Five-year legacy of Iraq mission gone awry
AS SADAH, IRAQ – Staring over the barrel of his machine gun, Dary Finck had the shot. But the U.S. Army private first class refused to take it.
Same with the three sergeants crouching in thigh-high grass: Ken Katter, the Small Kill Team’s sniper with his finger on the trigger, his spotter, Rick Grimsley, and Timothy Cole, who clutched a rifle.
They watched two unarmed boys herd cows into the shaded meadow hugging this Iraqi village on the quiet, sunny morning of March 6, 2007.
Ahmad Khalid al-Timmimi, 15, seemed to turn his back to the soldiers. Then his body exploded.
His brother, Abbas, 14, screamed when another bullet struck him.
Neither boy heard the shots that killed them. They were deaf.
Witnesses told the Tribune-Review that the rounds came from the rifle of Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera, 30, a squad leader from Charlie Troop, 5th Squadron of the 73rd Cavalry Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
The killing wasn’t over. Within minutes, Barbera ordered his men to shoot Muhamed Khaleel Kareem al-Galyani, 14, as he approached the team. He also was a deaf mute, a cousin of the boys dying in the palm grove, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Army investigators determined that Barbera committed two murders and lied to officials about what happened. But generals at Fort Bragg refused to put him on trial. Instead, the 82nd Airborne Division slapped the New York native with a light reprimand and promoted him.
He’s now a sergeant first class at Alaska’s Fort Richardson, according to Army records released to the Tribune-Review.
Barbera declined comment to the Trib.
In the years that followed the slayings, wounded soldiers in Barbera’s squad told the Trib they were punished for blowing the whistle on acts they consider tantamount to war crimes. They say the Army covered up the killings to protect higher-ranking officers and to uphold the image of Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne.
They believe the boys’ deaths triggered twin reprisal suicide truck bombings that destroyed their outpost and killed 10 fellow paratroopers.
Other evidence, however, suggests those suicide attacks were not related to the boys’ deaths.
“I feel bad the boys were killed, and the way they were,” said Finck, 30, of Marysville, Wash. “Because that’s not the way we operated on a standard, day-by-day basis. And it doesn’t reflect what kind of soldier I am. And I’ll be associated with that unit and that reputation for life.”
Iraqis in As Sadah and the neighboring hamlet of Nahr al-Sheikh said the slayings changed their villages forever.
“We lost our lives with them,” Nadia Hamid Othman al-Timmimi, 51, mother of the slain brothers, told the Trib through a translator. She said the deaths left her bedridden for five months and she’s “ready to die now.”
“What have we got to lose more, after we lost our children?” she said.
Finck said that he and other team members told their story to the Trib only after the Army did nothing “to right a wrong.”
“This isn’t ‘anti-military,’ what we did by coming forward,” said Finck, the son of Christian missionaries in Africa. “An injustice was done and it needs to be fixed.
“That’s what the military should be doing – fixing this so that in the future we don’t make this mistake again.”
CHAPTER ONE: THE KILLINGS
The Trib interviewed Finck and three other kill team members, the parents of the dead boys, and village elders in Iraq to help reconstruct the 2007 killings and the aftermath.
Another U.S. soldier confirmed details of what he witnessed but declined to be named because he fears retaliation by Army commanders.
The five soldiers’ statements to the Trib echo the findings of a homicide probe conducted by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command from 2009 until mid-2011. Its findings were kept secret, even from the kill team members – until now.
Leaked to the Trib along with Iraqi government documents, the Army report concluded that Barbera should have been prosecuted for “offenses of Murder” and for falsely reporting that his team encountered insurgents, not unarmed children.
The episode is especially troubling because it is tied to one of the most revered squadrons in the Army. The 5-73rd Cavalry received the Presidential Unit Citation – one of the nation’s highest military honors – for heroism during brutal combat near Iraq’s Turki Village in early 2007.
The 5-73, part of a larger combat brigade known as “The Headhunters,” were tasked with clearing mostly Sunni insurgents from the cities and villages of the Diyala River Valley. According to Army documents, the 5-73 was the smallest unit of its type in a brigade spread across restive Diyala Province and suffered the most casualties.
Near-daily firefights, mortar shellings and blasts from improvised explosive devices turned Diyala’s largest city, Baqubah, into what machine-gunner Finck called “the New Fallujah,” a nod to the 2004 battle in Iraq’s Anbar Province that claimed more than 600 U.S. casualties.
“It was pretty dicey,” Finck said.
In early March 2007, Finck’s platoon of scouts was attached to 5-73’s Charlie Troop. They took over an abandoned school in As Sadah, a Sunni Arab village north of Baqubah, and converted it into a combat outpost.
On the evening of March 5, 2007, Barbera’s kill team was inserted into a palm grove just west of As Sadah and north of the road the Americans call “Route Blue Babe.” Iraqis call it Al-Khal Al-Saree, or Highway Five.
The scouts’ mission: spy on a suspected safe house used by Sunni Arab insurgents salting the road with bombs.
Alongside Barbera, Finck, Cole, Katter and Grimsley were Sgt. Kyle W. Roth and two specialists – team medic Andrew S. Harriman and forward observer James J. LoTempio, who would direct mortar fire onto the enemy if needed. His radio was the sole communications link to the troop’s schoolhouse outpost and its Quick Reaction Force, a group of trucks that would race from about eight football fields away to the palm grove if anything went wrong.
The team formed into a prone circle about 300 yards from the road. In the dark, the eight soldiers went to “50 percent,” with half of the scouts awake and watching for insurgents and the others napping or eating. The tall grass acted much like a duck blind, allowing the troops to monitor As Sadah without being spotted.
The only sounds they recall hearing were the barks of faraway dogs.
A stone’s throw away
About an hour before dawn, the kill team went to “100 percent,” with all eight soldiers scanning for movement. They crept about 400 yards to a cattle pasture, settling into what Katter called a “low spot in the ground,” a weed-covered crater with long-dead palm trees slumped over it.
Photos taken by Cole at 11:33 a.m. – about 10 minutes before the boys were shot – show the team on their bellies. Katter’s sniper rifle pokes from a green Army poncho; reeds tent the back of his spotter, Grimsley, 40, blending him into the foliage. Cole stares into the palm trees while Finck looks at the camera.
“I look up and there’s a cow coming at me, which isn’t uncommon in the morning – to see … the herders coming out in the morning with their cattle – especially in an area with that much grass,” said Finck.
“Then right behind I see a little boy running, from my left to right, on top of this berm. He runs past our position. I see another one, another kid younger than him, that’s on top of the berm, right in front of me. He’s just standing on top of the berm, watching this other kid run.”
The cows ambled before them, so close that some of the scouts recalled feeling the cattle’s breath on their faces.
According to Katter, 46, “Just before Finck seen the kids – they were two boys – Rick (Grimsley) goes, ‘Here comes some cattle.’ And then I said, ‘Where there’s cattle …’ and we both said, ‘Comes kids.’ ”
Two soldiers remembered Finck whispering a warning that the boys were nearby. The machine-gunner eyed the boys and tried to determine if they’d spotted him.
Described by the soldiers as “a stone’s throw” away, the boys normally would have been allowed to pass if they didn’t spot the team, according to Finck and other scouts. That way the men could keep spying on the village.
But Barbera suddenly rose, three scouts told the Trib. He moved near Finck’s head and aimed his rifle toward the boys. Katter said he was puzzled, so he scooted next to Barbera to ask, “What are you doing?”
He got no answer. Barbera fired .
“There were shots. I remember three of them,” medic Harriman, 29, told the Trib. “I looked up and brass was landing on me. Hot brass.”
Harriman later received the Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest military honors, for combat bravery.
“It felt like my eardrum had just blown up,” added Finck.
“One shot. Dead center. Kid goes down. Immediately, I look back at the other kid to see if he’s being a threat. And Staff Sgt. Barbera puts his barrel behind my ear and pulls the trigger. I see this kid put his hands in the air right before the shot because I think he saw Barbera point the gun at him,” Finck said.
Katter recalled: “The kids didn’t have any weapons on them. They were just walking across the field. I could see their hands and everything.”
Contrary to standing orders from their commanders to stay and fight if attacked, Katter said Barbera ordered the team to run. He didn’t want them to treat the boys’ wounds or to search them for weapons or cell phones used by the insurgency – what scouts say was standard operating procedure .
“I saw both boys fall and Staff Sgt. Barbera got on the radio and he said that we had been compromised by two armed insurgents and that they were shot,” said Katter. “He didn’t say that he shot them.”
Chaos and another dead
Kill team members told the Trib that the stocky Barbera – listed in his Army file as 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 190 pounds – took the lead out of the palm grove. They followed as he stormed past their initial encampment and deeper into the grove. He stopped on a goat path, hemmed in by an irrigation channel on one side and trees on the other.
The men chattered among themselves , wondering why their leader had killed two boys before running from their extraction point. If they were in danger of being surrounded by insurgents alerted to the gunfire, they needed to run toward the highway, not away from it.
“I was just thinking, ‘What just happened shouldn’t have happened.’ And I was pissed about it and so was Sgt. Grimsley,” said Katter.
Finck told the Trib that Barbera, seemingly panicked and confused, got on LoTiempo’s radio, struggling “with a decision on anything.”
“He spent 10 or 20 minutes talking with them, trying to get the next plan,” Finck said.
A boy suddenly bounded from the shadows, walking on the dirt path toward them. Four scouts told the Trib that he wore what looked like a pistol belt over his dishdasha, a robe-like garment favored by Iraqi men. He appeared to tote a satchel, raising fears that it contained a bomb.
Barbera ordered the team to shoot.
Cole fired first, hitting the intruder in the hip. Then Katter’s sniper rifle got him in mid-spin, according to the soldiers. In the fog of war, they thought they saw him reach for a black metal object tucked into a holster on his belt.
“Barbera said, ‘Put another round in him,’ ” said Finck. “He was still screaming. I think the next round finished him off pretty fast.”
They didn’t know that the boy was 14-year-old al-Galyani, a cousin of the slain brothers. A villager who found his body told Army investigators that what likely looked like a gun to the soldiers was a small pruning shear the deaf boy used to cut grass for livestock.
“No one expected the Americans to kill children,” said the boy’s father, Khaleel Karim Awaid al-Gaylani, 64. “We know the Americans didn’t kill people they searched and who are old and mature. They naturally don’t hurt anyone, even if the person is nearby their facilities.
“Losing my child,” he said, “is like losing my life.”
A hasty retreat
Screaming that they’d been compromised again, Barbera ordered the team to flee toward the Route Blue Babe extraction point. Although his men were trained to move carefully, with weapons pointed out in formations to protect each other, they said a panicking Barbera flat-out bolted.
“He was running for the road, running south,” Katter said.
Barbera ordered LoTempio to radio the mortar team at the outpost to shell a compound where he thought a man carrying an AK-47 had been seen. Less than a minute later, three rounds fell but none hit their targets, according to the scouts and to villagers.
The soldiers said they began to take rifle fire from the compound. Villagers later told the Trib they thought insurgents were attacking them, so they shot back. With bullets hitting from only 200 yards away, kill team members said Barbera continued to flee toward the highway, where trucks from the outpost would pick them up.
“He made everyone take off on a dead run. It was like everyone for himself,” Katter recalled. “So Staff Sgt. Barbera, Harriman, LoTempio and Cole took off on a dead run. They were heading for the trucks. The trucks were coming in. The guys wanted to stay back with us, but I could hear Barbera yelling for them to keep going, keep moving up to the trucks.”
Bringing up the rear, Katter and Grimsley expected Barbera to order machine-gunner Finck to lay down covering fire so they could rush to safety. But when the armored vehicles reached the rendezvous point, Barbera ordered Finck inside.
“The base of fire was me, and I was back at the truck,” said Finck.
Snipers Katter and Grimley bounded back, one man zigzagging forward, dodging bullets, while the other returned fire. Exhausted, they briefly hunkered down behind a rusted Iraqi vehicle deserted in the grove.
Finck said other team leaders would have been the last to seek the safety of the trucks, much as a ship’s captain traditionally is the last man to abandon a sinking vessel. Barbera, however, “was the first guy out of there” and into a truck, leaving his soldiers behind, Finck said.
All of the soldiers eventually reached the vehicles.
Left behind in the grove were the three boys’ bodies, according to the investigative files .
That’s not how it was written up officially, however.
A 2007 Army Commendation Medal citation claimed Barbera “engaged and killed two enemy insurgents who were maneuvering on his element.” His “meritorious service” and “outstanding dedication to duty” contributed “to the overwhelming success of the squadron’s mission” and was “in keeping with the finest traditions of the military service and reflect distinct credit upon himself, Task Force Headhunter, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the United States Army.”
CHAPTER TWO: THE COVER-UP
According to an Iraqi coroner’s report leaked to the Trib, multiple bullet fragments killed Ahmad al-Timmimi; his brother, Abbas, died from major organ damage. Their cousin with the pruning shears, Muhamed, lingered before dying from gunshot wounds, villagers told the Trib.
The villagers wanted answers, so they sent Jabbar Safa’a Eddin, an elder community leader or “mokhtar,” to the Americans’ outpost, known as Forward Operating Base Coomer.
“He went to the U.S. forces and told them the story about the children being killed,” said al-Galyani, father of the slain cousin.
The Trib found plenty of Iraqis who retold this story in detail, but no American officers would confirm meeting with the village elder. Jesse Stewart, the outpost commander and a captain at the time, later told Army investigators in 2009 that he never heard of the incident before they interviewed him .
Stewart, now a major, declined comment to the Trib.
Who talked with the Iraqi elder is important, because U.S. military officers must report up their chains of command any allegation of soldiers killing civilians. No evidence exists that senior officers were told about the killings outside As Sadah.
How much even junior officers learned about the killings remains in doubt.
Like Stewart, then-Lt. Nicholas Bajema, 30, the kill team’s platoon leader in As Sadah, was new to the unit when the boys died. Bajema told the Trib he has “been confused about this thing since (investigators) brought it to me” two years later.
Bajema left the Army as a captain and lives in Arizona. He told Army investigators in 2009 that the outpost leadership trusted Barbera when he radioed that “two military-age males were maneuvering on them and that his team engaged them and then returned to base.”
Al-Galyani and other villagers told the Trib that they continued raising the incident to passing American patrols for months.
Bajema insists his scouts never repeated those allegations, but he told investigators that he overheard unnamed soldiers talking about the dead boys. He said he ” did not think anything of it because in my experience, a 15- or 16-year-old citizen is capable of using a rifle or knowingly inflicting harm on anyone,” according to Army files .
Katter told the Trib that he spoke briefly to Bajema about the incident in 2007.
“He came up to me afterwards and he was like, ‘Katter, is what happened really what happened? Did Staff Sgt. Barbera do it?’ I said, ‘Sir, you don’t want to know.’ And that’s all that was mentioned. At that point, I thought no matter what I said it wouldn’t make a difference anyway,” said Katter, a Marine who became a police officer in Bridgeport Township, Mich., before joining the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Bajema said that never happened. Everyone agrees that superiors at the squadron and brigade levels weren’t notified about the shootings.
A change in the rules?
Failing to search or to treat the boys, “which we had done countless other times,” or to report their deaths weren’t the only strange occurrences that day, according to machine-gunner Finck.
He and other scouts told the Trib that, unlike previous and future missions, the team never conducted an after-action debriefing with superiors when they returned to base. That seemed especially odd because their superiors monitored the radio traffic and knew that at least two Iraqis had been killed.
In addition, the troop conducted its first mortar strike on the village; the outpost’s Quick Reaction Force extracted a team under fire, heavy machine guns blazing. These events would have been significant to any small unit in Iraq, they said, but superiors didn’t ask them to report it in sworn statements.
Most confusing was the lack of questions about the dead boys. In the past, the squadron required written reports under oath when Iraqi civilians were fired at, much less killed.
The scouts told the Trib that Barbera’s explanation for killing the boys was as surprising as the company’s inaction after the slayings.
Katter and Finck said Barbera unveiled a new “ROE” – the Rules of Engagement that tell service members when and why they can engage people with lethal force.
They said Barbera told them that 5-73’s kill teams were allowed to shoot unarmed civilians – even children – who soldiers believed would uncover their position. That radically broke from previous procedures when civilians compromised positions ; in the past, following such a rule would have landed them in a military prison.
Villagers the Trib interviewed said that, three years into the American occupation, they understood the rules.
“They used to find small kids and they used to search them and then let them go when they didn’t find any weapons with them,” said al-Galyani.
From the Army’s investigative report and Trib interviews with soldiers, it appears the kill team’s second-in-command, Sgt. Cole, took the lead in challenging Barbera about the new Rules of Engagement. He demanded proof that they had the right to shoot unarmed children.
Whenever ROEs changed, squadron headquarters would issue cards that the scouts carried in their pockets. None were issued in this instance.
Rules of Engagement documents from the 5-73 back up the kill team members’ statements: Before soldiers could shoot at a suspected enemy, the insurgent had to commit a “hostile act” and possess “the means for deadly force” and the “opportunity to engage” – something two unarmed deaf mutes could not have managed.
“I could’ve mowed them down and cut them in half if I wanted to, but there was nothing that allowed me to engage these boys ,” said Finck. Shooting the unarmed children was pointless anyway , he added, because it gave away the soldiers’ position.
Andrew Poppas, Barbera’s squadron commander and a lieutenant colonel at the time, echoed Finck when he later told Army investigators that the scouts had to have positive identification of a weapon ” in order to engage. ” Poppas, promoted to colonel, agreed to testify against Barbera at planned pretrial court-martial proceedings in 2009, according to Army records.
Teaching at Harvard University while on active duty, Poppas, 46, turned a Trib reporter away from his university office in Cambridge, Mass.
“Col. Poppas isn’t allowed to discuss this matter because of his present duties,” said Maj. Michael Few, a former 5-73 company commander in Poppas’ squadron, speaking on his behalf. “But I have reviewed all the ROE changes that occurred during the deployment and I can assure you that (Poppas) is an honorable man and that the ROE was never changed to allow anyone to shoot an unarmed civilian.
“He never would’ve allowed that and he never heard about this incident until (investigators) came to him.”
The question nagging Katter, Finck and other team members for years was whether a secret, unlawful ROE was invented within the troop and not shared with them.
Bajema, their former platoon leader, denies any secret ROE. Speaking to Army investigators three years ago, he insisted that Barbera couldn’t fire his rifle before following an “escalation of force” procedure : Shout “Imshe!” (“Get away!”) in Arabic at intruders, shine green laser lights at them, brandish a weapon and warn them off, then fire a last warning shot – actions he said he saw Barbera perform later in their deployment .
“To my knowledge, the ROE never changed,” Bajema repeated to the Trib. “But everyone was warned about a common tactic the insurgents used. They would stash weapons near you and then grab them as they approached you. There were soldiers who died because of that.”
Bajema insisted, however, that no one “was ever greenlighted to engage anyone” without positive ID.
He said his former platoon sergeant – identified as Robert Henry Cobb by the team – and Bajema “knew that the ROE was relaxed for the mission in question” but he “honestly did not know” who in 5-73’s chain of command softened the rules Poppas set.
Roth, 27, didn’t return messages from the Trib. Promoted to staff sergeant, he remains on active duty.
Cobb, 39, declined to comment to the Trib. A sergeant first class, he twice was promoted and now is a sergeant major on active duty.
According to Army files, Roth said he fell asleep before Barbera fired the first shots and didn’t witness them. Nevertheless, he defended the team leader’s decision to kill the boys because they “displayed hostile intent” by “performing reconnaissance of the outer edge of the village looking for coalition forces.” Otherwise there was “no reason for anyone to be walking around outside the village.”
“If it was a one-legged man in a wheelchair and it would take him a day and a half to get back to the village, then no. But when we are talking about kids, who can walk their cow out, look at our position, and then go back and tell every (expletive) with an AK-47 where we are, then yes, they would be a target,” Roth told investigators.
Bajema strongly disputes Roth’s contention.
So do villagers. They say the slayings would have been justified if the boys had been armed or were scouting for guerrillas, but three deaf mutes would have been the last people to join the insurgency – not only because of their handicaps but because an insurgent bomb killed the cousin’s two older brothers.
“This was a child. He had no gun. He was deaf and mute. If he were a terrorist, we would have said that you had killed a terrorist. Three sons were killed. Two of my children were killed by al-Qaeda and one by the U.S. Army,” said al-Galyani.
“I lost my sons to both sides.”
In the Army investigative report, three theories emerge as to why senior commanders never heard about the slayings until years later:
- Except for Barbera and Roth, everyone on the team was wounded in combat, removing them at times from the squadron;
- The scouts feared their fellow soldiers would retaliate against them in Iraq if they spoke to authorities ;
- They assumed their commanders would cover up the killings , as they had an earlier mishap.
A June 6, 2007, roadside bomb detonated on Cole’s armored vehicle, killing him and wounding radioman LoTempio, who later gave evidence of Barbera’s actions to investigators.
Finck and Harriman subsequently returned to the United States to recover from wounds suffered shortly after the killings. Wounded in another roadside blast, Katter later joined them to recover at Fort Bragg’s special hospital barracks, the Warrior Transition Unit. All three medically retired from the Army.
As for proof of a potential cover-up, four of the kill team members told the Trib and Army investigators about a Jan. 11, 2007, incident involving Barbera and Bajema near Turki Village.
Platoon members shot two videos of the incident , as they searched for suspected underground weapons caches deserted by rebels. Leaked to the Trib, the footage shows Barbera and Bajema about to toss two grenades into a hole that held no enemy munitions.
Neither man seems to realize that tossing grenades into a small hole could be dangerous because explosives don’t detonate simultaneously. The first blast ejected the second grenade from the hole. It exploded in mid-air , wounding several soldiers watching the tomfoolery – including one of the soldiers filming the incident.
U.S. and Iraqi soldiers shredded by hot shrapnel can be heard in the videotape screaming in agony.
“There were five or six guys down, bleeding all over the place,” said Finck. “A couple of Iraqis had been hit. Nobody knew what had happened.”
In requesting medical evacuation, he said, “It was reported that two enemy insurgents had attacked us with grenades and that we killed them. But there were no pictures of the bodies, and there are always pictures. Definitely it was an American grenade.”
As with the palm grove shootings months later, Finck thought Barbera looked “scared” after the incident : “He said, ‘That’s a demotion right there.’ He knew he was in trouble.”
Bajema told the Trib that Barbera caused the debacle but said he didn’t know how superiors reported the incident to headquarters. No one was punished.
Finck, Katter and others in the kill team said superiors covered up the embarrassing incident. They said falsified battlefield decorations were issued to at least one soldier hit by shrapnel, a charge repeated in the Army investigation report.
Army officials declined to comment but squadron documents back up the accusations: At least one soldier in the platoon received a Combat Action Badge and a Purple Heart “for actively engaging or being engaged by the enemy and for receiving wounds as a result of enemy hostile fire.”
To Katter, Finck and the other kill team members, if their leaders would lie about a grenade accident, they’d cover up the slayings of Iraqis. They decided to wait until they got home to report the As Sadah killings.
CHAPTER 3: RETALIATION?
Eleven days after the boys died, a white truck trundled out of the dusk toward Forward Operating Base Coomer.
On its flatbed, under a black tarp, sat a large mortar round. Sloshing drums of liquid fertilizer surrounded it, designed to magnify an explosion – one that rocked the Diyala River Valley shortly before 6 p.m., March 17, 2007.
The outpost’s top medic, Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin L. Sebban, 29, immediately realized the truck trying to enter the compound, its tires wrapped in concertina wire and spinning in gravel, was a “VBIED” – Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.
“I heard someone yelling, ‘VBIED! VBIED!’ That was Doc Sebban. He was running around warning everyone,” recalled Bajema, the former platoon leader, later promoted to captain, who is now out of the Army.
“The driver, he made eye contact with me and it looked like he started clapping. He was clapping his hands to detonate it. He looked straight at me when he did it.”
Shrapnel from the explosion wounded 16 American soldiers and an Iraqi translator.
Sebban’s bravery saved the lives of all but two men: himself and the attacker, who was blown to bits. A wedding ring was still around one of the bomber’s fingers when soldiers found it, according to the unit’s classified war logs.
At 3 p.m. on April 23, 2007, the compound was hit again. This time the result was catastrophic. Nine Charlie Troop soldiers died – the deadliest day of combat for any unit in the 82nd Airborne since Vietnam.
Two dump trucks driven by insurgents converged on the base. One raced into a gap between concertina wire and concrete barriers fortifying the outpost and then exploded, punching a hole large enough for the second driver to speed through.
As the second truck hurtled closer, U.S. soldiers on the roof vainly sought to kill the driver before he could trigger an estimated one ton of explosives.
The explosion left a crater 6 feet deep and 15 feet wide and pancaked several buildings. Besides the nine dead, 20 American soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were wounded.
Like other structures in As Sadah, the compound’s schoolhouse walls were unreinforced bricks. Although the second bomber never got within 45 feet of the structure, shock waves collapsed its north wall, burying soldiers inside, according to internal Army files.
Finck, Katter, Grimsley and Harriman became convinced the attack was in response to the boys’ killings seven weeks earlier.
“One of the villagers told the interpreter that it was retaliation for the deaths of the two children who were shot. The interpreter had told me that,” said Katter.
Guerrilla reprisals against Americans for alleged misconduct have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, villagers told the Trib the two bombings had nothing to do with the boys’ deaths. Insurgents never warned them of the attacks and the drivers arrived from Zaganiyah, a town three miles away, villagers said.
“My house collapsed during the bombing,” said the elder al-Gaylani, who lived next to the military compound.
Insurgents released propaganda tapes of the second As Sadah bombing but the footage never mentioned the boys killed in the palm grove. Nevertheless, the scouts say that omission doesn’t disprove what the Iraqi interpreter told Katter.
The 5-73’s commander, Poppas, told Army investigators in 2009 that, “had he known that two unarmed Iraqi children were shot and killed, he would have changed the Force Protection and combat posture for the patrol base, which could have prevented those soldiers from being killed or wounded,” according to statements in Barbera’s criminal case file.
Twelve rutted streets
The villagers and scouts the Trib interviewed never understood why Poppas stuck them in As Sadah.
Villagers said the insurgency’s presence was negligible in the 12 rutted streets of As Sadah and its neighboring hamlet, and that the conversion of the schoolhouse to a forward operating base made it a magnet for attacks.
Soldiers said they were concerned about their ability to protect the compound because they lacked enough guards, perimeter barriers and firepower. Some, such as medic Harriman, said outpost commander Stewart failed to shore up vulnerabilities the first bombing revealed.
Harriman said he told then-Capt. Stewart “we needed more security out there. I told him that if we were ever attacked, we would be in trouble.”
Because of his criticism, Harriman said, Stewart – wounded in the first bombing – treated him with disdain “for years.”
Harriman, Katter and Finck insist that a toxic command climate in the officer and senior enlisted ranks of the troop contributed to the boys’ killings and subsequent bombings of As Sadah’s outpost.
Stewart, promoted to major, declined to comment.
Few doubts about the compound’s perimeter security appeared in a hastily written investigation from brigade headquarters a week after the second attack. The Article 15-6 report, dated May 1, 2007, mostly discussed the poor structural integrity of the main building.
The first truck-bomb attack was mentioned only once. Nothing in the report shows that Harriman or other personnel were asked about their warnings about poor security or possible links to the palm grove slayings.
The Army nevertheless seemed to agree with Harriman’s concerns. After the attack, Army engineers added seven dirt berms or concrete jersey barriers to the base’s defenses, creating four choke points to its entrance.
Construction of a better patrol base in As Sadah began two days after the second attack, Army documents show, and soldiers quickly vacated the damaged outpost.
CHAPTER FOUR: JUSTICE DENIED
On April 19, 2009, nearly two years after the suicide attacks, a soldier from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg delivered a large envelope to the home of Lorie Southerland, an Air Force veteran in nearby Sanford, N.C.
Inside was the brigade investigative report into the second bombing, the one that killed her son – Specialist Michael Rodriguez, 20, a fourth-generation soldier – and eight other Americans.
An attached letter signed by Col. Jeffrey C. McKitrick, a military lawyer in Baghdad, conceded that supporting documents for the Army’s probe had been lost.
The report seemed riddled with inaccuracies, including its contention that Rodriguez fired on the suicide bombers as a “roof guard.” For nearly two years, Southerland had talked with men of the 5-73 who rotated home from the war; they said her son was sleeping in the lowest level of the operating base when the bomb collapsed a wall, crushing him.
Southerland initially was saddened to be reminded of her son’s death. She grew angry when she realized the Army hadn’t told her the whole truth and suspected it was not being forthright about other events in As Sadah.
“I started crying,” Southerland, 50, told the Trib. “I said, ‘This isn’t the truth.’ ”
It wasn’t the first time she felt the Army kept facts from families of the dead. On Thanksgiving Day 2007, shortly after the 5-73 returned from deployment, Katter, Finck and Grimsley told her they suspected the suicide bombings stemmed from the killing of the three Iraqi boys.
Katter said that talking with war buddies at Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Unit and with Southerland prodded him to “do the right thing” – to report what happened in As Sadah.
At 44 minutes past midnight on April 10, 2009, Katter wrote an official statement to the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, accusing kill team leader Barbera of a war crime.
That capped a long interview by military investigators in a room rented at a Holiday Inn near the Army’s sprawling Fort Bragg.
Like Finck and other scouts, Katter told the Trib that the boys’ deaths haunted him.
Unlike the others, Katter had been a police officer; to him, the deaths were homicides – and he expected the Army to agree.
He said he paid dearly for coming forward. Noncommissioned officers in the 82nd Airborne shunned him, then conspired to make his life “a living hell,” he said.
Katter and other kill team members say those reprisals ended only because Capt. Bryan Moultis intervened. The Army’s senior investigator at Fort Bragg, Moultis had served alongside their brigade in Iraq but had not heard about the palm grove slayings or rumors tying the incident to the attacks on the As Sadah patrol base, they say.
Believing that Katter’s allegations were worth pursuing, Moultis forwarded the probe’s file to fellow investigators in Iraq on April 13, 2009. Barbera had deployed there for a third tour and still served in the 5-73, as did Grimsley.
Commanders of the 5-73 – no longer led by Poppas – immediately questioned Katter’s honesty and demanded that agents give him a lie-detector test. They didn’t know Katter’s testimony was corroborated by Finck, Harriman, Grimsley and LoTempio, the kill team’s radioman who had relocated to Fort Hood, Texas.
If Katter was lying, so was the whole group – and that was highly improbable, investigators thought. No lie-detector test was administered.
On June 1, 2009, a ” Sensitive Site Exploitation” team led by Maj. Jorge E. Morales-Arcila, 45, an Army attorney, arrived in As Sadah. A reserve officer who began his Army career as an enlisted cavalryman, like Katter and Barbera, Morales-Arcila was a seasoned criminal prosecutor in New Jersey when the Army activated him for duty in Iraq.
Contacted by the Trib in late 2011, he and Moultis, 31, said they were not allowed to discuss the case. They referred questions to military spokesmen, who declined comment.
In the village, Morales-Arcila and his investigators learned the names of the victims – something unknown to the kill team’s whistle-blowers. Villagers repeated to investigators what the scouts had told them – that two unarmed deaf and mute boys were shot while herding cattle in a palm grove and their cousin was shot while walking toward the area.
During a December 2011 trip to As Sadah by a Trib reporter, the boys’ relatives and other villagers said Army investigators seemed to suspect Barbera snapped under stress.
The investigators “told us they had an American soldier who was psychologically affected and who shot (the boys),” al-Galyani, father of the third boy, said through a translator.
Coroner’s certificates listed the boys’ causes of deaths as gunshot wounds, findings ” consistent with witness statements ,” Army investigators concluded.
On July 6, 2009, they found ” sufficient probable cause to believe (Sgt.) Barbera committed the Offenses of Murder and False Official Statement.” Barbera’s conduct during the probe didn’t lessen their suspicions.
On Aug. 15, 2009, agents reported he tried to induce a comrade to say the boys ” had suicide vests on ” when he shot them. That unnamed noncommissioned officer had been interviewed by investigators and refused to lie for Barbera, according to the files.
Despite eyewitness testimony and coroner’s reports, investigators found no physical evidence tying Barbera to the slayings.
Unearthing the boys’ remains more than two years after the killings, Army investigators found bones but no bullets.
A June 28, 2010, autopsy by an Army forensic pathologist determined that one bone in one body showed evidence of ” a puncture type injury originating from behind ” and surface-beveling that could be from a gunshot, but no one could say whether it happened before death. He marked the manner of death as ” undetermined. ”
Villagers say a simple explanation exists for the lack of bullets: Family members and neighbors quickly cleaned and prepared the bodies for Islamic burial, removing the bullet fragments from the flesh and throwing them into a fire.
“We went to bury them by sunset,” explained al-Galyani.
Army investigators found four brass bullet casings in the palm grove, but tests didn’t connect them to Barbera’s rifle – not surprising, because the grove had been a battlefield for years.
“There were firefights all the time there. How could they know that they had the right brass?” the platoon commander, Bajema, told the Trib.
He called the Army probe the “most botched investigation of all time.”
Members of the kill team and officials in the Army Criminal Investigation Command – called CID by soldiers – vehemently disagree.
“We strongly reject that CID did anything but a complete and professional investigation into these allegations,” CID spokesman Chris Grey said in a written response to Trib inquiries.
Villagers said two Iraqis witnessed the shootings of the brothers but refused to testify for fear of being killed by the U.S. Army or by Sunni Arab guerrillas for collaborating with the Americans.
Al-Galyani and the mother of the Timmimi brothers told the Trib that Army officials admitted that Barbera wrongly killed their sons; they said the Army paid the families $2,000 in compensation for each boy.
But $6,000 wasn’t enough to overcome their grief and the loss of three farmhands in a poor corner of Iraq, they added. More important than dollars, they want justice and a full apology from authorities.
They said they were told they would testify at a military court-martial in Baghdad, but the Army never summoned them.
“We don’t hate Americans. There is nothing such as hate for Americans,” al-Galyani said.
Army investigators in 2009 determined that the death of his son, although tragic, was not a violation of military law because the kill team could have interpreted the boy’s movement and what appeared to be a military-style holster as potentially hostile.
The boy’s father learned that from a Trib reporter.
Case closed – quietly
The kill team’s whistleblowers said they initially received calls every six months from Army investigators about being potential witnesses in Barbera’s criminal hearing.
The calls stopped last year, according to Finck.
That’s because the Army officially and quietly closed its investigation on May 7, 2011 – more than four years after the youths died. The kill team learned this from a Trib reporter.
One reason the families and soldiers heard nothing is that the case was out of the investigators’ hands. CID spokesman Grey said they “turned our findings over to the appropriate command and legal authorities for appropriate disposition and/or adjudication.”
The investigators’ conclusion: Barbera “committed the offenses of Murder and False Official Statement , when he intentionally shot and killed two unarmed Iraqi non-combatants,” then told superiors the slayings were “a justified shooting resulting from enemy compromise of his position.”
The military’s criminal justice system is unique in that senior commanding officers control all proceedings involving allegations of battlefield misconduct. Commanders of the 82nd Airborne never put Barbera on trial; they refused to convene a pretrial hearing to air the investigators’ conclusions, or to review the testimony of Barbera’s fellow soldiers.
Instead, 82nd Airborne commander Maj. Gen. James L. Huggins Jr. gave Barbera a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand on Sept. 16, 2010, for breaking the squadron’s rules of engagement.
Often called a “GOMAR” by troops, the reprimand is the Army’s second mildest sanction – falling between a formal counseling statement and far more serious forms of non-judicial unit punishment or court-martial proceedings. It carries no jail time, no suspension or loss of rank, no loss of privileges or pay. It often is used to chastise an otherwise excellent soldier for poor judgment that leads to a mishap, not to murder.
Through spokesmen, Huggins and the three-star commander who approved his decision – XVIII Airborne Corps Lieutenant General Frank Helmick – declined to be interviewed by the Trib.
“We can assure you, however, that the case referred to in your inquiry was investigated thoroughly and referred to the Commanding General for appropriate disposition. The Commanding General made his decision only after carefully evaluating all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident,” an Army spokesman, Col. Gary Kolb, said in a statement.
Helmick retired from the Army in May. Huggins is a deputy chief of staff in the Army after being marked for his third star.
Army officials declined to say if it was placed in his permanent records or issued as a “local” reprimand. Such a reprimand would have been removed from his military file before his promotion to sergeant first class and transfer to Fort Richardson as a senior enlisted leader, keeping future commanders unaware of the allegations.
The timing of the official closing of the case is suspicious to the kill team whistle-blowers – just 18 days before Huggins presented the Presidential Unit Citation to the 5-73 at a Fort Bragg ceremony.
Katter believes the generals made the case vanish so it would not detract from the squadron’s well-earned citation. He and other kill team members suspect commanders quashed a pretrial hearing because it would have exposed higher ranks to scrutiny – and bad press – in court.
Katter is calling on the Department of Justice and Congress to review how the 82nd Airborne and XVIII Airborne Corps handled CID’s findings, because civilian authorities can prosecute Barbera.
“A lot of people stuck their necks out and some of them are still in the Army,” he explained. “They deserve someone to review this again, and if nothing should happen, then nothing should happen.”
Justice Department officials declined comment.
Even if federal prosecutors and senior Army officials do nothing, Southerland – a Gold Star mother by virtue of her son’s death – believes the families of the dead, Americans and Iraqis alike, deserve to hear the truth about what happened.
“We want to know the good and the bad, you know? We just want to know the truth,” she said. “You don’t know the peace that gives us, to know what really happened, be that good or bad.
“… The Bible says that your days are numbered before you’re even formed,” she said. “So we believe that Michael was going to die that day anyway – one way or the other. So we’re okay with his death. But what really bothers us is the lying.”
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or [email protected]