By David Swanson
Would the United States military lie about how four Marines were killed? Would abuse continue at Abu Ghraib after the scandal exploded? Any soldier you talk to has a story you may not want to hear. I recently had occasion to speak with two that were particularly troubling.
Part I: Snipers Dead in Ramadi:
Here’s a military report from August 2006 on how four Marines died in Iraq in 2004. Christian Lowe, a Marine Corps Times staff writer, tells us:
“It was supposed to be a mission like many they had done in Iraq. Ride the Humvees to a position at a building abutting a busy street in Ramadi. Relieve the four Marines on the roof there. . . .
“Instead, four Marines lay dead, three shot in the head and the fourth riddled with bullets. One Marine’s throat had been slit. The Marines didn’t get off a shot. The killings left their buddies and Corps leaders wondering how four elite leathernecks could have been slain seemingly so easily. . . .
“For the first time since the June 2004 killings, details have come to light on how the four-man sniper team attached to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, was attacked in broad daylight by killers who got close enough to shoot them at point-blank range.
“A copy of an investigation conducted by Naval Criminal Investigative Service, obtained by Marine Corps Times, also revealed that the Corps believes it knows who the Iraqi killers were, but let at least one of them slip away.
“The four dead are: Cpl. Tommy Lynn Parker Jr., 21, of Cleburne, Ark.; Lance Cpl. Deshon Otey, 24, of Hardin, Ky.; Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez, 22, of Whitfield, Ga.; and Lance Cpl. Pedro Contreras, 27, of Harris, Texas.
“The NCIS inquiry conducted nearly a year after their deaths indicates the team was either caught unaware — possibly some or all were asleep — or that they trusted their assailants enough that they dropped their guard.” . . .
. . . “Parker — the only team member who was a trained sniper — told his wife a month before he died that he believed it was only a matter of time before one of the teams was ambushed.
“‘He said, “No wonder people are dying,”‘ Parker’s wife, Carla, said in a May 24 interview. ‘”They’re sending us to the same place, by the same route at the same time of day.”‘ . . .
. . . “According to statements from Marines with 2/4 in the NCIS investigation report, Parker’s team probably left the front gate of Combat Outpost — a walled compound in eastern Ramadi — around 1 a.m. on June 21 to relieve another team in position on one of three regularly manned observation posts . . . .
. . . “The team arrived at the observation post in the dark. Parker, Otey, Lopez and Contreras took up positions on the roof of a two-story house that was under construction just 800 yards east of Combat Outpost. . . . Once the sniper team was set, they called in a situation report every 30 minutes back to base until at least 7:30 a.m., the last entry made in a radio log found in Lopez’s hands after the killings. Though the investigation does not make clear when the last radio check was made that morning, the report says 51 minutes elapsed without contact from Parker’s team before a quick reaction force was dispatched to make sure the snipers were safe. . . .
. . . “The cold-blooded nature of the killings and the fact that the assailants took the team by surprise in daylight left Marines in Iraq at the time wondering how such an attack could have happened.”
Well, according to one Marine who was in Ramadi at the time, the executions probably happened while it was still dark. Phillip Scoggins told me about what he witnessed that night. He referred me as well to a second Marine who he said could confirm his account, but I have thus far been unable to reach him.
According to Scoggins, the four men who were executed on the rooftop sent up a distress flare in the night: “We called it in to the company, which said not to worry, that it was probably just the Second Platoon.” When the four bodies were discovered, Scoggins recalls, “Nate [Nathan Sprunger] and I said ‘No shit. We’ve been telling you all night a flare popped.'” Scoggins says he is certain that “Flares don’t get popped on accident. It was a distress flare. All radios over there were shit. Their radio probably wasn’t working, so they shot a flare.” Scoggins, who knew two of the men who died, says that there is no possible way that all four of them were asleep.
Scoggins has theories on both how the snipers were exposed and who deserves some of the blame. He says they had formed a relationship with a man who was renovating the building, that he would bring them cokes and knew they were repeatedly using the roof. Scoggins surmises that this man told someone of the snipers’ presence, but that assassins would have acted before daylight.
Scoggins has no kind words for his superior in Iraq, Captain Kelly Royer, who comes in for both praise and criticism in this New York Times article, which reports that he was relieved of duty and described as “dictatorial” and as failing to motivate his troops. Now, it may not have been a mission anybody could easily have been motivated for, or should have been motivated for. But the account of lacking morale fits with Scoggins’ comments to me, which included this: “[Royer] was a piece of shit. People were calling him Captain Casualty.”
In fact, whether or not Scoggins is right about the flare and the timing of the murders, and about his belief that there has been a coverup, the one thing we can be sure of is that many soldiers being ordered to risk their lives in the unjust cause of slaughtering the people of Iraq developed “morale” problems in one way or another. This is a testament to their humanity.
Part II: Abu Ghraib: SNAFU:
Michael Sheperd was sent with the 16th Military Police Brigade to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad just after the photos of torture and abuse were released in 2004.
He worked in the hospital there and transporting prisoners between complexes and to the hospital. He saw a lot of prisoners and civilians with gunshot wounds and other injuries, most of them minor. Some were from mortar attacks from Iraqis he calls “insurgents” who, Sheperd says, believed the prisoners were in cells and the troops in camps, when actually it was the other way around. On April 20th and at other times, the “insurgents” fired on “their own people.”
Sheperd at first told me that he didn’t see any abuse at Abu Ghraib, but then began to mention various incidents. When “the guy who decapitated Nick Berg” came in, they “threw him around pretty hard, into a wall hard.”
Sheperd received new prisoners brought in by the Army, Special Forces, British, and Polish troops, and Marines. Sheperd insisted a number of times that he did not mean to be unfair to the Marines, but that they were always the ones who brought in prisoners with bruises and cuts on them.
Five rows of five prisoners each would be sitting in chairs, being processed. More than once, Sheperd says, he stopped Marines from yelling at the prisoners and kicking them on the ground. The prisoners being knocked to the ground and kicked had their hands cuffed behind their backs and usually had hoods on their heads. Sheperd said he stepped in somewhere between three and six times, confronting Marine Lieutenants. He says he was never reprimanded or punished for his actions, and returned to the United States in February 2005.
In 2008, Sheperd says, the Army tried to stop-loss him, but he successfully petitioned to go on inactive service. “I couldn’t stand it,” Sheperd said of the prospect of going back to Iraq. “I would go nuts! Everyone calling all the Arabs “Hajji”.”
So, how did Sheperd get over there in the first place? He joined up in 2002, he says, and believed in the mission in Afghanistan. But, while at Fort Dix, prior to deploying to Kuwait and then Iraq, he suffered back problems and a displaced rib causing numbness in his left arm. A military doctor, he says, took an X-ray and diagnosed scoliosus, then folded the X-ray up and threw it in the trash in front of him, choosing not to record it. Sheperd was sent to Iraq despite his back problems, and ironically says the body armor did his back a lot of good, although it’s still not right.
I encouraged Sheperd to get involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War, and I think he will.