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The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians

Page 8 of 8

Things might have remained "normal," and the killings might have continued, if it hadn't been for what began as a trivial spat between bunkmates. Around midnight, the same evening that Moye returned from pacifying village elders, Pfc. Stoner walked into the company's tactical operations center to register a complaint. Stoner, who had helped plant the AK-47 magazine on the civilian murdered by the highway, said he was sick and tired of other soldiers in the unit using his room as "a smoke shack for hash." Worried that the lingering odor would get him busted, he had asked them to find another place to get stoned. They had refused, pausing only to remove the battery from the room's smoke detector.

"They baked the room many times until it stank constantly," Stoner said. "I was worried for my own job." Emphasizing that he wasn't a snitch, Stoner told the sergeant on duty that he didn't want to get his fellow soldiers in trouble. Then, growing emotional, he mentioned that "he and a bunch of other guys had executed a local national out on Highway 1." The sergeant didn't take the story seriously enough to report it up the chain of command. "I thought he was just upset and needed to talk to someone about the incident," he later recalled. Instead of alerting his superiors about the murder allegation, the sergeant simply assured Stoner that the matter of hash smoking in his room would be handled quietly, and that his identity would be kept confidential.

But discretion wasn't exactly the unit's strong suit. By the next day, everyone knew that Stoner had ratted them out. "Everyone began to panic," Quintal recalls. Gibbs, who didn't care for hashish, gathered members of the kill team in his room. "We need to address the situation with Stoner," he reportedly said. "Snitches get stitches."

On May 6th, Gibbs and six other soldiers descended on Stoner's room, locking the door behind them, and attacked Stoner while he was sitting on his bed. Grabbing him by the throat, they dragged him to the floor and piled on, striking him hard but taking care to avoid blows to the face that might leave visible bruises. "I've been in the Army four years," Morlock said as he pummeled Stoner in the stomach. "How could you do this to me?" Before leaving, they struck Stoner in the crotch and spit in his face.

A few hours later, Gibbs and Morlock returned to Stoner's room. As Stoner sat on his bed, still dazed from the assault, Morlock explained that the beating would not happen again, so long as Stoner kept his mouth shut "from fucking now on." If Stoner were disloyal again, Gibbs warned, he would be killed the next time he went out on patrol. "It's too easy," he added, explaining that he could hide Stoner's body in a Hesco barrier, one of the temporary structures used to fortify U.S. positions.

Then Gibbs reached into his pocket and took out a bit of cloth. Unfolding it, he tossed two severed fingers on the floor, with bits of skin still hanging off the bone. If Stoner didn't want to end up like "that guy," Morlock said, he better "shut the hell up." After all, he added, he "already had enough practice" at killing people.

Stoner had no doubt that Morlock would follow through on the threat. "Basically, I do believe that Morlock would kill me if he had the chance," he said later.

But the beating proved to be the kill team's undoing. When a physician's assistant examined Stoner the next day, she saw the angry red welts covering his body. She also saw the large tattoo across Stoner's back. In gothic type, beneath a grinning red skull flanked by two grim reapers, it read:

what if im not the hero

what if im the bad guy

Stoner was sent to talk to Army investigators. In the course of recounting the assault, he described how Gibbs had thrown the severed fingers on the floor. The investigators pressed him about how Gibbs came by the fingers. Stoner told them it was because the platoon had killed a lot of innocent people.

At that point, the investigators asked Stoner to start from the beginning. When had the platoon killed innocent people? Bit by bit, Stoner laid out the whole history, naming names and places and times.

As other members of the platoon were called in and interviewed, many confirmed Stoner's account and described the shootings for investigators. Morlock, who proved particularly gregarious, agreed to speak on videotape. Relaxed and unconcerned in front of the camera, he nonchalantly described the kills in detail.

Morlock's confession kicked off an intense search for evidence. When the Army's investigators were dispatched to FOB Ramrod, they went straight to the top of a Hesco barrier near Gibbs' housing unit. Right where Morlock said it would be, they found the bottom of a plastic water bottle containing two pieces of cloth. Inside each piece of cloth was a severed human finger. But then a strange thing happened. When investigators compared prints of the two fingers to those in the company's database, the prints didn't match up. Either the records were screwed up, which was quite possible, or there were more dead guys out there who were unaccounted for.

Last week, on March 23rd, Morlock was sentenced to 24 years in prison after agreeing to testify against Gibbs. "The Army wants Gibbs," says one defense lawyer. "They want to throw him in jail and move on." Gibbs insists that all three killings he took part in were "legitimate combat engagements." Three other low-level soldiers facing murder charges – Winfield, Holmes and Wagnon – also maintain their innocence. As for the other men in Bravo Company, five have already been convicted of lesser crimes, including drug use, stabbing a corpse and beating up Stoner, and two more face related charges. In December, Staff Sgt. Stevens was sentenced to nine months in prison after agreeing to testify against Gibbs. He was stripped to the lowest service rank – private E-1 – but over the protests of military prosecutors, he was allowed to remain in the Army.

So far, though, no officers or senior officials have been charged in either the murders or the cover-up. Last October, the Army quietly launched a separate investigation, guided by Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, into the critical question of officer accountability. But the findings of that inquiry, which was concluded last month, have been kept secret – and the Army refuses to say whether it has disciplined or demoted any of the commanders responsible for 3rd Platoon. Even if the commanding officers were not co-conspirators or accomplices in the crimes, they repeatedly ignored clear warning signs and allowed a lethally racist attitude to pervade their unit. Indeed, the resentment of Afghans was so commonplace among soldiers in the platoon that when Morlock found himself being questioned by Army investigators, he expressed no pity or remorse about the murders.

Toward the end of Morlock's interview, the conversation turned to the mindset that had allowed the killings to occur. "None of us in the platoon – the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant – no one gives a fuck about these people," Morlock said.

Then he leaned back in his chair and yawned, summing up the way his superiors viewed the people of Afghanistan. "Some shit goes down," he said, "you're gonna get a pat on the back from your platoon sergeant: Good job. Fuck 'em."

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