Details emerge about US suspect in Afghan massacre

March 16, 2012 - 4:47 PM
US-Afghanistan Lawyer

John Henry Browne, the attorney representing the U.S. soldier who is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, talks to reporters, Thursday, Mar. 15, 2012, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

His identity is as shadowed now as the night the Army says he crept into a pair of slumbering Afghan villages and slaughtered 16 civilians whose safety he was charged to protect.

Five days after the massacre — the soldier's name still a secret — a portrait of the suspect is beginning to emerge. He's a 38-year-old staff sergeant, husband, father of two young children and a veteran who was in the midst of his fourth tour in a war zone.

But because of a tightly controlled flow of information, many of the details are incomplete and difficult to verify.

Most information about the suspect has come from two camps, each representing particular interests.

There's the U.S. government, almost always represented by the voices of unidentified "senior military officials." On the other side, there's the suspect's civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne, a veteran criminal defense attorney from Seattle, near the base where the suspect's unit is stationed when not in Iraq or Afghanistan.

With the suspect's name withheld from the public, there has been no pathway for independent evaluation of the information — no chance to interview family members, close friends, neighbors or fellow soldiers. And no chance to examine official records.

Even seemingly straightforward information raises questions that are not easily answered, at least for now — such as a possible defense of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, the suspect lost part of one foot because of injuries suffered in Iraq during one of his three tours of duty there, his lawyer said. Browne also said that when the 11-year veteran heard he was being sent to Afghanistan late last year, he did not want to go. He also said that a day before the rampage through two villages, the soldier saw a comrade's leg blown off.

The same goes for the possibility alcohol played a role.

On Friday, a senior U.S. defense official said the suspect was drinking alcohol in the hours before the attack on Afghan villagers, violating a U.S. military order banning alcohol in war zones. The official discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because charges have not yet been filed.

Browne said his client's family told him they were not aware of any drinking problem — not necessarily a contradiction. Pressed on the issue in interviews with news organizations, Browne said he did not know if his client had been drinking the night of the massacre.

Military officials have insisted from the beginning that it is usual procedure to keep a suspect's identity secret until he is officially charged. They have maintained that stance even after a hearing for the detained soldier Tuesday found probable cause to continue holding him and he was sent from Afghanistan to a detention facility in Kuwait.

The soldier was being flown Friday to the U.S. military's only maximum-security prison, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security surrounding the move.

The move to the U.S. does not necessarily mean an announcement of formal criminal charges is imminent, a defense official said.

Browne said the sergeant is originally from the Midwest but now lives near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. His children are 3 and 4.

The sergeant's family says they saw no signs of aggression or anger. "They were totally shocked," by accounts of the massacre, Browne said. "He's never said anything antagonistic about Muslims. He's in general very mild-mannered."

Browne, who said he has met with the family and talked with the suspect, cited a need to protect family members in declining to release the soldier's name.

The soldier, said to have received sniper training, is assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, of the 2nd Infantry Division, which is based at Lewis-McChord and has been dispatched to Iraq three times since 2003, military officials say.

During the suspect's time in Iraq, Browne said, the soldier was injured twice. A battle-related injury required surgery to remove part of one foot, the lawyer said.

But Browne and government officials differ in their portrayal of a second injury, to the soldier's head, in a vehicle accident.

A government official said this week that the accident was not related to combat. But Browne said the man suffered a concussion in an accident caused by an improvised explosive device.

Browne also said his client was "highly decorated," but did not provide any specifics.

When he returned to the Seattle area, the staff sergeant at first thought he would not be required to join his unit when it shipped out for Afghanistan, the lawyer said. His family thought he was done fighting and was counting on him staying home. Until orders came dispatching him to Afghanistan, he was training to be a military recruiter, Browne said.

"He wasn't thrilled about going on another deployment," Browne said. "He was told he wasn't going back, and then he was told he was going."

The staff sergeant arrived in Afghanistan in December. On Feb. 1 he was assigned to a base in the Panjwai District, near Kandahar, to work with a village stability force that pairs special operations troops with villagers to help provide neighborhood security.

On Saturday, the day before the shooting spree, Browne said, the soldier saw his friend's leg blown off. Browne said his client's family provided him with that information, which has not been verified.

The other soldier's "leg was blown off, and my client was standing next to him," he said.

Browne said he did not know if his client had been suffering from PTSD, but said it could be an issue at trial if experts believe it's relevant. Experts on PTSD said witnessing the injury of a fellow soldier and the suspect's own previous injuries put him at risk.

"We've known ever since the Vietnam war that the unfortunate phenomenon of abusive violence often closely follows the injury or death of a buddy in combat," said Dr. Roger Pitman, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who heads the PTSD Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. "The injury or death of a buddy creates a kind of a blind rage."

___

Associated Press writer Gene Johnson in Seattle, AP National Security Writer Robert Burns and AP Chief Medical Writer Marilynn Marchione in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle