Unlike much of America, I’ve stayed quiet about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As a cop, I know initial media reports about any incident are usually wrong. I also know that many media outlets and internet commentators deliberately twist facts to inflame emotion. They’ll throw out empty, meaningless phrases like “he was shot in broad daylight, in his own hometown” even though that has literally nothing to do with the legality or illegality of the shooting.

And it goes without saying that in any incident involving a police officer, many people with absolutely no understanding of police work or lethal violence suddenly think they’re experts. After Brown’s death I expected a loud chorus of hysterical cries from people who had no idea what the hell they were talking about. I haven’t been disappointed.

“But he was unarmed!”

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the term “unarmed teenager”. Yes, Brown was an unarmed 18 year old. He was also 6’4″ and 292 pounds. Anyone who thinks an unarmed, 6’4″, 292 pound man can’t be a threat has never been punched in the face. Unarmed people can be extremely dangerous.

In 2012 an unarmed 17 year old beat an El Paso police officer to death. The officer was 29 years old, a former Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.


An off-duty police officer in New York City was beaten almost to death by an unarmed man last November.

In July, an unarmed 21 year old “felt like killing someone” and beat a 56 year old random victim to death at a train station in San Antonio.


In 2012, an unarmed 24 year old man beat a man to death for raping his daughter.


Those chanting “but he was unarmed” are pathetically ignorant of the reality of violence. Unarmed people hurt or kill others on a regular basis. No, that doesn’t mean every unarmed person needs to be shot; it does, however, mean an aggressive, unarmed person can be a threat to your life. The bigger and stronger that person is, the bigger the threat.

“All Michael Brown did was shoplift cigars.”

No, he didn’t “shoplift” anything. He committed a robbery. Shoplifting is a nonviolent crime, usually committed by people desperate to avoid confrontation. Robbery is violent. When someone uses or threatens force to take anything, no matter how unimportant or inexpensive, that’s robbery. If someone grabs you by the collar, reaches into your pocket and takes a single piece of chewing gum, the problem isn’t the lost gum. The problem is that someone used force to take your property.

Many media outlets refer to Brown’s crime as theft or shoplifting. That’s probably a deliberate lie, chosen specifically to downplay the crime Brown committed. The Daily Kos, which can always be trusted to produce inflammatory stupidity, said “Brown shoplifted some cigars on the day he was killed”, which does not in any way describe what happened (the same article also claimed “Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, apparently for the crime of jaywalking”).


Cracked magazine, which usually does a good job of cutting through nonsense, mentioned “robbery” but then decided to go full propaganda: “…the officer (who was aware of the previous robbery) saw Brown walking with the same cigars that had been stolen and suspected that he was the shoplifter.”


No, Cracked. He wasn’t a “shoplifter”. He was a robber. There’s a huge difference between someone who sticks cigars in his pocket and walks out of a store, versus a guy who grabs cigars, pushes a store owner around and threatens him, and then walks out. The first act is simple nonviolent theft, the second is a violent robbery.

Both Kos and Cracked assert the robbery didn’t matter, either because the officer didn’t know about it or because stealing $50 worth of cigars doesn’t justify a shooting. I offer a counterpoint: yes, the robbery is hugely important. We’ve heard conflicting reports about whether or not the officer was aware of the robbery, and I can’t say for certain he knew Brown was a robbery suspect. But Michael Brown sure as hell knew he had committed a robbery. He knew he was about to be arrested for something more serious than shoplifting. Does that mean Brown would likely react more aggressively toward the officer than someone who had committed simple theft? Based on my experiences dealing with suspects who just committed felonies, I’d say yes.

“The officer shot him six times!”

Yes, the officer shot Brown six times. That sounds excessive. It’s not. On TV and in movies, people get shot one time, fly through the air in a spray of blood and immediately die. In real life they don’t.

A police officer got into a gunfight with a robbery suspect in 2009. The officer shot the suspect 14 times with a .45 pistol, and 6 of the bullet wounds were nonsurvivable. The suspect still didn’t go down. The officer finally shot the suspect three more times, in the face and top of the head. The head shot finally stopped him, but didn’t kill him; he died later, at the hospital. An autopsy determined he hadn’t been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.


Last year I wrote an essay about what bullets really do (and don’t do). I described incidents I worked where people were shot but didn’t react the way most people think they should. These incidents include a robbery victim who was shot three times including once in the forehead and still ran 500 yards to find help, a young female shot through the thigh who showed no reaction at all, and a man with part of his head blown off who was still conscious and alert.


Police officers are trained to shoot until the threat is neutralized. Under stress we’re not counting bullets, we’re shooting until we’ve eliminated the threat. It is not at all uncommon for a person to take multiple bullets before they stop being a threat.

“The officer should have used his baton, Taser or pepper spray instead of his gun.”

Here’s a little-known reality about intermediate weapons: they don’t always work. In 20 years as a cop I’ve used my baton twice. Both suspects wound up in the hospital… eventually. At the time I was hitting them, they weren’t impressed. I’ve also pepper sprayed around 30 suspects. Pepper spray works on everyone… eventually. Some people don’t react to it right away. And even if you get a hit, that hit might not be enough to stop the suspect.

In 1992 a police officer responded to a domestic disturbance and confronted a violent wife abuser. The officer sprayed the suspect. The unarmed suspect beat and disabled the officer, then fractured the officer’s skull with a stick of firewood. The officer died shortly afterward.


Here’s a video of a March 2014 encounter between a police officer and suspect in a Philadelphia train station. The officer pepper sprays the suspect and hits him with a baton, to no effect. During the fight the suspect tries to disarm the officer.


Here’s one of an officer who pepper sprayed a combative suspect. It didn’t work. He then shot the suspect. The suspect disarmed the officer and tried to shoot him, then almost beat him unconscious.

But what about Tasers? Tasers work great, except when they don’t. If there’s not enough spread between the darts, the shock won’t disable the suspect. If one dart misses, no shock. If one dart gets hung up in clothing, no shock. If the Taser itself malfunctions, no shock.

And any intermediate weapon takes time to deploy and properly use. If a large, aggressive suspect charges me, I know I have mere seconds to choose a force option and hope it works. Whatever I choose, I know it’ll likely be the only weapon I can employ before the suspect is on me. Batons, pepper spray and Tasers all have significant failure rates. In some cases, the best option is to go straight for the pistol.

“Witnesses said Brown was giving up when he was shot.”

Witnesses have said a lot of things. Shockingly, Brown’s friend insists he and Brown were innocently minding their own business until an evil racist police officer cursed at them, ordered them out of the street, grabbed 6’4″ Brown around the neck (without even getting out of his patrol vehicle!), shot Brown as he was running away, then shot him again after Brown put his hands up in surrender.

There is no reason to disbelieve this version of events. Except for the fact that Brown’s friend was with him during the robbery, has a warrant for theft and giving a fake name to police, and, being Brown’s friend, is biased in his favor. Oh, and the multiple autopsies that show Brown wasn’t shot in the back.

This might be a shock to some, but sometimes people lie to protect their friends. Every time we cops show up to a bar fight, it’s practically a comedy routine from each “victim” and their friends. “Officer, I was walking by the pool table and that guy bumped into me. I said ‘Excuse me sir, I didn’t mean to bump you and I profusely apologize’, but the guy punched me! For no reason!” I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve wasted taking statements from bar fighters and their friends who insist they’re all sweet innocent angels who were viciously attacked for no reason.

I worked one shooting where the victim’s girlfriend swore – SWORE – that her boyfriend’s ex-wife had driven by and shot him as he and the girlfriend were leaving a restaurant. No other witnesses said anything even remotely like that. No physical evidence corroborated the girlfriend’s story. Eventually investigators figured out the boyfriend was shot by an unrelated woman during a fight between eight drunks in the parking lot. The woman even confessed. But the girlfriend still swore – SWORE – it was the ex-wife. Amazingly enough, witnesses with an axe to grind sometimes lie.

There are witnesses who insist Brown was attacked for no reason whatsoever. But at least two of those “witness” statements don’t match up to the physical evidence.

“Johnson [Brown's friend] said the officer hit Brown with another round as he was running away and fatally gunned him down after he stopped and raised his hands in surrender.”

“Brady [another alleged witness] said Brown and Johnson then ran away, while Wilson got out of his car and began shooting.”


No, the officer didn’t shoot Brown in the back as he was running away, unless all three forensic pathologists managed to miss the gunshot wound in his back during their autopsies. Call me crazy, but I’m not going to take their “That cop shot Brown for no reason as he was running away” statements as gospel. Another as-yet-unidentified witness made a statement in the background of a video taken right after the shooting. He said a shot was fired in the police car during a struggle, then Brown ran away, then was shot repeatedly after he turned and charged the officer. The witness statement begins around 6:30.

We will likely never know the identity of that witness and I’m sure that statement will never reach any court. But I think it was from an actual unbiased witness, and is probably closer to the truth than any other “witness” statement we’ve heard.

Bottom line

You’ll notice I said “I think” the videotaped witness statement is true, instead of saying “I know”. I’ve formed a opinion but can’t claim I know what actually happened. Officer Darren Wilson may have stopped Brown for walking in the street, then shot him repeatedly for absolutely no reason. Crazier things have happened.

But you know what’s more likely? Wilson simply ordered Brown and his friend to get out of the street, then realized they were robbery suspects and tried to stop them. Instead of complying, Brown shoved Wilson back into his vehicle, punched him (and maybe broke his eye socket), then ran away after Wilson fired a shot. Wilson jumped out and ordered Brown to stop. Brown chose to charge Wilson, who fired until Brown fell dead.

That’s what I think happened. But I don’t know for certain.

Since I don’t know the actual truth I’ll keep this opinion in the land of conjecture, where it belongs. I won’t scream about racism. I won’t demand prosecution as a way to curry favor with a particular demographic. I won’t excuse the thieving, brutal punks who use this alleged injustice as an excuse to be the murderers and looters they already were. I won’t let dumbass fantasies like “unarmed people can’t be a threat”, “he could have just used pepper spray” or “there’s never a reason to shoot someone more than once” influence my opinion. Instead, I’ll stand by and wait for actual evidence.

If that evidence shows Officer Wilson murdered Brown, I’ll fully support his prosecution. But if the evidence shows Wilson acted both legally and morally, I’m 100% on his side. Either way, I won’t let emotions drive my decision. Maybe a few others on TV and online, and a whole bunch of people in Ferguson, should try to keep their emotions in check as well.

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Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com, Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).

Part VII: Eric Lauzier, continued

Not long after they were pulled from the field and assigned to FOB Mahmudiyah, the chaplain invited first platoon to gather at his tent. The chaplain tried to give the men some encouragement, to help them deal with everything they had been through. Then Colonel Kunk and the operations sergeant major came in and joined the conversation. Lauzier remembers Kunk being friendly at first, asking the soldiers how they liked life at the FOB. And a soldier made the mistake of giving a totally benign, honest answer.

“It’s pretty good, sir. We have a gym and everything.”

“The gym?” Kunk roared. “You guys already fucked up the gym! It’s a mess!”

The colonel’s friendly talk turned into a profane, hostile tirade. He told the soldiers they were undisciplined pieces of crap who failed at their jobs. Soldiers made seething, near-insubordinate remarks back at him. The sergeant major stood by and said nothing. When their lieutenant tried to protest, Kunk screamed “You shut the fuck up!”, humiliating him in front of his subordinates. The lieutenant shut up. John Diem wound up being the voice of the platoon, professionally telling Kunk that he was wrong. Kunk wasn’t impressed.

After Kunk stormed off, the chaplain quietly said, “Well, that wasn’t what I expected from this meeting.”

Lauzier walked into the battalion Tactical Operations Center one day while a group of officers were having a discussion. One of the officers saw him and said, “Look, there’s one of them now,” which caused the others to burst out laughing. Furious, Lauzier left the building.

At the FOB the company held a “command climate survey”, where soldiers were asked how they felt about their leadership. After the results came back, the first platoon sergeant gathered the squad leaders. “I came out looking pretty good,” he said. Then he looked directly at Lauzier. “But according to this, some of you should face criminal charges.” Lauzier didn’t know what the hell the platoon sergeant was talking about, but the veiled threat shook him.

Lauzier felt abandoned, then started getting paranoid. One day he left a piece of paper with his Social Security Number, address and wife’s information on his cot, then briefly left the room. When he came back the paper was gone. He confronted the other soldiers in the room, demanding to know who took his paper. One of the men made a smartass comment. Lauzier drew his pistol, chambered a round, and pointed it at the man.

After a brief standoff, Lauzier holstered his pistol and walked out. When he returned, the paper was back on his cot. He won. But he knew he had lost control, and almost killed someone for no good reason.

The day he got back to the United States, Lauzier had a nice welcome home surprise: an FBI agent with a subpoena. He remembers thinking, Damn, guys, at least let me go home and see my wife first.

Lauzier’s career continued in a slow downward spiral. The effects left by his past combat experiences, threats of jail time over his head, and feelings of isolation combined to suck the drive out of him. He was removed from his position as squad leader and moved to division staff. Lauzier hated staff work. He wasn’t built for PowerPoints and operations orders. As time went on, he felt less and less like a soldier. And in effect, he was no longer treated like one.

In our first conversation, Lauzier summed it up: “They took my honor.”

Eric Lauzier

Eric Lauzier today

Despite the fact that I barely knew him, those words stung me. Honor comes from inside, not from others. There are people who truly believe all of us war veterans are deluded fools who were tricked into murdering innocent foreigners so rich people could get richer. Our sense of honor doesn’t depend on their opinion of us. And Lauzier’s sense of honor shouldn’t depend on the opinions of senior leaders who badly failed his entire platoon.

I told Lauzier that. I don’t know if he bought it.

As months went by, Lauzier slid into a deeper and deeper depression. He drank heavily every day. He lashed out at anyone who annoyed him. One day at a division formation, he heard a support company call out “Assassins!”, their company nickname, when they came to attention. Lauzier blew up at them. “Who the fuck do you guys think you are? Assassins? What the fuck ever. Not a single one of you has ever killed anyone!”

In another instance, Lauzier heard an officer talking about the attack on the Alamo. This officer hadn’t been in Bravo in Iraq. The officer told someone “That platoon was all screwed up, they had no idea what they were doing. That’s why the enemy was able to capture those two soldiers.”

Lauzier almost lost it. He angrily approached the officer and yelled, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Sometimes I was at that outpost with just one other guy, because we were stretched so fucking thin that we couldn’t spare anyone else! Don’t tell me we were fucked up, you weren’t there and you don’t know what the hell was going on!”

Someone pulled Lauzier away, and later apparently explained to the officer what had really happened. The officer apologized to Lauzier. Lauzier doesn’t know how he wasn’t Article 15ed for what he did.

With the depression, anger, alcohol abuse and threats of jail time came the almost inevitable thoughts of suicide. Lauzier started setting parameters: he wouldn’t do it unless he personally was court-martialed, he wouldn’t do it unless he was sure he was going to prison. “I can deal with a lot, but I wasn’t going to prison for something I didn’t do. I would have taken myself out first.”

More than once Lauzier sat at home, alone and drunk, with the muzzle of his .45 in his mouth. One tiny motion of one finger would have ended it all. And more than once, the thought of his wife’s horror at finding him with his head blown off stopped him.

Yet he still resisted seeking help. He didn’t relent until a civilian contractor he worked with, a man he barely knew, took him aside one day. The contractor was a combat vet from the 75th Ranger Regiment. He bluntly told Lauzier, “I’m worried about you. You’re fucked up. You can be an absolute killer at work, but still be a total wreck at home. Right now, you’re a total wreck. And you need help.”

Lauzier finally went to a psychiatrist. About twenty minutes into the conversation, the psychiatrist told Lauzier he needed to be chaptered out. Lauzier’s career was almost over.

Months after he came home from Iraq, Lauzier ran into Justin Watt on post. Lauzier was at this point barely hanging on. “By this time, I didn’t give a fuck. I just didn’t care.” And he had heard rumors of soldiers from his old platoon plotting to retaliate against Watt.

If Watt had never turned in the murderers, Lauzier wouldn’t have suffered the loss of his honor. He would probably still have been leading troops, preparing them for their next deployment, instead of fighting alcoholism, depression, anger and suicidal impulses. Lauzier might be forgiven for feeling anger at Watt.

But he wasn’t angry at Watt then, and isn’t now. When he saw Watt that day, he told him he’d watch his back. He offered to let Watt move into his house if he didn’t feel safe on post.

Lauzier is rightfully proud of standing up for Watt, But, oddly enough, he continually blames himself for what he feels are leadership failures. When Lauzier and I talked about the firefight where he directed supporting arms onto the enemy and got his men out without casualties, Lauzier didn’t brag about it. Instead, he berated himself for going on that patrol too light, without enough men or firepower. He gets angry at himself for forgetting details of certain events, an inevitable byproduct of a traumatic brain injury. When we talked about how others in the platoon praised him for always being outside the wire, how they said he always led from the front and never made his troops take risks he wouldn’t take, he didn’t respond with pride. Instead, after several conversations and maybe a few beers, he revealed a not-so-hidden emotion:

Eric Lauzier thinks he didn’t do enough. He thinks he allowed his platoon sergeant to walk all over him and strip his squad of manpower. Because they were stripped so bare, not enough supervisors were around to keep tabs on the men. That lack of supervision at least contributed to the Yusufiyah murders. If he had just stood up for his squad, they wouldn’t have been so shorthanded, supervisors could have done their jobs and the murders would never have happened. Long story short, Lauzier thinks the murders were at least partly his fault.

Lauzier told me that about two hours into a phone conversation. When he discussed other aspects of his story, he was calm. There was nothing exciting in his description of the invasion of Iraq. He mentioned his hand-to-hand kill in passing. The ambush outside Rushdie Mullah where Lauzier and his troops barely escaped death could have been a ping-pong game, for the utter lack of passion Lauzier displayed when he talked about it. But when he talked about his perceived failure to stand up to his platoon sergeant, the tone of our conversation changed. Lauzier became serious, passionate and angry. And guilt poured forth from wounds I never thought he’d have.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-vii/

First platoon soldier on guard at the Alamo

First platoon soldier on guard at the Alamo

Staff Sergeant Eric Lauzier heard the gunfire at the Alamo. Sudden and heavy, multiple weapons opening up on full auto at once. And Private First Class Tucker screaming on the radio that they were being overrun.

Lauzier was at a patrol base maybe 1300 meters away when it happened. He and several other soldiers scrambled to load up and haul ass toward the gunfire. When they arrived a few minutes later, Lauzier didn’t see a soul. Just a Humvee with two M4s on the hood, and spent AK shells. Dozens of them.

Less than half an hour before the attack, Lauzier had driven past the single Humvee pulling security at the bridge they called the Alamo. PFC Kristian Menchaca and Specialist David Babineau had been standing on opposite sides of the hood, while PFC Thomas Tucker manned the turret machine gun. Lauzier and the others ran around trying to find their soldiers. The only thing Lauzier saw was a huge pool of blood where he had last seen Menchaca.

Someone spotted a trail of AK shells leading away from the Humvee, along the road. They followed it to a spot a short distance away. And there was Babineau in a canal, helmet off and weaponless, half submerged in muddy water, dead from multiple gunshot wounds.

Lauzier was on his second tour of Iraq. He knew the enemy. He knew what was happening to the captured soldiers. He thought Tucker had been taken alive, but actually hoped that Menchaca had died at the Alamo.

Lauzier kept it together. Like everyone else in the platoon, he had been through a lot already. The constant stream of casualties, incessant IED and small arms attacks, and near-total loss of faith in senior leadership had taken their toll. Their company had lost all three platoon leaders in less than three months, something that probably hadn’t happened to an American infantry company since Vietnam. Five helicopters were shot down in their area of operations during their deployment, and helicopters stopped supporting them except in the direst of emergencies. Medical evacuation requests for wounded Americans were sometimes denied, sometimes birds wouldn’t provide air support during firefights. But they’d always come out for a wounded Iraqi civilian. It would be difficult to describe how bitterly angry this made first platoon.

Lauzier had been dealing with all this for eight months, usually getting no more than four hours sleep a night. He was worn out. And he felt he was being singled out by the platoon sergeant, who overloaded his squad with tasks while simultaneously stripping the little bit of manpower he had left. But he hadn’t shut down, hadn’t backed off his responsibilities.

Just weeks earlier, Lauzier had led a small team on a patrol near the town of Rushdie Mullah and was ambushed by insurgents firing from multiple positions. The team was pinned down and in trouble. Lauzier kept his calm, directed mortar fire onto one group of enemy, had his men suppress the remaining insurgents, and managed to pull everyone out without a single casualty.

Eric Lauzier in Iraq

Eric Lauzier in Iraq

Lauzier was widely regarded as a dedicated and proficient squad leader. He had served an enlistment as a Marine Corps infantryman before joining the Army, and planned on retiring from the military. Before Iraq he had tried and failed Special Forces selection, and was planning on going back after the deployment. He liked combat, and was one of very few soldiers in the Army who had a confirmed hand-to-hand kill. He knew war, and expected pain and tragedy from it. The loss of three more first platoon soldiers at the Alamo was a hard blow, but Lauzier could take it.

A few days later, just after their missing soldiers were found, Lauzier heard the platoon sergeant call the company commander on the radio. The platoon sergeant told the commander he needed to come to the patrol base, but wouldn’t tell the company commander why. Then he dropped the hint, “Haditha.”

Word started floating around that something bad had happened. This obviously wasn’t something like a lost sensitive item, and as far as Lauzier knew there had been no serious incidents between any soldiers in the platoon. It couldn’t be any of the normal things that the Army says are bad, it had to be something far worse. He went over the possibilities in his head. Nothing stuck out. Nothing, except for the murder of the family near Checkpoint 2 back in March.

Lauzier had been home on leave when the family was murdered. When he came back to Iraq, the platoon sergeant showed him photos from the scene. Lauzier had never seen anything like it. He had been to Iraqi homes where the father and oldest son had been murdered, but had never seen women and children targeted. And the young girl had been left on the floor with legs spread, her body burned. Lauzier thought she had probably been raped.

Lauzier hadn’t connected his soldiers at Checkpoint 2 with the crime. But when the battalion commander came around asking questions, it suddenly hit him. After Tony Yribe came out of his interrogation, Lauzier asked him what it had been about. Yribe said, “I can’t tell you.” Lauzier held up two fingers and mouthed, “Checkpoint 2?” Yribe nodded. And Lauzier thought, Those motherfuckers.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-vi/

Sergeant John Diem: “We can only do our best to deserve the public’s trust.”

Sergeant John Diem in Iraq

Sergeant John Diem in Iraq

Sergeant John Diem had four hours to think about his decision.

After Justin Watt told Diem about the war crime, Diem had guard duty. He had decided, within seconds of hearing Watt’s story, to report it. But then he sat in a guard tower, with hours to change his mind.

He didn’t know Watt had already reported the crime. As far as he knew, he would be the whistleblower. He knew the turmoil that would result from reporting it. Heads would roll, and not just the heads of those responsible. He initially brushed off Watt’s fears of retaliation, because he “just couldn’t see a firefight happening between American soldiers.” But he eventually realized Watt was right; the soldiers he reported might try to kill him. Diem was in the same platoon, and logically would face the same danger of retaliation.

And Diem could have just washed his hands of the whole thing. He thought Watt was going to report it anyway. Diem didn’t have to get involved at all.

But Diem never considered staying quiet.

When Watt told Diem about the murders, Diem saw only one course of action. He had to notify his chain of command. The probable second- and third-order effects of reporting the crime were obvious, and substantial. He never let those concerns affect his decision.

As soon as his guard shift was over, he went straight to his platoon sergeant and platoon leader and relayed Watt’s story. He intentionally went around his squad leader. He made the platoon leader tell him when he was going to report it higher. The report went up the chain exactly the way it was supposed to. Diem never doubted for a second that he had done the right thing. And he never worried about retaliation, either. He did what he had to do, and didn’t look back.

Watt and Diem shared traits which suggest Watt’s decision should have been as “simple” as Diem’s. In 2006 they were only twenty-three years old. Both are smart guys. Both had substantial combat experience. So why, I wondered, was Watt so terrified about reporting the crime, but Diem so calm about it?

Diem was calm partly because his circumstances were different. While Watt and Diem were both young, Diem was far more experienced and established. He was a veteran of the Iraq invasion and had been promoted to sergeant shortly before the 2006 deployment. Watt was a peer to the men who committed the rape and murders, but Diem, as a sergeant, was above and intentionally distant from them. He was there to lead soldiers, not to be their friends. And despite all the problems with discipline and failed leadership in first platoon, Diem still had a solid NCO network behind him. Watt only had the few people he trusted for support.

Strangely enough, nobody seemed angry at Diem for reporting the crime. Nobody I spoke to mentioned threats against Diem, and Diem says he was never threatened or rebuked. Apparently, nobody in the platoon expected him to do anything other than report it. Watt has been the target of much anger for his decision, but Diem seems to have been given a pass. Maybe that’s because Watt, as a lower-enlisted soldier, is viewed as having had a choice.

But Diem was, well, Diem. Nobody thought he would do anything but report it. Watt is seen as the whistleblower, Diem simply the conduit.

But I don’t think differences in their status or situation are all that made Diem so confident in his decision. I think Diem just believed so strongly in the mission and in what being a soldier means, he simply didn’t feel fear over doing the right thing. I suspect he wouldn’t have been scared even if he had been in PFC Watt’s shoes, rather than being a sergeant in another squad. Which doesn’t mean Watt shouldn’t have been scared, or that Diem would have been right not to be. It just means his confidence in his beliefs somehow transcends fear.

Iraq is Hell 118

In Blackhearts, Diem is described as a Dungeons and Dragons-playing nerd. Diem bristles at that depiction. So does Watt. Watt says, “Yeah, John plays computer games. And he’s an absolute killer in combat. The rock-steady tone he uses in phone conversations is the same tone he uses when someone’s shooting at him. He’s just a solid, unshakeable guy.”

None of the soldiers I interviewed about this incident are stupid. All are well above average intelligence, but Diem is brilliant. As a former armorer, range coach, tanker, scout and current intelligence soldier, I’ve made many good-natured jabs toward my “dumb infantry” friends. But nobody who spends ten seconds talking to Diem could even joke about him being stupid (during the recent FIFA championship he posted on Facebook, “I think the current uptick in soccer’s popularity is a fairly strong case for a considerable amount of slumbering nationalism present in the US population. We are just looking for an acceptable opportunity,” to which I replied, “Are you sure you’re infantry?”). Diem could be, and probably will be, a college professor someday, despite the fact that he doesn’t yet have a college education.

Some of the nonveteran public likes to view soldiers as poor, stupid, mostly minority kids who only joined the military because they couldn’t find a job. If they meet Diem, a profoundly intelligent man who willingly chose an infantryman’s life and four combat deployments, they’ll likely never buy that stereotype again. He truly believes in the Army and in soldiering. Like me, he’s not a blind idealist; he sees the problems that plague the Army, and recognizes institutional shortcomings that contributed to the Yusufiyah murders. Unlike me, he believes the solutions to those problems lie within Army doctrine, training and education. He’s self-assured, introspective, and brutally candid about leadership failures.

About his 2006 deployment, he says, “We did not deploy to win, we deployed to bring everyone home at the company level. Some junior leaders wanted to conduct combat operations but did not tie these operations to a coherent tactical vision. It was too reactive. For the most part we only did what we had to.”

Alone among the men I interviewed for this story, Diem chose to stay in the Army. And he’s not just staying for a paycheck, or biding his time until he can retire with benefits. He’s actively trying to make institutional changes that will prevent another incident like the one that destroyed an innocent Iraqi family and nearly tore his unit apart in 2006. He’s one of the few “true believers” I’ve met during my military and law enforcement careers.

I know a little about true believers. As a cop I helped train many officers how to respond to mass shooting incidents like Sandy Hook or Columbine. One thing we stressed to our students was belief in the mission; if you truly believed in what you were doing, you were less likely to hesitate when circumstances demanded action. An officer who thinks “I’m not dying for someone else’s kids” or “My only job is to get home at the end of my shift” isn’t who you want to show up when someone opens fire inside a school. You need an officer who believes in his heart that the lives of strangers’ children are just as precious as his own. You need someone who doesn’t view survival as the only indicator of success, you need cops who know that dying to defend the innocent is better than staying safe while innocents are slaughtered. You need true believers.

Many of us look back with envy at the warriors of World War II because, in our idealized view of that war, they epitomize the true believer. Yes, they faced horrible combat and staggering losses, much worse than what most of us Iraq and Afghanistan vets faced. But unlike our generation’s dubious struggles to create democracy for people who don’t want it, the causes during WWII seem pure. Hitler’s evil and the Imperial Japanese Army’s inhuman brutality were worth dying to defeat. As a child I often heard my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles discuss family and friends who died in Europe or the Pacific. They never discussed those losses with bitterness or resentment. Yes, the deaths were painful and tragic. No, those young lives weren’t wasted. They died for a just cause.

In Iraq, I struggled to believe in the mission. My company had the unglamorous job of escorting supply convoys to various bases. We didn’t often escort material vital to the war effort, instead we usually guarded food and creature comforts. The objective truth was that we were risking our lives to ensure “fobbits” had weekly steak and lobster, the latest gangsta rap CDs and every XBox game known to man. And I was bitterly resentful about that. That made convoy missions harder for me, because I just didn’t think they were worth my life. I never tried to weasel out of one, but I never truly believed in their importance.

Afghanistan was, to a point, very different. I did believe in the mission. For most of my deployment I felt, should I have died there, it would have been worth it. The belief helped me through difficult times. During one fight, a captain simply suggested I help him do something vitally important. I knew, without question, this thing had to be done. We all would have died rather than leave it undone, and there was a very good chance we would die doing it. Because I believed so strongly in this task, I did it without hesitation. Looking back now, five years later, I don’t remember feeling any fear at all. I had accepted its importance. I understood that my life was worth less than this task. I was, for that short time, a true believer.

John Diem leads his life as a true believer.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-v/

In Part III, Justin Watt had just secretly reported his platoon mates for rape and murder, and desperately hoped he wouldn’t be found out. http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2014/08/06/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-iii/


A first platoon soldier on patrol

A first platoon soldier on patrol

The day after John Diem’s report was forwarded to the company commander, the battalion commander and sergeant major went to the checkpoints where Cortez, Barker and Spielman were assigned. Colonel Kunk questioned them about the reported crime. All denied any knowledge or involvement. Then Kunk and the sergeant major went to Watt’s patrol base. Yribe was also there. Watt, on duty behind a machine gun in a Humvee turret, watched Kunk’s convoy drive in. He was scared out of his mind, hoping he wasn’t about to get outed.

“PFC Watt!”

Oh, shit. He climbed out of the turret and jogged to Colonel Kunk and the sergeant major. They took him to a small, dank room in a dilapidated building. The colonel and sergeant major sat on MRE boxes, but told Watt to stay at attention. A few soldiers at the checkpoint watched what happened next.

Kunk screamed that he should charge Watt with filing a false report. He accused Watt of trying to get out of the Army. He asked why Watt wanted to ruin his fellow soldiers’ careers. He and the sergeant major said Watt was just repeating third-hand information and had no idea what he was talking about.

Watt was sweating bullets. He knew that Yribe was standing behind him, watching it all. He desperately tried to explain to Colonel Kunk why he reported the war crime, and why he believed his squad mates were guilty. Kunk brusquely told Watt to shut up and go back to his post.

Incredulous at what had just happened, Watt slunk back to the Humvee. He watched the battalion commander load up with his convoy. The vehicles drove out the gate, turned the corner and disappeared.

The exact thing that Watt had been afraid of had happened. He had been publicly identified, then abandoned. Word would spread. Retaliation was almost certain.

“I can’t explain to you how I felt watching that convoy drive away,” Watt told me. “I thought I was a dead man.”

But then Watt heard a voice on the radio. Sergeant John Diem, at another checkpoint just down the road, had seen the convoy leaving the patrol base. The twenty-three year old junior sergeant, who wasn’t Watt’s team leader and wasn’t responsible for him, had done his job and reported the crime. The platoon sergeant and platoon leader had in turn pushed the information. The company commander had sent the report up the chain. But Diem wasn’t at all sure Colonel Kunk had done his job.

Diem keyed up and bluntly asked the battalion commander a question.

“Do you have Watt in your convoy?”

Colonel Kunk replied that he didn’t.

“You have to go back and get him. If you leave him there, they’ll kill him.”

Watt heard the radio traffic. He remembers that moment as a life-changing event. “Man, I’ll tell you something,” Watt says. “John Diem didn’t have to make that call, but he did. He’ll always be my hero for that.”

Kunk turned the convoy around and pulled Watt out of the patrol base. He had to leave two soldiers behind to make room, which is something Watt is still furious about. “He had no intention of taking me out of there. He didn’t have a single empty seat in his convoy. He was going to ask a few questions, call me a liar, and leave me there with the guys I had just reported for murder.”

Of all the shocking, horrible aspects to this story, Colonel Kunk’s decision to leave Watt at the patrol base stands out as one of the worst. As a leader, I can’t imagine leaving a soldier with the same people he just turned in for murder. I’ve asked several other senior enlisted men and officers what they would have done. Every single one said a soldier reporting something like this must be immediately shielded from the people he’s accusing. Even if the report is false, the whistleblower still has to be protected. If Colonel Kunk had heard this report ten minutes after he watched a captured insurgent video showing insurgents murdering the Iraqi family, even if he knew with 100% certainty that his soldiers didn’t do it, he still should have known that Watt’s life would be in danger for making the accusation.

And I don’t get why Kunk would even investigate this accusation himself. I understand trying to determine if what’s been reported is an actual crime; for example, if a soldier reports that someone from his unit sexually harassed another soldier, a commander might try to determine if what happened actually meets the definition of sexual harassment. But in this case, the incident reported was obviously a crime. There was no question it had occurred. The soldiers accused could realistically have done it. So why didn’t Kunk immediately turn it over to the Army’s criminal investigators?

I’d guess Kunk was already feeling the heat. His battalion had suffered an inordinate number of losses. Two of his soldiers had just been abducted, arguably because security at their site was so poor (and at this point Kunk was claiming he didn’t know how poor their security had been, even though he had seen the company’s personnel reports showing how many soldiers were at each checkpoint and had driven through that position more than a dozen times). On top of all the other black marks on his record, having soldiers under his command exposed for committing a war crime would make him look like he had lost control of his unit. So I’d bet he was simply making a show of “investigating” the crime, giving himself plausible deniability. “Oh, yes sir, I’m aware of that report. I already looked into it, it wasn’t credible.”

And the cynical, jaded part of me wouldn’t be surprised if someone just wanted the problem to magically disappear.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-iv/

Part III went up on Breach Bang Clear yesterday.


Justin Watt’s personal turning point came barely a month into the deployment.

Justin Watt in the Triangle of Death

Justin Watt in the Triangle of Death

He was on duty at a patrol base when the battalion commander arrived with his Personal Security Detail. Watt’s best friend Tyler Mackenzie was with them. Mackenzie had been Watt’s roommate back home and was assigned to the PSD in Iraq, probably because he was freakishly tall and the battalion commander wanted big guys as bodyguards. Watt and Mackenzie were ecstatic to see each other.

When Watt first came to the unit Mackenzie had been the one guy who didn’t give Watt the standard new-guy hard time (several soldiers in the platoon would kid Watt about being a “pussy”; his squad leader, Eric Lauzier, remembered Watt once asking “Sergeant, do you really think I’m a pussy?”, which guaranteed he’d be jacked with mercilessly from then on). Watt and Mackenzie were roommates, and “Mackenzie was the biggest, nicest Mormon kid I ever met,” Watt said. “He never cursed, never drank, and had a huge crush on a girl he was too afraid to talk to.” Watt wrote strongly-worded letters to Mackenzie’s girl for him, but Mackenzie chickened out and wound up rewriting them all.

At the patrol base Watt and Mackenzie spent a few minutes together. Watt had been at the base for almost thirty days straight, and one of the first things Mackenzie mentioned was how bad Watt smelled. Watt told him he hadn’t been able to contact his family because they had no phones or internet at their base. Mackenzie said, “Write a letter to your parents and give it to me. I’ll call tonight and read it to them.”

Watt quickly wrote the letter and gave it to his best friend. He and Mackenzie hugged, then Mackenzie and the PSD loaded up in their Humvees and rolled out. Minutes later, Watt heard the blast that killed Mackenzie and two other soldiers. A fourth soldier lost a leg. An IED had been planted less than a kilometer outside the gate.

After Mackenzie’s death, tragedies seemed to pile upon tragedies. Nelson and Casica’s deaths, which were more like murders, were horrific. The company First Sergeant was blown up and sent home. Everyone who went outside the wire had close calls with IED strikes and small arms fire. Civilians were killed by accident at checkpoints. Within three months, Bravo lost all three of its platoon leaders to IED attacks. As more men became casualties, Watt felt his chances for survival diminish. But he stayed in the fight, never faked an illness, never found excuses to keep him off missions, never took any fewer risks or shirked any responsibilities.

Then first platoon was called to one of the patrol bases and given good news. They were being pulled off checkpoint and patrol duties, and from then on would only guard bases. Watt openly wept in relief; by that time he had become convinced he would die if he stayed outside the wire.

The relief lasted a few hours, until word came down that the previous order had been a mistake. They were going back to the checkpoints, back to patrols, back to daily IED and gunfire attacks. Crushed, Watt made a deal with God: if he could survive until he went home on leave to see his family once more, he’d accept his death in combat afterward.

He made it home for leave. Then his parents dropped a secret on him: they had divorced while he was away. That night over dinner he told them he didn’t expect to survive the rest of his tour. It was the only time they discussed his possible death. He spent the rest of his mid-tour leave in a drunken, skirt-chasing stupor. On the last day of leave, as his mother drove him to the airport, she offered to send him to Canada.

Watt expected to die once he went back. He had no desire to be shot or blown up in Iraq to no purpose. But he believed in duty; he wasn’t going to be a hero, but he wouldn’t choose to be a coward. He passed on the chance to go to Canada, and headed back to war.

When he got to DFW airport he found a hidden area, out of sight of everyone, and broke down again. Then he spotted a chaplain at the gate. Watt had never been the most religious guy, and his faith was starting to flag. Hoping for reassurance, he asked the chaplain if a good person could go to heaven even if he didn’t believe everything Christians were supposed to. The chaplain said no; if someone didn’t believe in the Genesis story or accept Jesus as their savior, no heaven for them.

Deflated, Watt arrived back in Kuwait, where everyone transited through for leave. As soon as he got there he found out a huge fire at FOB Yusufiyah had destroyed what little he owned in Iraq. Laptop, family pictures, movies, books, music, all gone.

That night he finally slept for the first time in forty-eight hours. When he woke up, he gave up being scared. Fear left him right around the time he completely lost any faith in any God.

Mackenzie’s death was Watt’s turning point. After Mackenzie died, Watt slowly stopped believing in his leadership, and eventually gave up hope for survival. But for the rest of the platoon, the turning point was the day Lieutenant Britt and Specialist Lopez were killed.

On that day, Lieutenant Britt was leading an IED sweep on Route Caveman. Caveman was one of the most IED-laden routes in the company’s area of operations; it was also, in Justin’s and many other soldiers’ eyes, completely irrelevant. The route wasn’t critical to Bravo Company’s movement, and patrolling it wouldn’t restrict the enemy’s freedom either. The route just didn’t matter. But the battalion commander ordered Bravo Company to keep clearing the route, patrols kept getting hit by IEDs, first platoon and Bravo Company argued the route was too dangerous to patrol, Lieutenant Colonel Kunk demanded the route be cleared, and nothing changed.

Watt had a conversation with Lieutenant Britt before that sweep. When Watt talked about how dangerous Route Caveman was, Lieutenant Britt brushed it off. “Just consider the percentages, Watt. Hundreds of thousands of troops have deployed to Iraq. Less than two thousand have been killed. The chances of you dying here are statistically remote.”

Hours later, Lieutenant Britt’s patrol was ambushed with small arms and a remote-fired RPG. When Lieutenant Britt followed an order to recover the RPG launcher, he walked over a buried IED. The explosion blew his body into a canal and tore Specialist Lopez in half.

The next day, Route Caveman was declared “black”. Closed, never patrolled again. Caveman was supposedly so important it had to be cleared no matter how dangerous it was. But as soon as they took those two casualties, Bravo Company effectively ceded the route to the enemy. Which is what Watt and everyone else thought should have been done in the first place.

Britt had been a highly respected leader, loved by his men. Lopez had just come home from a deployment to Afghanistan, been transferred to the 101st and sent to Iraq to replace another soldier killed earlier. Two tragic, and stupid, losses, which accomplished literally nothing.

Britt and Lopez’s deaths stripped the platoon of its last vestiges of trust in senior leadership. The battalion commander and sergeant major seemed to have no understanding, or concern, about what was happening to Bravo Company. From that point, it seemed to Watt that first platoon gave up on the traditional rank and authority structure. The platoon’s first platoon sergeant had surreptitiously found a noncombat job, its second platoon sergeant lasted a month before being removed, the third platoon sergeant exerted a lot of authority but almost never left the wire. Of the three squad leaders only one, Lauzier, consistently led his troops from the front. The others hung back, leaving lower-ranking troops to lead dangerous missions. The missions were stupid, most of the leaders obviously didn’t believe in them, and the soldiers felt like their deaths and therefore their lives meant nothing.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-iii/

Part II went live on Breach Bang Clear yesterday.


PFC Steven Green had just told Sergeant Tony Yribe he murdered an entire family.

To put it mildly, Green wasn’t the most credible guy in the platoon. Yribe didn’t believe him. However Green, who had not gone on the patrol to the house, was able to exactly describe the crime scene: he knew where all the victims were, what positions they were in, and how they had been killed. Yribe decided, for reasons he will explain later, not to report it. Instead, he told Green he would be kicked out of the Army. Yribe would send him back to combat stress, Green would report that he was going insane, the Army would look at his previously known mental problems and discharge him.

Green went to combat stress. Within weeks, he was out of Iraq and out of the Army. The crime was effectively covered up. Local Iraqis didn’t suspect Americans had committed the crime; the only people who knew were the criminals themselves, plus PFC Howard and Sergeant Yribe. Among all the other violence raging throughout Iraq, the mass murder of an innocent Iraqi family was quickly forgotten.

Three months later, on June 16th, 2006, first platoon was hit by an absolutely predictable disaster. Three low-ranked soldiers, left to guard a bridge alone at a position called the Alamo, in only one vehicle with no barricades at all for protection, were attacked by insurgents. Other platoon members at different checkpoints heard the gunfire, rushed to the bridge and found Specialist David Babineau dead in a canal. Two PFCs, Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker, were missing. The American military went into overdrive to find the missing soldiers. Already stressed, weakened and battered, first platoon was now in chaos.

Engineer bridge at the Alamo

Engineer bridge at the Alamo

In the midst of that chaos, Justin Watt and Tony Yribe found themselves having a quiet conversation at a Forward Operating Base. They had been sent there for medical appointments before the attack on the bridge checkpoint. When they heard about it and tried to go back to their platoon, they were told to stay put.

Watt was incredulous; he couldn’t believe what was happening, what had been happening for months. He had withstood all the horror and heartache of the deployment thus far without bending; he had watched Nelson and Casica fade away after they were shot, absorbed the emotional blow when Lieutenant Britt and Specialist Lopez were blown apart by an IED, seen civilians shot and tried to save their lives, risked his life in firefights, and through it all he kept it together. But now he felt broken. On top of everything he had suffered so far, now he had to accept that another of his friends was dead and two more were probably being tortured to death. As he took in the desperate frenzy of activity, he asked Yribe a question.

“Sarge, before we deployed over here, did you ever imagine it would come to this? I can’t believe what’s happening. This is fucked up.”

Yribe nodded. “You know what’s even more fucked up?”

Curious, Watt asked, “No, what?”

“You remember that family that was murdered near Checkpoint 2 back in March?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Watt replied. What Yribe said next stunned him.

“That was us,” Yribe said. “Green did that.”


Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-ii/


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