Update: Concluding a two-week court martial, "Kill Team" ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was found guilty of all specifications and charges today, says Joint Base Lewis McChord spokesperson Joe Kubistek.
The court's military panel sentenced Gibbs to life in prison, Kubistek says, but "with the possibility of parole." He also received a reduction in rank to the grade of E-1, loss of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.
He was found guilty of 15 crimes including the premeditated murder of three Afghan civilians. Gibbs referred to Afghans as "dirty savages," according to witnesses, and cut fingers from corpses as war souvenirs.
Oct. 27: With now nine of the dozen Army Kill Team soldiers having been convicted of war crimes, including the murders of Afghan civilians, the alleged ringleader of the notorious Joint Base Lewis McChord unit takes the stand tomorrow. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs will answer accusations he instigated the killings and threatened to murder his own Stryker soldiers if they didn't participate.
It is not what recruiters call an "Army Strong'" moment. The 26-year-old high-school dropout from Billings, Mont., who collected fingers and bone as mementos, will face court martial at JBLM's military courts building starting at 9 a.m. Gibbs is charged with 15 crimes including killing three civilians; if convicted, he faces life in a federal prison.
His accusers include two former soldiers from his platoon who admitted to the murders in exchange for their testimony and lighter sentences. One of the participants-turned-accusers, Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Alaska, claimed at his court martial that the conspiracy to kill noncombatants began in December 2009 after the arrival of Gibbs, who'd been serving in Iraq.
Morlock told Army investigators that he and and Spc. Adam Winfield, 22, were told by Gibbs to shoot a civilian in January 2010. Gibbs, Morlock said, lobbed a grenade "and tells me and Winfield: 'All right, wax this guy. Kill this guy, kill this guy.' "
Winfield told a similar story about a May 2010 murder of another Afghan civilian by the same threesome: "Sergeant Gibbs said, 'This is how it's going to go down. You're going to shoot your weapons, yell grenade. I'm going to throw this grenade. After it goes off, I'm going to drop this grenade next to him' . . . we're laying there and Morlock told me to shoot, so [I] started shooting, yelled 'Grenade.' The grenade blew up and that was that."
But, as SW reported in April, JBLM's Stryker soldiers in Afghanistan were vulnerable to being misled and confused about their mission: the 5th Stryker commander, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, created a "dysfunctional" climate for war, says sociologist Stjepan Meštrovic, a war-crimes expert. He has testified on behalf of soldiers accused of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and provided expert testimony at Morlock's court martial.
Though U.S. policy in Afghanistan was to win through a counterinsurgency that protected the government and noncombatants, Tunnell, Meštrovic says, took a more aggressive, guerrilla-warfare approach, unconcerned about winning Afghan trust (the brigade's motto was "Strike and Destroy"). That made the Stryker brigade a "lone duck" among other units, says Meštrovic. He notes that alleged Kill Team ringleader Gibbs had been a member of Tunnell's own security detail before he was assigned to lead Morlock and the other accused. "There seems to be connections between direct proximity to Col. Tunnell and the chaos that pursued," says Meštrovic. "Several [brigade members] mentioned the fact that you were good in Col. Tunnell's eyes if you were aggressive and the body count was high."
Gibbs has denied the accusations against him, and claims the killings were the result of combat situations. Widely published photos and videos of the Kill Team's actions suggest the atrocities may be even more widespread. Platoon members were also known to shoot randomly at farmers working the fields, never knowing who was killed and who wasn't.