A U.S. soldier cried Thursday as he told a court-martial that his staff sergeant ordered him to shoot an unarmed Iraqi. He said the sergeant then laughed and told the trooper to finish the job as the dying man convulsed on the ground.
The military reported, meanwhile, that it had opened an investigation into the deaths of five women and four children this week in a village where American forces had carried out ground and air assaults.
Both incidents took place in a region south of the capital known as the triangle of death, a Sunni-dominated area that has seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting and most gruesome deaths.
Prosecutors claim the first case involved the killing of an Iraqi man with a 9mm pistol, placing an AK-47 rifle by his body to make it seem as though he was armed, and failing to ensure humane treatment of a detainee — the victim.
Soldier recounts incident
In the court-martial, Sgt. Evan Vela, 23, spoke barely above a whisper as he recounted shooting the man on May 11 near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni city 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Vela said Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley of Candler, N.C., told him to shoot the man, who had stumbled upon their snipers’ hideout, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
“He (Hensley) asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don’t remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand,” he said, crying.
Vela said that as the Iraqi man was convulsing on the ground, “Hensley kind of laughed about it and hit the guy on the throat and said shoot again.”
“After he (the Iraqi man) was shot, Hensley pulled an AK-47 out of his rucksack and said, ‘This is what we are going to say happened,”’ Vela said, before he was dismissed from the witness stand to compose himself.
Soldiers accused of covering up deaths
Vela told the story during the second day of the court-martial of Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval of Laredo, Texas. Sandoval is on trial for allegedly killing Iraqis and trying to cover up the deaths by planting weapons at the scene.
Vela said Sandoval was not present during the May 11 killing but was nearby providing security. Sandoval has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including the April 27 murder of a second unidentified Iraqi man and placing a detonation wire on his body. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Both Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Hensley are also charged in the case but will be court-martialed separately. It was unclear why Vela was called to testify in Sandoval’s court-martial.
The three soldiers are part of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Vela was flown from Kuwait to testify under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him when he goes to trial.
Military prosecutors said the killings in which the three men are charged occurred between April and June near Iskandariyah. The investigation began after military authorities received reports of alleged wrongdoing from fellow soldiers, the Army has said.
Sandoval was arrested in June while on a two-week leave visiting his family.