- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Lt. Col. Allen B. West was fined $5,000 by his commanding officer yesterday, closing a case in which the Army charged him with assault for firing his gun to frighten an Iraqi detainee into disclosing a planned ambush.

Neal Puckett, Col. West’s civilian attorney, said the officer plans to return to Fort Hood, Texas, where he expects to be granted a full-benefits retirement this spring after a 20-year Army career.

Col. West appeared before Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, at his Tikrit headquarters. Gen. Odierno fined him one-half month’s pay for two months, or roughly $5,000, Mr. Puckett said. The division’s lawyers sought a court-martial, but a hearing officer recommended Article 15, or nonjudicial punishment.

The case has been closely watched by Army officers and military veterans. Col. West’s stated motives were to protect himself and his soldiers in the notorious Sunni Triangle, where Americans face daily attacks from Saddam Hussein loyalists. But he admitted bending the rules and the Army chose to file charges rather than handling the case quietly.

With the case closed, civilian defense attorney Puckett harshly criticized the Army.

“The problem with today’s Army is that the top brass seem to have become paranoid about making common sense decisions without the ‘advice of counsel.’” said Mr. Puckett, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. “Those counsel usually have no idea what it means to command troops in combat.”

Mr. Puckett said that early on in the case, the 4th Infantry’s staff judge advocate offered a deal: If Col. West would resign short of qualifying for retirement benefits, the Army would not seek a court-martial. Mr. Puckett rejected the offer.

“Had true Army leaders been allowed to handle this without benefit of counsel, I believe Al West would still be in command, would have been privately congratulated, and told to stay out of the interrogation business in the future,” Mr. Puckett said.

“That would have been true Army leadership. Those type of leaders are still in the Army. It’s just that they have been subverted by job-justifying lawyers who seek to play a larger role in the command.”

The case had a compelling story line.

Col. West, a product of a poor family in Atlanta, graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1983 and joined the Army, an institution that was actively recruiting blacks.

He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and won command of an artillery battalion before deploying to Iraq from Fort Hood. His future seemed bright. Perhaps a brigade command was in his future.

While trying to bring democracy to a small town near Tikrit, he received intelligence information that an Iraqi policeman was involved in a plot to kill the officer and his soldiers. When the detained policeman refused to talk, Col. West took him outside and fired two shots near his head. The frightened Iraqi then gave up information on the planned assassination, including those involved.

Col. West informed superiors of his action, which violated Army rules for interrogation. An investigative hearing officer, Lt. Col. Jimmy Davis, recommended this week that Col. West face administrative punishment at what is called an Article 15 hearing. Gen. Odierno agreed.

Col. West had feared the Army would move to court-martial him. If convicted, he would have carried a criminal record. A military jury could have voted to dismiss him from the Army, a sentence that would strip all pension and medical benefits for him, his wife and two children.

The Washington Times, which first reported Col. West’s case, obtained Col. Davis’ Article 32 investigative report, in which he recommended no court-martial. Some excerpts:

• “Lt. Col. West’s impeccable service record in tough jobs combined with his prior unblemished character support this decision. Many of his soldiers testified to his positive, proactive leadership style. The soldiers felt like a team and would go out of their way to support him and many stated they would work for him again.

• “Nature of threat and environment: The immediacy of the threat in Lt. Col. West’s mind was his primary concern. His earlier personal ambush experience heightened the hazards. Adding in the assassination plots manifested in the commander’s mind that the likelihood of the threat was very high. Risk management procedures called for decisive commander action.

• “There were no improper motives for this incident. Lt. Col. West did not intentionally try to harm the victim. The accused has willingly cooperated and immediately accepted responsibility for his actions. His foibles were that he implicated his soldiers, allowed physical abuse and failed to fully inform his commander. For this reason, Lt. Col. West must be punished for his actions.

“Administrative measures have already been applied and effectively ended Lt. Col. West’s career. Dismissing the charges with no action could provide free license and have a contrary effect to good order and discipline. From the soldiers’ of [Wests unit] point of view the case is already affecting morale. Administration of quick justice and getting on with prosecuting the war is in the best interest of his unit, the 4th Infantry Division (Mech) and the Army. An Article 15 sends the message of punishment to the force with an element of compassion. Lt. Col. West is allowed some measure of dignity.”

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