Winter Soldier Rules of Engagement

By Erin Thompson

May 1, 2008

n March 14 President George W. Bush spoke from the White House to U.S. soldiers during a video conference about their deployment in Afghanistan. "I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for some ways, know, confronting danger." 

Romantic was not the picture painted just a few miles away in Silver Spring, Maryland, during the second day of testimony by U.S. veterans during "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "For those of you who don't know, those are brains," said Jon Turner, a former Marine, while showing a slide of the inside of a man's head who had been killed by one his friends in his platoon. 

Turner and other soldiers on the "Rules of Engagement" panel depicted their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as horrifying events in which soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians, wantonly destroyed property, conducted house raids, planted weapons on civilians (in order to be able to classify their deaths as insurgents), and mutilated the dead. 

"I want to apologize to all the people in Iraq," said Sergio Kochergin, abruptly breaking off the end of a story about a friend who had shot himself in the shower four days after arriving in Iraq. "I'm sorry and I hope this war is going to be over as soon as possible."

Kochergin's testimony helped establish how the rules of engagement used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to many of the atrocities described by the soldiers. The rules define when and how soldiers can fire their weapons or engage in combat. Kochergin described how initially his platoon, which patrolled an Iraqi town on the Syrian border, had to radio to the command post and "If they're doing some sort of illegal activity, we were allowed to take them out." 

After a while, though, these rules were abandoned by commanders, who, at one point, told soldiers to fire at any Iraqis carrying bags and shovels, assuming that they were planting explosive devices. Finally, the soldiers were given no rules of engagement at all. "It was up to us to make the decision," said Korchergin, who called that policy "inappropriate." 

For many soldiers, the rules of engagement in Iraq were "broadly defined and loosely enforced. Anyone who tells you different is a liar and a fool," said Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in the Marines. While he was initially given rules of engagement that corresponded to the Geneva Conventions, "By the time we got to Baghdad, I could shoot at anyone who came close enough to make me uncomfortable," said Lemieux, who described being so traumatized by the shooting of an unarmed Iraqi man, by a commanding officer shooting "two old ladies carrying groceries," and by fellow soldiers taking potshots at unarmed civilians, that he blocked it all out. 

Garrett Reppenhagen, who served in Baquba, Iraq, described a firefight in which U.S. soldiers began spraying bullets into several vehicles of what they thought were armed insurgents. After killing seven Iraqis, the soldiers discovered, to their dismay, that the men were actually bodyguards to the deputy governor. "All these men were not only innocent, they were our allies," said Reppenhagen. "This is the kind of confusion that goes on every day in Iraq." 

Jason Washburn described members of his unit shooting an Iraqi woman carrying a large shopping bag, only to find out that, "She had been trying to bring us food," said Washburn. "And we blew her to pieces for it." 

Other soldiers emphasized that they were not reprimanded for shooting civilians. "One thing we were asked to do was carry draw-up weapons. In case we did shoot a civilian, we could toss it on a body and make it look like an insurgent," said Washburn. "If they were carrying a shovel, heavy bag, digging anywhere near a road, we could shoot them"—within the rules of engagement."


Ignored by mainstream media, the Winter Soldier
hearings were shown on Free Speech TV


Soldiers also spoke about the callous attitude many soldiers had toward shooting Iraqis. After shooting a man who was being pursued for planting an IED, according to one testifier, the Marines "left his body to rot in the field—it was still there two weeks later," said Indiana resident Vincent Emanuele, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. "His picture was on the backdrop of a laptop for a screen saver for one of our more motivated Marines." 

Jon Turner, a machine gunner who served two deployments in Iraq, described intentionally killing civilians and mutilating the dead. He then ripped off the dog tags around his neck, declaring, "I don't work for you anymore."  

"On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill," said Turner. "I shot him in front of his friend and his father." After the kill, "My company commander personally congratulated me," Turner said. "This is the same individual that stated that whoever gets his first kill by stabbing him to death would get a four day pass." 

Turner presented a slideshow, which included close-up shots of Iraqis killed by his platoon, the inside of a young Iraqi's skull, and part of a blown off face, which soldiers had placed on the top of a Kevlar helmet. "It just goes to show you that...we had no respect for their bodies afterwards." 

He also presented photos of Iraqis bound in their living rooms during a house raid and described beating and choking men "if they were giving us a problem." In a grisly admission, Turner revealed that he had tattooed the words symbolizing "fuck you" on his "choking" wrist and, "anytime I felt the need to take aggression, I would use it." Although he began his testimony in defiance, Turner ended with a plea. "I am sorry for the things that I did; I am no longer the monster that I once was," he said to a tearful audience. 

James Gilligan, who did tours with the Marines in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay, told of participating in an operation to detain three Afghani herdsmen who were suspected of spotting rocket attacks for "insurgents" in Pakistan. Gilligan witnessed a Marine helicopter gunner open fire on the men while they were fleeing down a hillside.

He also described the looting of gold coins by soldiers at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency. The coins, which had the face of Saddam Hussein and the head of the Iraqi nuclear facility on them, were "liberated" by senior NCOs and officers, according to Gilligan, who was told about the incident by fellow Marines. "After we were leaving the country, a lot of these guys were talking about how they were bringing them home." Gilligan explained that the looting of the gold coins was just a small part of the looting he saw. 

Gilligan also mentioned his experience as a security guard in Guantanamo Bay. While he wasn't actually involved in any interrogations, he interacted with MPs on the base and heard of stories about how sexual humiliation and waterboarding were used on detainees. In order to visit a "stress doctor" to treat his nightmares related to his PTSD from the Iraq invasion, Gilligan had to visit Camp X-ray, which housed detainees  in metal cages "lying out in the open, 23 hours a day" in the extreme heat. 

Vets marched from Philadelphia to Valley Forge in early March in the lead up to the Winter Soldier hearings
—photo by Susie Husted

Many of the former soldiers, who were clearly still traumatized by their experiences, challenged the audience of several hundred members of the media, friends, and family, as well as allies in the antiwar movement, to use their message as  to end the war. 

"They went to Iraq hoping to do good, hoping to do right. We found that we were killing Iraqi people in horrible ways," said Reppehagen. "And most soldiers are going through this—whether they've seen an atrocity or not, the truth of the matter is that the war is the atrocity." 

Erin Thompson is on the staff of the NYC newspaper the Independent. This piece first appeared on Indyblog.