village.
“They looked like kids,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Grimsley.
Katter said he suspected a cover-up would follow his complaint about the shootings because he did not observe any serious discipline from the earlier grenade incident.
That incident unfolded when soldiers were clearing suspected hideouts in canals. Barbera and Lt. Nicholas Bajema reportedly tossed two grenades in a single hole, causing shrapnel to explode outward. The blast injured four troops. They were supposed to throw only one grenade at a time.
One of the four injured soldiers received a Purple Heart, a medal that is supposed to be for troops who suffer combat wounds from enemy contact.
Katter said he heard through “scuttlebutt” that soldiers reported they came under enemy attack.
Their commander at the time, now Brig. Gen. Andrew Poppas, testified Thursday that Bajema and Barbera owned up to their mistake. He said the blast was reported correctly to commanders.
Katter, a former civilian police officer, said Friday he should have told Poppas right away that he suspected Barbera’s shooting of the two Iraqi boys was an unjustified killing. But he did not trust his immediate command enough to do so, he said.
Poppas “isn’t going to put me in a safe area after I report that,” he recalled thinking. “I’m going to have to go back to my platoon and deal with all that stuff.”
The Army declined to press charges against Barbera, 31, after the 2009 investigation. Katter was a source for a 2012 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report that recreated the killings based on witness accounts and preceded the Army’s decision to file charges against Barbera.