BAGHDAD, Iraq — An Army National Guard staff sergeant has been charged with premeditated murder in a “fragging incident” that killed two senior officers at a U.S. base near Tikrit last week, the U.S. military said Thursday.
Army officials told NBC News that Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez had been disciplined by the two officers, a possible motive for the attack. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not disclose the nature of the disciplinary action.
Fragging is military slang for intentionally killing a comrade in a wartime setting.
A military statement said that Martinez, 37, a supply specialist with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 42nd Infantry Division, was charged Wednesday in the June 7 deaths of the two officers at Forward Operating Base Danger, near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown 80 miles north of Baghdad.
The 42nd Infantry Division is a New York-based National Guard unit.
The slain officers were Capt. Phillip T. Esposito, 30, of Suffern, N.Y., and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa. They were assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division. Esposito was company commander, and Allen served as a company operations officer.
Martinez, of Troy, N.Y., currently is at a military detention facility in Kuwait.
Not a mortar attack
The statement, issued by the Multinational Task Force in Iraq, said Esposito and Allen died “in what was initially thought to be an indirect fire attack,” which involves enemy artillery or mortar rounds fired from a location some distance away.
“Upon further examination of the scene by explosive ordnance personnel, it was determined the blast pattern was inconsistent with a mortar attack,” the statement said.
The term “fragging” seems to have originated in the Vietnam War. Such incidents increased late in the 1960s as the strains grew on a draftee army waging an unpopular war.
The term usually refers to the assassination of an unpopular member of one's own fighting unit by lobbing a fragmentation grenade into his or her tent at night. The idea was that the attack would be blamed on the enemy. The term came to include intentionally killing a comrade during combat.
Between 1969 and 1971, the Army reported 600 fragging incidents that killed 82 Americans and injured 651. In 1971 alone, there were 1.8 fraggings for every 1,000 American soldiers serving in Vietnam, not including gun and knife assaults.
As President Nixon drew down U.S. forces in that war, troops felt they were fighting a lost cause they were unwilling to die for.
Such killings are infrequent, said Gen. Wayne Downing, an analyst for MSNBC TV. But he said they are fairly straightforward to deduce.
A matter of forensics
“They can go in and do the forensics on this case,” Downing said. “That's very, very easy to do — to determine whether it's a mortar round, an improvised explosive device or certainly if it is an American hand grenade,” he said.
“Once you've determined that ... then you can go back and examine the events within that unit. It was probably fairly easy to draw up a list of suspects who might want to do something like this,” he said.
Martinez, who joined the New York Army National Guard in December 1990, deployed to Iraq in May 2004. He has been assigned a military attorney and has the option of hiring a civilian lawyer.
Right to counsel
“Staff Sgt. Martinez has been and will continue to be afforded the extensive rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” military spokesman Col. Billy J. Buckner said, according to the statement.
The 42nd Infantry Division took over from the 1st Infantry Division in January and is responsible for a vast section of northern and central Iraq.
Allen was a father of four who was a science teacher at Tuxedo High School in Orange County, N.Y., and had been deployed to Iraq just a few weeks earlier.
Allen was a native of Chester, N.Y., and served with the Army National Guard’s 101st Cavalry Regiment out of Newburgh, N.Y. He had four sons, between the ages of 1 and 6.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.