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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.”


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Recently I wrote an essay titled “Please, Open Carriers, Stop ‘Defending my Rights’” ( In it I explained that I’m a 2nd Amendment supporter, and that I think it’s absolutely ridiculous for so-called “gun rights activists” to open carry AKs and ARs into private businesses, especially if they’re carrying at the combat ready (what I call “Stupid Carry”). I gave good reasons why OCing a rifle into Chipotle or Starbucks creates enemies of the 2nd Amendment, rather than gaining support.

It was the most successful essay I’ve ever written. 55,000 people read it in one day. It’s been shared on many gun forums, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Numerous 2nd Amendment supporters agreed with me. Of course many others didn’t, and made sure I knew they didn’t.

You are a sellout, plain and simple. Just another spineless Repugnicunt. Please Sunshine Patriot. Fuck off.

the second amendment was put in place to fight off a tyrannical government and thats it, not hunting not sporting to protect people liberty the constitution its self when you dont have a means of doing that your dead already you no marine guy tell you combat buddys share your posts with your unit they would give you a blanket party every night your a disgrace to everyman and women whos ever wore that uniform.

2A is the right to bear arms, period. You butters who judge who, what, where, and how are playing right into the MDA’s hands. Legal carry is legal carry. Grow a set or STFU.

You people bashing your fellow gun owners are ignorant cowards. They are exercising their rights, either get behind them or stop talking like you support the 2nd amendment. The hypocrisy and PC bullshit from you supposed patriots is pathetic.

According to these guys, if you don’t support open carrying a rifle into Chipotle you’re a “butter”, which is a person who says “I support the 2nd Amendment but…”. I guess I’m one of the worst butters, since I’ve been so vocal about the blatant stupidity of walking into Chipotle with an AK. And I do say, “I support the 2nd Amendment, BUT I think you’re a moron if you walk into Chipotle with an AK at the combat ready.”

I find the whole “butter” thing pretty amusing. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the principle; we’ve heard many elected representatives say stupid things like “I support the 2nd Amendment for hunting. But I don’t see a reason to own an assault rifle.” Those people don’t understand what the 2A is for. It’s not about hunting, it’s about the citizens’ right to resist tyranny. In fact, since Newtown I’ve written several essays about the importance of the 2A.

These are about how armed citizens and armed teachers can deter and defeat active shooters.

This one is about the importance of keeping military weapons in civilian hands as a means to resist tyranny.

This essay is about an experience I had when I was a UN police officer in Kosovo, where I failed to stop other officers from stomping on people’s rights. This experience, probably more than any other, proved to me how important the 2nd Amendment is.

This one is about how ignorant of reality many gun control supporters are.

This is about the failure of gun control at its most fundamental level.

This essay is about how deadly force can be justified even against unarmed criminals.

In addition to writing about the importance of the 2nd Amendment for the last year and a half, I’ve been shooting and collecting weapons for thirty years. I’ve been a vocal gun rights supporter and opponent of gun control my entire adult life. As a cop I’ve strongly advocated citizens’ right to carry. As a soldier I’ve gone to war twice to defend our rights. But I think carrying an AR into a restaurant in a combat-ready hold is a stupid act that’s guaranteed to create enemies.

Since Newtown, the 2nd Amendment has been under incessant attack. When a grinning, shades-wearing OC activist poses like an immature child with his SKS ready to fire inside Chipotle, the anti-gun side screams “Look at this dangerous killer! This is why we need to ban guns!” And much of America agrees. Which leads to a greater likelihood of new gun restrictions. So this is probably nuts, but I kinda think we shouldn’t give more ammunition to the people who desperately want to disarm us.

But if I criticize Mr. Shades, I’m a “butter”. Well then, I guess I am. And I don’t care that the extremist, fringe, “If you disagree with me about anything you’re a traitor” crowd considers me a “butter”.

And anyway, I have my own opinions about the radical OC crowd. I think they’re living out a fantasy where they’re the righteous dragonslayers, bravely defending our rights while all other, lesser humans cower in terror. I suspect they surround themselves with likeminded friends who constantly reinforce their “us versus them” bunker mentality. And they’re pretty loose with who counts as “them”. They don’t only oppose the anti-gun side, they’ve even labeled many gun rights supporters enemies for not being sufficiently radical.

And some of them really think they’re at the forefront of a holy crusade. Some pretty interesting comments to my essay were from OC activists who compared their actions to the Civil Rights Movement.

…But if you want to defuse the argument further its really simple. All rights movements were ‘scary’ ‘offensive’ ‘stupid’ ‘wrong’ at the time, look at slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights….And oh how scary and offensive it must have been when the blacks sat down in the white cafe!

How long have you supported Jim Crow laws, Mr. Hernandez?

Yes, because carrying an AK in Chipotle is no different than blacks risking being beaten and arrested for sitting at whites-only counters. Gosh, those open carriers are so courageous to risk nothing by carrying weapons into places where they’re not threatened.

But civil rights comparisons weren’t the best comments. One guy made a weird comparison between the OC movement and resistance to the Holocaust.

First they came for the long gun open carriers, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a long gun open carrier.
Then they came for the pistol open carriers, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a pistol open carrier.
Then they came for the concealed carriers, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a concealed carrier.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

A longtime reader of my blog sent me an interesting essay which I think explains the psychology behind the extreme “I’m going to walk into Chili’s with an AK in a combat ready hold and if you think I’m wrong you’re a traitor!” group. Basically, they don’t care how their actions make them look. They don’t care that multiple, huge media outlets use their actions to smear the entire gun rights movement. They don’t care that many gun rights supporters are publicly saying “Please stop this, you’re hurting the gun rights movement!”

The writer of this essay, Lee Harris, was a Vietnam War protestor in the 60’s. His goal was to force a change to policy that would end the war, and he opposed anything that would create enemies of the anti-war movement. His friend, however, was going to participate in a massive, disruptive anti-war protest designed specifically to cause problems for the general public.

“My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

…The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.”

And the “I’m doing the lord’s work and you all are cowards” fantasy isn’t the only one these guys indulge in. Many of them cherish the fantastical belief that there is nothing threatening about carrying a rifle in public in a combat ready hold.

…the picture of the two standing in Chipotle “rifle at the ready” was taken by a customer wanting a cool picture, he had the safety knowledge to keep his finger off the trigger because realistically, that’s the only way the firearm will go off.

…[You’re] showing pictures of some guys with guns on their chest saying its threatening. I see nothing of the sort. Until I see a head down on the sight plane, gun in hands ready to engage, then I see no combat or combat ready posture.

So according to these guys, unless someone is actually pointing a weapon at you and pulling the trigger, there’s no threat. I find that humorous. Comparing that to pistol carry, I guess a guy walking around a restaurant with a pistol in a combat ready hold isn’t threatening either. If you saw me in Chili’s with my pistol in Sul, you’d have no reason to worry at all! I mean, my eyes aren’t on the sights, right?


What? You think there’s something threatening about me walking around a restaurant with my pistol in a combat ready hold? Hoplophobe! Anti-gunner! Butter!

Then again, since I can punch out and engage from this position in less than a second, maybe it is kinda threatening. Just like, oh, walking around Chipotle with my rifle combat ready is kinda threatening. I bet most OC activists would freak if a bunch of cops walked up to them with their pistols unholstered. But OC activists insist they’re not being threatening when they carry like that, and that only peoples’ irrational fear of guns would make them scared. Some of them like to accuse anyone who opposes stupid open carry of being scared of guns.

I guess that applies. I’m terrified of guns. Just hearing the word “gun” makes me wet my pants. Here’s proof that I’m scared of guns.

4452_1084593231917_5914735_n (2)
That’s me being scared of my M4 in Afghanistan.

That’s me being double scared in Iraq. Not only was an M4 up front, but a .50 was mounted above me.

That’s me screaming in terror as I fire my pistol from my back.

picture8, petty being a dick
That’s me being horrified of my personal M4 at a training course. The instructor is using a stick to make my carbine malfunction because he’s terrified of guns too.


I got tired of only being scared of ARs, so I decided to be scared of AKs too.


Here’s me teaching a friend to be scared of guns.


Here I am firing a carbine with my eyes closed because I’m just so terrified.


This is right after I came home from Iraq. I missed being terrified of all the M4s in Iraq, so I bought one to be scared of at home.


In this one I’m firing a suppressed French sniper rifle. I needed the suppressor because I shrieked like a little girl every time the gun made a big loud bang.

My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture
In these I’m being scared of my M14. Oh, and of the numerous AK-47s the Taliban were shooting at me at the time.

So, sure, I just oppose Stupid Carry because I’m scared of guns. Right. There’s no other possible explanation.

Or maybe seeing a bunch of yahoos walking around a restaurant carrying military weapons which are specifically designed to kill people quickly and efficiently is kinda scary to Joe Regular Guy. Maybe it’s scary because said yahoos carry them ready to engage. Should I blame Joe for getting nervous when Shades walks into Chipotle posing with his SKS? Call me crazy, but I just don’t see Joe as unreasonable for wanting to eat dinner with his family without complete strangers wandering around showing off weapons designed to kill people real fast.

And before you OCers start screaming “Hoplophobe! You’re scared of an inanimate object!”, calm down and answer this questions: why do YOU want military rifles? Is it because they’re completely non-threatening? Or is it because they’re powerful tools that give you the means to resist tyrannical force? I’d guess that you want them for the same reason I do, because it gives me means to resist. Doesn’t “means to resist” equal “power to kill”?

And who cares if it’s inanimate? An axe is inanimate, but if some joker walks into Chipotle with an axe over his head, yeah, I’d get nervous. If some clown walks in with an inanimate samurai sword in a special two-handed decapitating hold, yup, I’m going to prepare for a shooting. And if some “gun rights activist” hits the salad bar with an inanimate AK-47 in a combat hold, yes I’m going to keep one eye on that guy and one hand on my pistol.

Now, go right ahead and tell each other “That Chris Hernandez guy is a coward. He’s afraid of guns.” Prop each other up. Stroke each others’ egos. Cause you’re right, I’m oh-so-scared, while you’re so brave. I’ve only carried my weapons into foreign lands where thousands of people wanted to kill me. I’ve been shot at. I came damn close to being hit. Other around me did get hit.

Which means nothing, of course. I oppose Stupid Carry, so I’m a coward. You, on the other hand, have carried your weapons into Chipotle, where dozens of regular, unarmed people posed no threat to you at all.

How brave of you.

You want to do something that’s actually brave? Take responsibility for your actions. Admit that your desperate quest for attention gave the anti-gun side the equivalent of a neverending ammo belt to use against us. Stop blaming Moms Demand Action and Bloomberg for using your pictures as “propaganda”. You posed for those pictures yourself. All MDA did was use your own stupid actions against you. Stop blaming “gun snobs” for looking down on you. Other gun owners are looking down on you because you’re doing stupid crap that hurts the 2nd Amendment, not because they’re snobs. Stop hypocritically saying “It’s wrong to criticize the way someone exercises their 2nd Amendment rights” while simultaneously screaming “How dare you use your 1st Amendment rights to criticize me!” Stop contradicting yourselves by saying “carrying a rifle into Chili’s makes perfect sense!” and then saying “we’re only carrying rifles into Chili’s to show how ridiculous it is that we can open carry rifles but not pistols.”

Tell you what, if open carrying a rifle makes so much sense, do it when you’re by yourself. Don’t only do it when you’ve got 50 other guys with rifles to back you up. Walk into Chipotle by yourself, with your rifle in a combat ready hold. See what happens. Let us know how it works out for you.

Someday, if you guys ever grow up, you might realize you don’t own the 2nd Amendment. Just as the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t get to decide who “real” Christians are, you don’t determine who real 2A supporters are. I don’t have to prove my loyalty to you. No matter how many guns you carry into Target, you’re not the scariest people I’ve ever dealt with. You won’t frighten me into agreeing with you.

Liberals tell me I have to be a democrat because I’m Hispanic. Bullshit. Conservatives tell me I should be republican because I’m a veteran. Bullshit. Now you “gun rights activists” have created your own “you either support my right to stupidly pose with my SKS in Chipotle or you’re a butter” litmus test. You think you can intimidate all of us into falling in line with your extremism. You think I’m supposed to fall to me knees and beg you, “No, please don’t call me a butter! I’ll carry my M4 into Chipotle, I promise!”


In my very pro-2A world, extremists don’t speak for the rest of us. We didn’t give radicals keys to drive the pro-2A bus. The clowns giving ammo to MDA, Bloomberg, Jon Stewart and a host of liberal media outlets don’t represent me. In the country I fought for, nobody has the standing to tell me “You must think the same way I do.”

I can determine for myself what the 2A means. And I think I understand it much better than the guys wandering around Chipotle with AKs.

Hey guys,

The first installment of my Iraq war crime series went up on Breach Bang Clear yesterday. As I said before, this is probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. I hope I do the story justice.


Today Breach-Bang-Clear begins a series of articles that every military man and woman should read. It isn’t our normal tongue-in-cheek look at cool gear or stoopid crap. It’s a true story, about real American soldiers, who committed a horrible war crime during their 2006 deployment to Iraq.

The articles are not about the war criminals, though. They’re about the other soldiers in the platoon, the ones who found out about the crime. The ones who were forced to decide between staying silent or turning in soldiers they had stood shoulder to shoulder in combat with. The ones who did right despite the risk. The articles are about the war crime’s long-lasting effects, what the men around its edges endured, and what the Army is doing to prevent crimes like it from happening again.

This series isn’t for entertainment. It’s for education. It’s to get us thinking. It’s to help us make the right decision now, in case the worst happens and we someday find ourselves faced with one of war’s most horrible dilemmas.

By Chris Hernandez

Imagine this:

You’re twenty-three years old. You’re a lowly Private First Class with less than two years in the Army. You’ve been in Iraq eight months. Your platoon is overextended, barely able to cover all the patrols and static posts you’ve been assigned. Extra missions take what little rest time you have. Your losses have been horrendous; two men were shot at close range by a seemingly-friendly Iraqi, your platoon leader and a new man were blown apart by a buried bomb, one of your friends at an outpost was just killed and two others captured, tortured to death and mutilated. You’ve been living like animals, spending days at isolated, poorly protected, undermanned checkpoints where you’re regularly attacked with mortars and small arms. Your platoon has devolved into a tribe, where official leadership is almost nonexistent.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, you’ve just learned a horrible secret. Months earlier, some of your fellow soldiers committed a rape and mass murder. Two other soldiers knew but didn’t tell anyone. You’re aware that if you turn in the murderers, your life will be in danger. But you believe in honor and integrity. You do the right thing and report it.

Your battalion commander and sergeant major come to your outpost, demanding to see you. And in front of everyone, including one of the soldiers who hid the crime, the battalion commander accuses YOU of lying. He yells that you’re just trying to get out of the Army. He demands to know why you’re trying to destroy other soldiers’ careers. You desperately try to explain yourself but he brushes you off, sends you back to your post, and his convoy drives away.

Astonished, you sit behind your machine gun watching the Humvees roll out. You can’t believe you’re being abandoned; you did exactly what you’re supposed to do when you find out American troops committed a crime. The colonel and sergeant major are supposed to have your back. They wouldn’t just leave you there, would they?

As their convoy turns the corner and disappears, you know, without question, you’re dead. The men you reported are combat-hardened killers. They raped a teenager and wiped out her family, including her six year old sister. Word will spread that you turned them in. On the next patrol, enemy contact or not, you will somehow wind up shot in the back of the head. You’re done. If the battalion commander leaves you there, your life is over.

What do you do?

First platoon soldiers on patrol in the Triangle of Death

First platoon soldiers on patrol in the Triangle of Death

What I just described isn’t a hypothetical. It actually happened, eight years ago, during arguably the worst part of the Iraq War. That American troops committed a war crime is depressing but not shocking; all wars produce crimes, and every army has men whose criminal tendencies are barely kept in check by rigid discipline and constant supervision. The unforgivable acts committed by Steven Green, Paul Cortez, James Barker and Jesse Spielman occurred when that rigid discipline and constant supervision evaporated; their actions have been well documented, and I’m not going to focus on them here. My focus is on the men on the periphery of the crime, and the astounding way some of them were treated for showing the integrity and honor the Army claims it wants to instill in its soldiers.

I’m a longtime cop, former Marine and currently serving Army National Guard soldier. I’ve been to war twice, and spent 2005 on a convoy escort team in Iraq. The war crime in question happened a few months after I returned home from that deployment. I had heard of the Yusufiyah murders, and thought one of the soldiers involved had turned everyone in. The case seemed pretty straightforward; a few idiots committed a crime, one of them was overcome by guilt and said something, all the soldiers involved went to prison. Open and shut case.

But I recently discovered there was nothing open-and-shut about it. I was working on a story about two Iraq vets who had filmed an action movie, and one of them offered to put me in contact with his friend Justin, who helped train some of the actors. When the filmmaker told me about his friend, he asked a casual question.

“You remember the soldiers who raped the teenage girl and murdered her family near Yusufiyah in 2006?”

I replied that I did.

“Justin Watt is the guy who turned them in.”

My ears perked up. I started asking questions. Wasn’t the guy who turned them in also one of the guys involved? No, the filmmaker said. Watt had no involvement whatsoever. He found out about the crime months later, and risked his life to report it.

I spoke to Justin Watt that night. He had only a small part in the making of his friend’s movie, and that part of the conversation was brief. But when I asked if he was willing to talk about the Yusufiyah murders, he didn’t just say yes. He passionately gushed information for over an hour, and spoke with an intensity that displayed just how deeply he was affected by his experience. He didn’t sound like he was discussing events eight years past; he was more like a man recounting a tragedy that happened yesterday afternoon.

Justin Watt’s decision to turn in his fellow soldiers was gut-wrenching. The price he paid for his choice was steep. I was stunned at what I was hearing.

As he recounted his story, I wondered, How the hell have I not heard this before? Why isn’t this being taught to every officer, sergeant, and boot private in the Army?

Eventually I talked not only to Watt, but to another sergeant from the platoon named John Diem, and Watt’s former squad leader Eric Lauzier. Diem also played a crucial part in reporting the crime. Lauzier wasn’t in country when it happened, and was blindsided when the story exploded. He suffered a cruel fate because of what his soldiers chose to do in his absence.

Watt, Diem and Lauzier spoke at length about the crime and its effects. All of them bear, to varying degrees, scars from their experience. That deployment, crime and aftermath taught them painful lessons about leadership, human nature and war. Watt and Diem want to pass their knowledge on to others. They don’t want the next generation of warriors to go through what they did, or pay the overwhelming cost they and their comrades paid. At the Army’s request, they’re speaking to military audiences about their experience. Lauzier is more jaded; he’s not sure if anything he says will change the Army in any substantial way.

As I dug further into this story, I unexpectedly received a phone call from a former sergeant named Tony Yribe. Yribe was a central figure in the immediate aftermath of the murders, and made an extremely fateful decision when he learned about the crime. His voice is extremely unique, and only he can answer important questions about why the crime was hidden. This is the first time Yribe has publicly shared his story, and explained his decision.

Read the rest at


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