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Background – Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (Summer/Fall 2009):1
Within six weeks of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, conventional and unconventional U.S. Army units, assisted by Joint, Coalition, and Afghan partners, engaged in intense ground combat across Afghanistan. The immediate result was the quick ousting of the Taliban regime from power and Al Qaeda's network scattering. But by 2009, Operation Enduring Freedom churned on as approximately 66,000 Soldiers participated in a counterinsurgency struggle. During that fiscal year, the Army suffered 141 killed in action and more than 1,200 wounded in action.
The 2nd Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was among the U.S. forces arriving in the summer of 2009. The newly formed brigade was the first Stryker unit to operate in Afghanistan. The brigade's task organization attached 3rd Platoon from Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment to Alpha Troop, 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. Alpha Troop, along with 3rd Platoon, established operations at Forward Operating Base RAMROD (later named Sarkari Karez) in Kandahar's Maywand District.
Kandahar Province and its Maywand District fell within the responsibility of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Command-South (RC-South). In 2009, the area remained a volatile Taliban stronghold. The Taliban insurgents conducted improvised explosive device (IED) and landmine attacks, suicide attacks, and ambushes but largely avoided direct engagements with Coalition forces. IEDs caused most of the Coalition casualties in RC-South. The population in Maywand was poor, rural, agricultural, and almost completely lacking electricity.
From FOB RAMROD beginning in the late summer of 2009, 3rd Platoon and Alpha Troop conducted counterinsurgency operations to include mounted and dismounted patrols and key leader engagements (KLEs) in Maywand in order to secure the population and to counter Taliban influence and attacks.
The 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team's commander, COL Harry D. Tunnell IV, along with CSM Robert Prosser touted the brigade's readiness and lethality heading into Afghanistan. COL Tunnell was vocal in his skepticism of the prevailing ISAF counterinsurgency approach and encouraged his subordinate commands to lean into the offensive, taking the fight to the enemy using counter-guerilla tactics.
Frustration at FOB RAMROD and within 3rd Platoon built as the fall of 2009 progressed. Taliban IEDs effectively challenged the mobility of the unit's Strykers on main roads, and the Taliban insurgents did not allow themselves to be found and fixed by the unit. Morale plummeted when an IED attack on a Stryker critically wounded one of the platoon's squad leaders in November 2009. The wounded squad leader's replacement was SSG Calvin Gibbs, reporting to 3rd Platoon from COL Tunnell's personal security detail. An imposing NCO and combat veteran with a reputation for his tactical competency, SSG Gibbs led 3rd Platoon's descent into murder and brutality in the following months. He joined a platoon rife with disciplinary issues, among them the frequent use of hashish and alcohol by multiple Soldiers in the unit.
Note: The following section provides only the names of Soldiers found guilty of crimes. Others involved who were either not charged or found innocent if charged remain anonymous. However, their identities are disclosed in open source media and in the case study's references.
By December 2009, Soldiers in the platoon were actively discussing plans to target and kill unarmed Afghans. Critical to their plans were off-the-books weapons illegally collected to stage attacks on their unit or to plant near their unarmed victims to try to legitimize the engagement. These "drop weapons" included an AK-47 rifle, magazines of ammunition, and grenades. Attacks started in mid-January and continued into early May 2010.
15 January 2010
3rd Platoon convoyed to the village of La Mohammed Kalay where officers from the unit conducted a KLE with a village elder. SSG Gibbs, CPL Jeremy Morlock, PFC Andrew Holmes and other Soldiers in the platoon walked through the village while the KLE progressed. CPL Morlock and PFC Holmes targeted a teenage boy named Gul Mudin luring him close to a mud brick wall. The two Soldiers ducked behind the wall as CPL Morlock tossed a "drop" grenade at the boy. After the grenade detonated, the two Soldiers shot their victim multiple times at close range.
Once the leadership on the ground responded, CPL Morlock reported to them that the Afghan tried to attack them with a grenade and that he and PFC Holmes had to defend themselves. In the aftermath, SSG Gibbs cut off one of the boy's pinky fingers and gave it to PFC Holmes as a trophy. CPL Morlock and PFC Holmes posed for photos with the corpse, celebrating their kill. When Gul Muldin's uncle came to RAMROD to accuse the Soldiers of murdering his nephew, the senior leader at the base ordered that the Soldiers be re-interviewed. Finding no inconsistencies in their stories, the matter was dropped. The unit's leaders did not investigate the attack, the mutilation of the corpse, or the photographs. Yet, the perpetrators openly talked and shared pictures with others at their base about their actions and the severed finger.
27 January 2010
The unit struck again 12 days later, energized in part by the lack of consequences from the first attack. The platoon's thermal imaging capabilities spotted an individual hiding along the highway while the unit returned from a mission in their Strykers. Soldiers dismounted, shined bright spotlights at the man, and ordered him to lift up his shirt to show he was unarmed. Instead of lifting his shirt, he put his arms across his chest, perhaps to indicate that he either was cold or wearing a suicide vest. The man shuffled around without complying even when the Soldiers began to shoot at his feet. When the man began to walk toward them and ignored their orders, SSG Gibbs and five others shot him, firing about 40 rounds. The deceased, who may have been deaf or mentally disabled, was unarmed.
Alpha Troop's commander was troubled to hear the reports that the same platoon was involved in yet another questionable shooting. He ordered the unit to search the area for any sign of a weapon that would indicate the man was an actual threat. None was found until SSG David Bram, from the darkness of the side of the highway, produced one of the platoon's "drop" ammunition magazines. The incident was not investigated further. One of the platoon's Soldiers kept a piece of the unnamed man's skull that had been blown off by the rifle fire.
14 February 2010
SPC Adam Winfield was upset that SSG Gibbs had recently disciplined him for an infraction and complained to his father on Facebook Chat. SPC Winfield shared that he was punished while his squad-mates were potentially getting away with murder (and encouraged to do so). In further correspondence, SPC Winfield indicated that the platoon was planning more killings. His father was very concerned and tried to contact his local congressman's office, the Army Inspector General's office, and the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (more commonly known as CID).
Calling 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team's home at Joint Base Lewis-McCord in Washington, the Soldier's father spoke to a staff duty NCO at the base's operations center. The NCO said that the Army could take no further action unless the Soldier reported the accusations to his chain of command. Eventually, SPC Winfield urged his father to discontinue his pursuit of reporting the killings to authorities back in the United States. The Soldier felt like SSG Gibbs had drawn him closer to the trusted few conducting the killings and that he would be putting his own safety at risk if his NCO or others found out he had told his father about their actions.
22 February 2010
A little over a week after SPC Winfield confided in his father, the unit killed another unarmed Afghan. In the village of Kari Kheyl, the platoon conducted a counterinsurgency mission to compile photographs of male inhabitants. SSG Gibbs came prepared, carrying in his assault pack a "drop" AK-47 rifle from his collection. He entered the hut of a man named Marach Agha, took out the rifle, fired it into the hut's wall, and dropped it at the unarmed man's feet. SSG Gibbs then shot the man at close range. CPL Morlock and another Soldier followed, also shooting Agha.
SSG Gibbs reported the incident to the first NCO to respond, explaining that Agha fired at him when he entered the hut. However, the AK-47 jammed, giving SSG Gibbs, CPL Morlock, and the third Soldier time to react. Later, the responding NCO found that the AK-47 was not jammed and reported this suspicious detail to his platoon leader. Yet, the platoon leader and Alpha Troop's commander did not inquire further.
Soldiers in the platoon changed their tactics the next month and enlisted others outside their unit. SSG Robert Stevens was a medic in another unit. During a convoy along a highway on 10 March 2010, he opened the hatch to his Stryker and threw out a "drop" grenade SSG Gibbs had given him. After the grenade detonated, he urged his unit to fire at inhabitants of a nearby village.
During a 3rd Platoon convoy on 18 March 2010, SSG Gibbs staged the same type of attack, yelling "RPG" after his "drop" grenade detonated outside the hatch of his Stryker. SGT Darren Jones and SSG Gibbs both fired at unarmed Afghans as their convoy passed. The unit's platoon leader was in the same vehicle as both of these NCOs and believed the attack to be real, yet did not stop the convoy from continuing on. It is unknown if there were casualties from either of these shootings.
Weeks later, five Soldiers on patrol in Zhari District opened fire on three unarmed men in a field, hitting none of them. That same evening, two 3rd Platoon Soldiers manned a guard tower at FOB RAMROD. Although specifically warned not to, they opened fire on an elderly farmer in the fields outside the base, missing him.
2 May 2010
The morning of 2 May 2010, the platoon was on patrol in the village of Qualaday to interview a man previously arrested for possession of an IED. SSG Gibbs, CPL Morlock, and SPC Winfield went into a compound and escorted out an elderly cleric named Mullah Allah Dad (not the man to be interviewed), walked him to a ditch, and ordered him to kneel. SSG Gibbs tossed a grenade at the kneeling man and then ducked behind a berm with the other two Soldiers. After the detonation, CPL Morlock and SPC Winfield opened fire. CPL Morlock then placed a "drop" grenade near Dad's hand. SSG Gibbs fired two more shots at the dead man's head.
The man's screaming wife and children had to be pushed away from the corpse. SSG Gibbs later cut off the deceased's pinky finger to keep and extracted a tooth which he gave to SPC Winfield. That week at a local council meeting, Alpha Troop's commander heard the wrath of the villagers over the alleged murder. He sent one of his lieutenants to the village to push back on the accusations and witnesses. An investigation did not follow.
3-7 May 2010
The platoon's activities began to unravel as a result of their drug use. One of the platoon's Soldiers was angry about the frequent hashish smoking in his room and worried that he would be accused of partaking in the activity. On 3 May 2010, he complained to a staff duty NCO at the unit's operations center and mentioned the unarmed man that members of the platoon had killed on 27 January 2010. The NCO didn't address the killing but said the hashish smoking issue would be dealt with and that the reporting Soldier would remain anonymous in his complaint. However, the next day the platoon knew he had reported the drug use. On 6 May 2010, SSG Gibbs and six Soldiers beat the reporting Soldier in his room. SSG Gibbs and CPL Morlock returned later to threaten him to stay silent about the killings.
A physician's assistant at the base examined the Soldier on 7 May 2010 and saw the physical evidence of the beating. He was then sent to speak to Army investigators. Other Soldiers from the platoon eventually confirmed the Soldier's information about the killings when interviewed and a rush to collect evidence commenced. The floodgates opened.
Aftermath – Investigations and Prosecution:4
Beginning May 2010, a massive investigation spread within FOB RAMROD and back to the United States to conduct interviews and collect physical evidence, photographs, and videos. Ultimately, military courts prosecuted 11 Soldiers involved, finding guilty or receiving guilty pleas from all 11 with varying sentences of punishment.
The following lists seven Soldiers convicted of the most serious crimes and their prison sentences.
SSG Calvin Gibbs
Convicted on 15 counts, including premeditated murder of three Afghans and charges related to cutting off body parts and planting weapons. His sentence was life in prison.
SSG David Bram
Convicted on multiple counts, including solicitation to commit murder, conspiracy to commit an assault and battery, and impeding an investigation. SSG Bram's sentence was five years in prison.
SSG Robert Stevens
Convicted on four counts related to firing at unarmed Afghans. His sentence was nine months in prison.
SGT Darren Jones
Convicted on participating in an assault of a Soldier. His sentence was seven months in prison.
CPL Jeremy Morlock
Convicted on charges of premeditated murder (three counts), conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and illegal drug use. CPL Morlock's sentence was 24 years in prison.
SPC Adam Winfield
Convicted on charges of manslaughter and illegal drug use. His sentence was three years in prison.
PFC Andrew Holmes
Convicted on multiple charges, including murder without premeditation and illegal drug use. His sentence was seven years in prison.
In October 2010, BG Stephen Twitty led an investigation focused on officer accountability. His report found that there was no evidence the alleged murders were related to the 5th Brigade Combat Team's command climate. The report recommended letters of admonition, memoranda of reprimand, or letters of concern for five officers and three senior NCOs.
The 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, in summer 2010 and immediately reflagged to become 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. During the year in Kandahar Province, the brigade suffered 37 soldiers killed in action and another 239 wounded in action. The unit again deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. The U.S. Army and its partners continue the fight in 2018 with Operations FREEDOM'S SENTINEL and RESOLUTE SUPPORT. As of January 2018, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction assessed that the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not yet have control or influence over all districts in Kandahar Province.
1 Donald P. Wright PhD. et al. A Different Kind of War: The United States Army in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) October 2001-September 2005. (Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press US Combined Arms Center, May 2010), 67-68; Thomas Borghardt. Department of the Army Historical Summary: Fiscal Year 2010. (Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 2015), 22-26; Mark L. Bradley. Department of the Army Historical Summary: Fiscal Year 2009. (Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 2015), 29; "Regional Command South," Institute for the Study of War, last modified unknown. http://www.understandingwar.org/region/regional-command-south-0#Kandahar.; Don Kramer, "Fort Lewis Stryker brigade ‘trained and ready," Northwest Guardian, July 6, 2009, https://www.army.mil/article/23938/fort_lewis_stryker_brigade_trained_and_ready; Elisabeth Bumiller and William Yardley, "Accused G.I.'s Were Isolated From Officers," The New York Times, October 15, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/world/middleeast/16military.html.
2 The Kill Team, directed by Dan Krauss (2013; Santa Barbara: F/8 Filmworks, LTD, 2014), Film.; Mark Boal, "The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians," Rolling Stone, March 28, 2011. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/the-kill-team-how-u-s-soldiers-in-afghanistan-murdered-innocent-civilians-169793/; Bumiller and Yardley, "Accused G.I.s Were Isolated From Officers"; Sean Naylor, "Stryker soldiers say commanders failed them." Army Times, December 21, 2009. https://www.militarytimes.com/2013/03/27/stryker-soldiers-say-commanders-failed-them/.
3 The Kill Team; Boal, "The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians."; Craig Whitlock, "Members of Stryker Combat Brigade in Afghanistan accused of killing civilians for sport," The Washington Post, September 18, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803935_pf.html.
4 The Kill Team; Boal, "The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians."; Gene Johnson, "US soldier gets life sentence in Afghan killings," Associated Press, November 10, 2011, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-us-soldier-gets-life-sentence-in-afghan-killings-2011nov10-story.html.; Matthew Cole, "Afghan Thrill Kill: Third US Soldier Pleads Guilty," ABC News, September 22, 2011, https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/afghan-thrill-kill-us-soldier-pleads-guilty/story?id=14583062.; Elaine Porterfield. "Army sergeant gets five years in Afghan misconduct probe." Reuters, November 19, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soldiers-crimes/army-sergeant-gets-five-years-in-afghan-misconduct-probe-idUSTRE7AI09P20111119.; Laura L Meyers, Steve Gorman, and Gary Norton, "U.S. soldier gets 24 years for murdering Afghans," Reuters, March 23, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soldier-crimes/u-s-soldier-gets-24-years-for-murdering-afghans-idUSTRE72N0D320110324.; Laura L. Meyers, "Army sergeant guilty in beating of fellow soldier," Reuters, July 8, 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-army-trial-idUSTRE7680O520110709.; Michelle Tan, "Report blames lapses on Stryker commander — 532-page report finds colonel ignored doctrine, proper procedure in leading undisciplined BCT," Army Times, November 27, 2011, https://www.militarytimes.com/2013/03/27/report-blames-lapses-on-stryker-commander-532-page-report-finds-colonel-ignored-doctrine-proper-procedure-in-leading-undisciplined-bct/.
5 Don Kramer, "5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. reflags, redirects," U.S. Army website, July 30, 2010, https://www.army.mil/article/43101/5th_bde_2nd_inf_div_reflags_redirects.; Austan R. Owen, Sergeant, USA, "2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry cases colors," 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Army website, April 4, 2012, https://www.army.mil/article/77220/2nd_brigade_2nd_infantry_cases_colors.; Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress (Arlington, Virginia: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, April 30, 2018), https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-04-30qr.pdf. 86-89.
Boal, Mark. "The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians." Rolling Stone, March 28, 2011. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/the-kill-team-how-u-s-soldiers-in-afghanistan-murdered-innocent-civilians-169793/.
Borghardt, Thomas. Department of the Army Historical Summary: Fiscal Year 2010. Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 2015.
Bradley, Mark L. Department of the Army Historical Summary: Fiscal Year 2009. Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 2015.
Bumiller, Elisabeth and William Yardley. "Accused G.I.'s Were Isolated From Officers." The New York Times, October 15, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/16/world/middleeast/16military.html.
Cole, Matthew. "Afghan Thrill Kill: Third US Soldier Pleads Guilty." ABC News, September 22, 2011. https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/afghan-thrill-kill-us-soldier-pleads-guilty/story?id=14583062.
Institute for the Study of War. "Regional Command South." http://www.understandingwar.org/region/regional-command-south-0#Kandahar.
Johnson, Gene. "US soldier gets life sentence in Afghan killings." Associated Press, November 10, 2011. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-us-soldier-gets-life-sentence-in-afghan-killings-2011nov10-story.html.
Kramer, Don. "5th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. reflags, redirects." U.S. Army website, July 30, 2010. https://www.army.mil/article/43101/5th_bde_2nd_inf_div_reflags_redirects.
Kramer, Don. "Fort Lewis Stryker brigade ‘trained and ready.'" Northwest Guardian, July 6, 2009. https://www.army.mil/article/23938/fort_lewis_stryker_brigade_trained_and_ready.
Meyers, Laura L. "Army sergeant guilty in beating of fellow soldier." Reuters, July 8, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-army-trial-idUSTRE7680O520110709.
Meyers, Laura L., Steve Gorman, and Gary Norton. "U.S. soldier gets 24 years for murdering Afghans." Reuters, March 23, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soldier-crimes/u-s-soldier-gets-24-years-for-murdering-afghans-idUSTRE72N0D320110324.
Naylor, Sean "Stryker soldiers say commanders failed them." Army Times, December 21, 2009. https://www.militarytimes.com/2013/03/27/stryker-soldiers-say-commanders-failed-them/.
Owen, Austan R., Sergeant, USA. "2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry cases colors." 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. U.S. Army website, April 4, 2012. https://www.army.mil/article/77220/2nd_brigade_2nd_infantry_cases_colors.
Porterfield, Elaine. "Army sergeant gets five years in Afghan misconduct probe." Reuters, November 19, 2011. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soldiers-crimes/army-sergeant-gets-five-years-in-afghan-misconduct-probe-idUSTRE7AI09P20111119.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Quarterly Report to the United States Congress. Arlington, Virginia: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, April 30, 2018. https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-04-30qr.pdf.
Tan, Michelle. "Report blames lapses on Stryker commander — 532-page report finds colonel ignored doctrine, proper procedure in leading undisciplined BCT." Army Times, November 27, 2011. https://www.militarytimes.com/2013/03/27/report-blames-lapses-on-stryker-commander-532-page-report-finds-colonel-ignored-doctrine-proper-procedure-in-leading-undisciplined-bct/.
The Kill Team. Directed by Dan Krauss. 2013; Santa Barbara: F/8 Filmworks, LTD, 2014. Film.
Whitlock, Craig. "Members of Stryker Combat Brigade in Afghanistan accused of killing civilians for sport." The Washington Post, September 18, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/18/AR2010091803935_pf.html
Wright, Donald P. PhD. et al. A Different Kind of War: The United States Army in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) October 2001-September 2005. Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute Press US Combined Arms Center, May 2010.