An Army paratrooper’s crude attempt to stymie a newspaper investigation caused him more trouble than his questionable shooting of two Iraqi cattle herders seven years ago.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera, who once faced life in prison on charges that he murdered two noncombatants, on Thursday was demoted one rank for threatening the wife of the reporter who investigated Barbera’s role in a blown reconnaissance mission that led to the deaths of three Iraqis.
Barbera also must forfeit $10,000 of his salary over the next 10 months.
It was a light sentence from an Army judge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that clearly relieved Barbera, 33, who has maintained his decision to shoot two Iraqis during a March 2007 mission “was the right thing to do in combat.”
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Barbera and his attorney declined to comment. After the sentencing by Army Judge Col. Andrew Glass, Barbera smiled broadly and embraced his attorney, David Coombs.
As a result of the sentencing, Barbera is to be demoted to staff sergeant. He could stay in the Army, or soon be eligible for an early retirement.
“He should be allowed to get back to what he does best, and that’s lead soldiers,” Coombs said to Glass in arguing for a light sentence.
The Army in September dropped more serious charges it had filed against Barbera, including two counts of murder that could have sent Barbera to jail for life. Barbera pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of communicating a threat.
Barbera in court was unapologetic about the March 2007 mission that led the Army to twice investigate him on suspicion of unjustified killings.
He said he was “angry” when he learned that journalist Carl Prine of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in October 2011 was investigating the incident.
At the time, Barbera was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan.
He said he was trying to move on from the 2007 shooting at the center of Prine’s investigation. Barbera had been reprimanded for the incident after the Army investigated the shootings in 2009.
“I got angry and I got upset. I made a hasty, bad decision,” Barbera said.
Prine’s message prompted Barbera to search for Prine’s home phone number. Barbera called the house four times until Prine’s wife, Deanna, answered.
“Your husband is working on a military story — something that happened in 2007. For your personal safety, you need to tell him to stop working on the story,” Barbera said.
In a written statement, Deanna Prine said she was disappointed by Barbera’s sentence.
“They're only giving him a pathetic slap on the wrist,” she said. “The Army that I thought I knew wouldn't have tolerated Barbera and his ilk for a moment. I'd like to think the military upholds an ethos that we all aspire to, but this whole experience has proven me incorrect. I'm not really sure what to think of the Army anymore.”
Barbera in March 2007 led a reconnaissance mission to observe a hostile village in Iraq’s Diyala Province. He blew his team’s cover when he shot two young Iraqi cattle herders, which forced the soldiers to flee from their hidden position and led to the shooting of another Iraqi, according to testimony at a pretrial hearing in April.
Some of his teammates remained troubled by the incident and spoke about the killings to Prine, who also is an Iraq veteran. The newspaper’s report in late 2012 prompted the Army to reopen the case.
Prine traveled to Iraq and met with the victims’ family members, who identified the boys as deaf teenage brothers.
None of the five members of Barbera’s Iraq reconnaissance team who testified at the pretrial hearing perceived the Iraqi cattle herders as a threat until Barbera exposed the unit’s position by firing a weapon, according to their testimony.
Barbera was serving in an Alaska-based unit at the time of the newspaper investigation. He was serving in the 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, N.C. during his 2007 Iraq deployment. The Army moved him to Lewis-McChord for his court-martial.