- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OP-ED:

When President Obama dispatched another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, he didn’t know that one of the biggest risks they face comes from the U.S. military’s own lawyers. An out-of-control, politically correct legal code means U.S. soldiers could be brought up on charges just for discharging their duty. Take the case of Capt. Roger Hill.

Capt. Hill commanded D Company in the U.S. Army’s 101st Air Assault Division,1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, in a lonely outpost in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, an area the size of Connecticut with many Taliban lurking amid its half a million people.

The men in Capt. Hill’s unit learned that some of their Afghan interpreters were double agents - passing information to the Taliban about planned troop movements. Ambushes followed. As many as 30 Americans were injured and two were killed.

Capt. Hill detained about a dozen suspects and asked that they be evacuated from the outpost to headquarters for interrogation. His request was denied.

Detainees can be held only 96 hours without charges. Given this constraint and the lack of support from his superiors, Capt. Hill and his officers interrogated the detainees. Worried about the safety of his men, Capt. Hill reportedly made verbal threats, allowed his first sergeant to sit on the prisoners’ chests demanding answers, and is even said to have fired his pistol near the blindfolded heads of prisoners to trick them into thinking one of their comrades had been killed. Capt. Hill was soon brought up on charges for using these methods to learn about future ambushes. The prisoners were not physically hurt by Capt. Hill.

For not meeting standards in the field comparable to those imposed on police investigating a domestic disturbance or a drug ring, Capt. Hill was called before the equivalent of a grand jury, and criminal charges were pursued.

Capt. Hill’s defense attorney was advised that if he pleaded guilty to the charges no court-martial would be conducted. He did so. He was fined $4,000 by his commander and ordered “discharged” from the Army under other than honorable conditions - an excessive sentence for a fine professional officer operating under duress in a harsh environment. This is a miscarriage of justice that will undermine the war effort. When forced to choose between the safety of our troops and the comfort of the enemy, why is it that the enemy can never be inconvenienced?

The secretary of the Army should authorize an honorable discharge for Capt. Hill or allow him to return to service as a commanding officer. This is not too much to ask since the Army prosecutors decided to downgrade everything to an Article 15 and allowed him to resign his commission (a way to subtly oust him from the Army).

After four years at West Point and nine years of honorable service, including two wars, and having been awarded the Bronze Star for valor, he also deserves his hard-earned veterans benefits.

Our rules of engagement punish servicemembers for nonlethal acts, such as threatening captured enemy agents. In this bitter war, the armed forces have imposed strict rules of engagement upon our forces while our enemy beheads and tortures noncombatants. Strict enforcement against our forces wins us no mercy from the terrorists. Just ask Daniel Pearl.

Meanwhile, we are asking a lot from our people. They must fight the enemy with great restraint. Even the appearance of transgression of the rules of engagement is punished severely by military courts. It is time for a public debate regarding the double standards that bind our hands in battle but impose no restraint on the enemy.

Our soldiers are fighting under the most difficult conditions and are being second-guessed by military lawyers and bureaucrats in snug offices in safe, rear areas. We need to remember that life is a lot messier at the front.

And the public must demand reform. Capt. Hill’s honorable status should be restored and his case should be the last in a string of prosecutorial overzealousness that began in the Bush years.

If President Obama is serious about righting the wrongs of the Bush years and winning the war against terrorists, here is a good place to start.

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