Details Emerge About US Suspect in Afghan Massacre
He is the suspect without a name, his identity as shadowed now as the night the Army says he slipped into a pair of slumbering Afghan villages and slaughtered 16 civilians whose safety was his assigned mission.
Five days after the massacre, a portrait of the 38-year-old staff sergeant is beginning to emerge, though it remains very sketchy.
He is married with two small children. He lost part of one foot because of injuries suffered in Iraq during one of his three tours of duty there.
His lawyer says that when the 11-year veteran heard he was being sent to Afghanistan late last year, he did not want to go. He also said that a day before the rampage, the soldier saw a comrade’s leg blown off.
Much of what is known about the suspect was disclosed by his lawyer, John Henry Browne, a veteran defense attorney from Seattle who came forward Thursday.
Military officials have insisted from the beginning that it is usual procedure to keep a suspect’s identity secret until he is officially charged. They have maintained that stance even after a hearing for the detained soldier Tuesday found probable cause to continue holding him.
The soldier was en route Friday to the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a senior defense official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security surrounding the move.
The suspect had been moved from Afghanistan to Kuwait on Wednesday because, officials said, there was no appropriate detention facility to hold him in Afghanistan. Kuwait’s military said he left the country Friday.
The move to the U.S. does not necessarily mean an announcement of formal criminal charges is imminent, the U.S. defense official said.
Browne said the sergeant is originally from the Midwest but now lives near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. His children are 3 and 4.
The sergeant’s family says they saw no signs of aggression or anger. “They were totally shocked,” by accounts of the massacre, Browne said. “He’s never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He’s in general very mild-mannered.”
The lawyer denied reports that the soldier had marital problems, saying he and his wife have a solid relationship.
Browne, who said he has met with the family and talked with the suspect, declined to release the soldier’s name.
“Everybody is worried about the safety of his family, and I am honoring that,” he said.
The suspect’s family had been moved onto the base to protect them, military officials say.
The soldier, who received sniper training, is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, of the 2nd Infantry Division, which is based at Lewis-McChord and has been dispatched to Iraq three times since 2003, military officials say.
During the suspect’s time in Iraq, Browne said, the soldier was injured twice. He suffered a concussion in a vehicle accident caused by an improvised explosive device, and sustained a battle-related injury requiring surgery that removed part of one foot. Browne said his client was “highly decorated.”
When he returned to the Seattle area, the staff sergeant at first thought he would not be required to join his unit when it shipped out for Afghanistan, the lawyer said. His family was counting on him staying home.
“He wasn’t thrilled about going on another deployment,” Browne said. “He was told he wasn’t going back, and then he was told he was going.”
The staff sergeant arrived in Afghanistan in December. On Feb. 1 he was assigned to a base in the Panjwai District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force that pairs special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security.
On Saturday, the day before the shooting spree, Browne said the soldier saw his friend’s leg blown off. Browne said his client’s family provided him with that information, which has not been independently verified.
The other soldier’s “leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him,” he said.
Shortly before 3 a.m. Sunday, military officials say, the suspect walked off the base.
Wearing a NATO forces uniform, officials say he moved through the nearby villages of Alkozai and Balandi, barging into homes and opening fire on those inside, then burning some of the bodies. Nine of those killed were children. Eleven of the dead were from a single family.
A surveillance video captured by a blimp that surveys the area around the base shows that the soldier later approached the south gate of the base with an Afghan shawl covering the weapon in his hands, according to an Afghan official who was shown the footage by his U.S. counterparts.
In the video, the man walks up to the base, lays down the weapon and raises his arms in surrender.
Officials say he has not cooperated and instead asked for an attorney.
— Associated Press writer Gene Johnson and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.