Before he joined Bravo Company in November 2009, Gibbs worked on the personal security detail for one of the top commanders in Afghanistan, a controversial, outspoken colonel named Harry Tunnell. Tunnell, who at the time was the commander of 5th Stryker Brigade, openly mocked the military's approach to counterinsurgency – which emphasizes the need to win the support of local civilians – as better suited to a "social scientist." "Political correctness dictates that we cannot talk about the oppressive measures employed during successful counterinsurgency campaigns," he wrote. Tunnell also pushed his men to go after "guerrilla hunter killers," insisting that the enemy "must be attacked relentlessly."
When Gibbs left Tunnell's detail and arrived at the front, he quickly became an extreme version of a relentless attacker. After he took command, Gibbs put a pirate flag on his tent. "Hey, brother," he told a friend. "Come down to the line and we'll find someone to kill." A tattoo on his left shin featured a pair of crossed rifles offset by six skulls. Three of the skulls, colored in red, represented his kills in Iraq. The others, in blue, were from Afghanistan.
By the time Gibbs arrived, morale in the Stryker Brigade had hit rock bottom. Only four months earlier, the unit had been deployed to Afghanistan amid a chorus of optimism about its eight-wheeled armored vehicles, a technological advancement that was supposed to move infantry to the battlefield more quickly and securely, enabling U.S. troops to better strike against the Taliban. By December, however, those hopes had dissolved. The Taliban had forced the Strykers off the roads simply by increasing the size and explosive force of their IEDs, and the brigade had suffered terrible casualties; one battalion had lost more soldiers in action than any since the start of the war. Gibbs, in fact, had been brought in after a squad leader had his legs blown off by an IED.
The soldiers were bored and shellshocked and angry. They had been sent to Afghanistan as part of a new advance guard on a mission to track down the Taliban, but the enemy was nowhere to be found. "To be honest, I couldn't tell the difference between local nationals and combatants," one soldier later confessed. During the unit's first six months in Afghanistan, the Taliban evaded almost every patrol that 3rd Platoon sent out. Frustrations ran so high that when the unit came across the body of an insurgent killed by a helicopter gunship in November 2009, one soldier took out a hunting knife and stabbed the corpse. According to another soldier, Gibbs began playing with a pair of scissors near the dead man's hands. "I wonder if these can cut off a finger?" Gibbs asked.
The Pentagon's top command, rather than addressing the morale problems, actually held up the brigade as a media-worthy example of progress in the war. The month after the helicopter incident – only four weeks before the killings began – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, paid a heavily publicized visit to the area. The military's strategy of counterinsurgency, he reminded members of 5th Stryker Brigade, required them to win hearts and minds by protecting the population. "If we're killing local civilians," he cautioned, "we're going to strategically lose."
Gibbs had a different idea about how to breathe new life into 3rd Platoon. Not long after he arrived, he explained to his fellow soldiers that they didn't have to wait passively to be attacked by the enemy's IEDs. They could strike back by hitting people in towns known to be sympathetic to the Taliban. "Gibbs told everyone about this scenario by pitching it – by saying that all these Afghans were savages, and we had just lost one of our squad leaders because his legs got blown off by an IED," Morlock recalled. Killing an Afghan – any Afghan – became a way to avenge the loss.
The members of Bravo Company began to talk incessantly about killing Afghans as they went about their daily chores, got stoned or relaxed over a game of Warhammer. One idea, proposed half in jest, was to throw candy out of a Stryker vehicle as they drove through a village and shoot the children who came running to pick up the sweets. According to one soldier, they also talked about a second scenario in which they "would throw candy out in front and in the rear of the Stryker; the Stryker would then run the children over." Another elaborate plan involved waiting for an IED attack, then using the explosion as an excuse to kill civilians. That way, the soldiers reasoned, "you could shoot anyone in the general area and get away with it."
"We were operating in such bad places and not being able to do anything about it," Morlock said in a phone interview from the jail at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. "I guess that's why we started taking things into our own hands."
After killing the Afghan boy at La Mohammad Kalay, members of 3rd Platoon were jubilant. "They were high-fiving each other about having killed the guy," one soldier recalled. They put the corpse in a black body bag and stowed it on top of their Stryker for the ride back to FOB Ramrod. No sooner had they arrived at the base than they were recounting the tale to soldiers they barely knew.
A few hours after the shooting, during a routine checkup at the base's clinic, Holmes and Morlock bragged about having killed an insurgent to Alyssa Reilly, a fair-skinned, blond medic who was popular among the men in the unit. Reilly later paid the soldiers a social visit, and they all sat around playing spades. When it came time for their wager, Morlock and Holmes said they would bet a finger. Then they tossed the finger that Gibbs had sliced from Mudin's body on the card pile. "I thought it was gross," Reilly told investigators.
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