AMATO: Eating our own

U.S. military imprisons warriors for battlefield errors

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As President Obama took to the airwaves Tuesday evening to announce the end of the combat mission in Iraq, he paid tribute to the men and women who served there, were killed or wounded there, and to their families for the sacrifices they made. But there was one glaring omission: It is believed there are more young

American soldiers serving prison time for having done their jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan than at any other time in our nation’s history. In fact, there may be more than in all of World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined - 114 cases, according to the website of the United American Patriots, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping U.S. military hire and pay for civilian defense counsel.

It is a tragic story largely misunderstood by the mainstream media and, in all likelihood, one of which the Obama administration is completely unaware, given that most sentences were pronounced under the previous administration.

Exclusively men and primarily in their early 20s, these are young servicemen who are not guilty of the rape and killing of innocent women and children, as commonly is the public misperception (thanks to the late John Murtha). Instead, they are troops who have been charged with wrongdoing on the battlefield, in the heat of battle against an enemy with no uniform or identifying markers.

“It is often unclear who poses a threat and who does not. There is no uniform to identify the enemy. You have layers of [rules of engagement], stress, fatigue, and when something goes wrong, they then face accusations that bring life sentences. I fear we may be eating our own,” retired Brig. Gen. David Brahms told me. He’s a military defense lawyer in Oceanside, Calif.

These are accusations that bring life sentences and plea-bargain deals - two very important aspects of this story.

When someone is accused of premeditated murder, if convicted, he faces a military sentence of mandatory life in prison, either with or without parole. That leads to the prosecution offering plea-bargain deals, which typically bring sentences of five to 25 years in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges.

It is a pretty intimidating choice for anyone, let alone a 20-something fresh off the battlefield.

Military defense attorney Victor Kelly of the National Military Justice Group in Atlanta puts it this way: “In my opinion, even if they are innocent, too often the accused feel it is too risky to challenge the government’s case in court and are compelled to accept the government’s plea-bargain offer to plead guilty.”

“The Hill Memo,” a June 3, 2008 information paper written by Maj. James T. Hill and entered as an exhibit in the recent clemency hearing of Pfc. Corey Clagett, supports Mr. Kelly’s statement:

“The only military personnel ever convicted of premeditated murder for their conduct leading to the death of an Iraqi detainee are those who have pled guilty.

“Since the Iraq war began in March, 2003, there have been approximately 24 personnel charged with premeditated murder for killing Iraqi detainees. Of those 24, 14 of the accused have contested the charges. Of those 14 contested charges, not even one was convicted of premeditated murder. In fact, of those 14, only nine were convicted of even a lesser included offense to premeditated murder.

“More to the point, the only military personnel ever convicted of premeditated murder in the killing of detainees in Iraq are those soldiers who have pled guilty to it.”

Clagett is one such soldier who pleaded guilty to charges; he’s serving an 18-year prison sentence.

Clagett, 21 at the time, was accused of murder in a battlefield-related incident despite military prosecutors saying he had followed the mission’s written rules of engagement.

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