Serving up justice in the desert

first_imgServing up justice in the desert February 1, 2005 Regular News Serving up justice in the desert Capt. Greg Weiss Chief, Military Justice, Iraq In my case the accused, the victim, and a few other soldiers had engaged in a lighthearted discussion outside of the unit’s sleeping tents at Baghdad International Airport after a long day of work. I can only assume that these soldiers had been drinking alcohol in violation of General Order #1, which prohibits the “sale, possession, manufacture, or consumption of alcohol” in theater.The discussion became a marketplace for racial jokes, which is not terribly uncommon in the Army. I am neither advocating nor judging the conversation, but rather relaying the facts. This type of discussion took place commonly in this unit throughout their deployment, with the participation of almost all, if not all, of the members of the unit. Soldiers of all races in the unit both made and were made the subject of these jokes, and during this particular conversation, the victim made a joke that offended the accused. Soon after the discussion ended, the soldiers departed for the evening.At around 2330 hours the victim entered his sleeping tent and eventually went to sleep. Several hours later, at around 0230 hours, the accused snuck into victim’s sleeping tent to find the victim, but was unsuccessful as the tent was dark inside. The accused then went back to his sleeping tent and brought back a flashlight and was thereby able to locate the now sleeping victim. As the victim was lying motionless in his cot, with his eyes closed, the accused approached without warning and hit him several times with a closed fist to the victim’s head. When the disoriented victim fell out of his cot, the accused stomped or kicked the victim’s head until someone else in the sleeping tent woke up and told the accused to leave. Though the victim was beaten up pretty badly, he did not suffer any broken bones or permanent damage.The defense counsel assigned to the case never interviewed the victim, which was unfortunate for the accused, because she could have presented the neither sympathetic nor scarred victim as a defense sentencing witness. I was able to get the pieces of the victim’s testimony that were the most aggravating into evidence through a stipulation of fact without risking having the victim testify. In addition, both the accused’s first sergeant and platoon sergeant testified that the accused was a great soldier, a “go to” guy. Their testimony forced me to cross-examine each witness with a barrage of leading questions such as, “Does a good soldier stomp on the head of a fellow soldier?” to test the basis of the opinion. I do not enjoy laying into senior noncommissioned officers on cross, but I gave them fair warning, and they chose to testify regardless.In the judge-alone forum selected by the accused, the judge sentenced him to 10 months confinement and a bad conduct discharge, far beyond most predictions, so I was pleased with the result despite that this was one of my minor cases. Though I would like to believe that my advocacy on behalf of the government was the reason for the sentence, I am fairly certain that this judge knew what he was going to sentence before hearing any evidence or argument.Staff Sgt. Alex Straub and I served as the confinee escorts to avoid forcing the unit to send 16 soldiers in four vehicles on a convoy to Baghdad in order to provide the two required escorts. After the judge announced his sentence, Sgt. Straub and I became responsible for the accused until we dropped him off at the Camp Arifjan Confinement Facility in Kuwait. We arranged transportation for the following morning.Incoming rockets serve as a great alarm clock: no snooze button. We woke up at 0530 in the transient sleeping tents at Victory Base to the sounds and vibrations of explosions. The first one sounded close and the second one closer before we made it to the nearest bunker with our confinee. The next four rockets were close enough that we could hear them whistling before impact. Unlike LSA Anaconda, Victory Base does not have an air siren to warn of incoming indirect fire or to sound with the learned-to-be-reassuring “all clear.” Thus, after a 10-minute lull we simply uncorked ourselves from the bunker without further guidance and gathered the rest of our gear to get the hell off Victory Base and over to Baghdad International Airport to fly down to Kuwait.We arrived at Baghdad International shortly thereafter in two SUVs only to discover that the Air Force closed the gate to all traffic because of the attacks at Victory Base. This quickly became a catch-22 as more incoming rounds started to impact about 400 meters away, on the far side of airport’s main runways. The gate to the airport was closed because of the incoming fire, but the only bunkers to protect us were in Baghdad International. Ironically we wanted to get closer to the impacting rounds because that was the location of the bunkers. Eventually, the incoming fire stopped and we were allowed in.We knew that our confinee was our “Army Frequent Flyer Medallion Level Pass,” and we were manifested on the first C-130 down to Kuwait because he was “Priority 1” as a confinee. While we were waiting for the flight in a holding tent, I ventured into the airport’s post-exchange trailer (literally a semi-trailer). On the magazine rack, situated between the last thumbed-through copy remaining of Maxim, FMH, and Stuff I found multiple pristine copies of the current Foreign Affairs. The condition and abundance of the magazine was not surprising; only the fact that it was there in the first place.After waiting a few hours, we again gathered all of our gear, boarded a bus, drove onto the tarmac, and unloaded behind the tailgate of a C-130 with the engines still turning. Just before we could walk onto the aircraft, literally 20 meters away from the tailgate ramp, a personnel security contractor from Blackwater (a private company which hires former special forces types to protect diplomats) took over the plane on behalf of some unnamed higher-up. We were so close to getting to Kuwait, but as we were to soon find out, so far.All other flights leaving Baghdad International that day were cancelled because of the intermittent indirect fire. Think about your frustration upon being stuck in a major metropolitan airport, such as Hartsfield in Atlanta, for several hours. Contrast the veritable shopping malls inside, complete with food courts, restaurants, book stores, and, importantly, bars, with a big sweaty tent containing a few cots, cases of MREs, and a trailer vending a few magazines targeted for 17-year-olds and stale Moon Pies. In addition, we were not just waiting to get home from a business trip; we were waiting to get away from the incoming rockets and mortars to the no-threat environment of Kuwait. Nine hours later we were offered seats on a flight of civilian contractors, which we immediately snapped up.The interior of a C-130 used for passenger travel (or jumping, for that matter) is divided in half lengthwise by cargo netting. On either side of the cargo netting are canvas folding benches running the length of the cargo netting. Facing the back-to-back interior benches are two canvas benches lining the exterior wall of the fuselage. In other words, the interior of the aircraft is divided in half lengthwise and each half has two long lengthwise canvas benches facing each other, with no one facing the direction of travel. I was sitting in one of the middle benches facing the exterior bench and a window on this flight. The taxi out was ordinary and I was happy to be on my way to a country where indirect fire is not an occupational hazard.As we accelerated down the runway and took off, my relief and possession of a settled stomach were cut short by what sounded like an old-fashioned cash register ringing up a sale. The sound was actually anti-targeting flares being shot off of both sides of the plane. Simultaneously, my perspective out of the window immediately changed from looking at a normal horizon to wildly staring straight at the ground from 50 meters above it as we were in a very sharp bank. My view immediately rolled back past the normal horizon to straight into the blue sky for the opposite sharp bank, then again woefully past the normal horizon and straight at the ground yet again for another bank. After the series of evasive maneuvers, which turned out later to be prompted by someone on the ground engaging our flight, we climbed sharply. I was sweating profusely and was more concerned about my nausea than the fact that someone on the ground was trying to shoot us. Thirty minutes later the flight and life itself was back to normal in the way it only can be in Iraq.We landed in Kuwait an hour and a half later and First Lt. Andy Holmes, who used to reside in a trailer near mine at LSA Anaconda, picked us up and drove us to the Arifjan Confinement Facility.We found out watching CNN later that an improvised explosive device had exploded outside Baghdad International earlier that day and killed a few fellow soldiers traveling to the airport. A few days later when we were at Kuwait City International waiting to get back to LSA Anaconda, we saw a C-130 conducting a funeral detail. A refrigeration truck was backed up to the C-130 and the soldiers moving the fallen soldier were at ramrod attention. I was filled with guilt upon seeing the detail, as Sgt. Straub and I were potentially in close proximity to where this soldier may have been killed a few days prior.After we dropped off the accused, we went to First Lt. Holmes’ post just outside of Camp Arifjan. It was good to see someone who was previously with us at LSA Anaconda, and he was filled with pride in his new unit for having been deployed to Iraq before joining them in Kuwait. Before I deployed to Iraq, I thought little of the difference between soldiers who had been to Iraq or Afghanistan versus other countries in the Middle East where we are staging (as opposed to running) combat operations. I am not an infantryman on patrol in downtown Baghdad or a driver on the IED laden roads of Iraq, but I do share some bond with other soldiers who have deployed with me to Iraq. The following day we were manifested on another C-130 flight back to LSA Anaconda to prepare for the next trial term, armed not only with only our M-16s, but also a new appreciation for the soldiers assigned to Baghdad. In civilian life, Capt. Greg Weiss is an associate with Wicker, Smith, O’Hara, Mccoy, Graham, and Ford in West Palm Beach, who was mobilized from a reserve component for duty in Iraq. Capt. Weiss’ has agreed to share his wartime experiences with his fellow Florida Bar members through the News .last_img

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