It was a cool, clear night at Q-West base in northern Iraq, and Army Sgt. Dwayne Cole was restless. On his second tour of duty in Iraq, Sgt. Cole was counting the days — 37 — until he could return home to Brooklyn. He finished a late gym workout and was heading back to his bunk around 1 a.m. when he noticed some friends were still up in another combat housing unit (CHU).
Cole, a solidly built 28-year-old with an easy smile, stopped in to visit. His friends, two privates and another sergeant, were watching re-runs of CSI on television in the two-cot room. Cole picked up a car magazine and thumbed through it.
He began to relax, no easy feat given that he had survived two roadside bomb attacks on this tour alone. But the feeling was fleeting. Within minutes, Cole was on the floor with blood gushing from his neck. He had been shot — not by enemy fire, but at point-blank range by a member of his own unit.
The Army reported Cole’s shooting as a training accident. Another soldier, they said, had dropped a gun, it discharged, and Cole was the unfortunate victim. The incident went largely unnoticed beyond the sandy, isolated confines of Q-West. But according to documents and internal reports obtained by NBC News, one Army investigator wasn’t buying the training accident story. And before long, he called that account something quite different: “a cover-up.”
The shooting of Sgt. Cole raises a number of troubling questions: How interested was the Army initially in learning the truth about Cole’s shooting? What role, if any, did the strain of repeated tours of duty play? How was the gunman able to meet presidential candidate John McCain at a Washington ceremony after he admitted to, and was charged with, the shooting?
Cole barely survived the shooting. The young Army reservist is now paralyzed from the chest down. Nineteen months later, after repeated rounds of physical therapy, he still is trying to make sense of what happened that February night.
He and the shooter, Sgt. Thomas Prasenski, knew one another, trained together, and considered one another friends. Like Cole, Prasenski was a New Yorker. Both had served multiple tours of duty and witnessed firsthand the perils of war. Both were committed to their unit. In fact, even though Prasenski was seriously injured his last tour, he volunteered to return, Cole says.
“Me and the sergeant never had any bad relationship,” Cole says, sitting in his motorized wheelchair. “We never, I never provoked him before. We never had any arguments or any discrepancies. So I have no idea at this minute … why he actually shot me.”
“You know I’m gonna shoot you, right?”
Signs of racial tension
An incident that occurred earlier on the evening he was shot suggests racial tension may have played a role. Cole, who is black, had gone to the cafeteria with another soldier, went to get some food to share with everyone back at Prasenski’s CHU. Prasenski apparently didn’t like the selection, or the way the food was being divided. According to Cole and other witnesses, Prasenski, who is white, made his feelings known with some racially explicit language. “Why does the nigger get his own plate and the spics get their own plate and I have to share with a cracker?” he reportedly said.
Cole, however, didn’t take Prasenski’s words as racist. It was common trash talk among soldiers, he says. (Looking back, he recalls a sign on Prasenski’s microwave — “No niggers allowed in this microwave” — and wonders if there may have been more to it.)
After eating, Cole went to the gym. Then he stopped off to see Prasenski and two other friends: SPC Santi Medrano and SPC Danny Rugel. Soon after Cole arrived, he said Prasenski turned his attention from the television screen to his loaded, Beretta semi-automatic handgun. Cole says he saw him reach for it, and in a matter of seconds, Prasenski was in front of him pointing the 9mm barrel at his face.
“You know I’m gonna shoot you, right?” Cole heard him say matter-of-factly. Cole thought it was a joke. He and others had seen Prasenski wave and point his gun at people before. “Shoot me?” Cole said. “For what?”
“I just ignored what he was saying,” Cole recalls. Prasenski repeated his threat. Then, referring to Cole’s close calls with roadside bombs, Cole says Prasenski coldly uttered: “Well, hear this: Since you could dodge those IEDs, let me see you dodge this bullet.”
Cole says he saw Prasenski squeeze the trigger and felt the bullet rip through the left side of his neck. It struck Cole’s upper spinal chord. He fell to the floor.
In the chaotic moments that followed, Prasenski and the others fled. A sergeant from a nearby CHU came to Cole’s side and applied pressure to the gushing wound with a balled up rag.
“I lost so much blood — my PT [physical training] uniform was red,” Cole remembers. “I couldn’t feel my right hand or my left hand. I couldn’t feel my legs.”
With just five weeks left on his tour of duty, Cole was now worried he would never make it home.
“I was praying to God. I hoped that I’d be able to go home, that I’d be able to see my family again, and that everything would be okay,” he says.
Medics arrived quickly. Cole was evacuated to Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany.
Cole’s wife, Shontel, and his mother, both in New York, received official calls from the Pentagon the next morning. They say they were informed that Sgt. Cole was gravely injured in a training accident.
A story unravels
At first, Cole’s family had no reason to doubt the Army’s explanation. But over the following weeks, with Cole still hospitalized in serious condition, he and his family began to challenge the Army’s version of events. A month later, Capt. Tony May, a command judge advocate, was assigned to look into the case.
“I was told that the CJA (Command Judge Advocate) legal team has been removed from the case for inaction and it was assigned to me,” May wrote in an April 2007 internal report obtained by NBC through the Freedom of Information Act. In that same report, he said that before he had actively begun his investigation, he had discovered a “major crime scene inconsistency” when he compared prior witness statements.
A month after the shooting, as Cole underwent treatment at Hunter Holmes McGuire Medical Center in Virginia, May traveled to Q-West to re-interview witnesses himself. Prasenski and the others stuck to their stories, but May left Q-West firmly believing that Cole’s shooting was no training accident.
“There was no question that SGT Prasenski was lying and was being supported by SPC Medrano and SPV Rugel,” he wrote. Months later, in an e-mail to Cole, May was blunt about what he discovered. “This case was almost not a case,” he wrote. “There was no investigation by CID (Criminal Investigative Division) initially… there was a cover-up going on at first.”
When May returned a second time to Q-West for follow-up interviews, he pressed the two privates, firmly telling them the legal consequences of giving false statements. They soon changed their stories and told May what was an open secret to many at Q-West: Prasenski had fabricated the training accident story and told the lower-ranking specialists to lie about what really happened. Rugel and Medrano confirmed Cole’s account of the evening and filled in the blanks, according to May’s report.
Most significant, perhaps, was the revelation that Prasenski had been drinking that night.
The day before the shooting, according to May’s report and witness testimony, Prasenski had received a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey in the mail. Cole didn’t know when he walked into Prasenski’s CHU that night that Prasenski and others had been drinking.
After Prasenski shot Cole, he immediately got rid of the bottle and fed the two specialists a story to tell about the shooting, according to May’s report. Prasenski, the story went, was demonstrating how to properly load and unload a firearm when the gun accidentally fired.
The aftermath and John McCain
Prasenski was eventually charged with Failure to Obey a General Order or Regulation, Assault with a Dangerous Weapon, and Reckless Endangerment. He pleaded not guilty. Alcohol and an undercurrent of racial tension may have fueled Prasenski’s actions in Iraq, May’s report suggested. And as the case against Prasenski moved forward, it also became clear to some that Prasenski was showing signs of mental distress.
During a pretrial deposition of Cole, for instance, Prasenski sat in the room with his attorney. Prasenski rocked back and forth in his chair and acted so strangely that at one point his lawyer noted his client’s condition for the record:
“He is, uh, in what appears to me to be a near catatonic state, to speak loosely. He is shivering and shaking and, um, he’s been teary-eyed and drooling, uh, staring into space.”
And here is where the story takes an even odder turn. Despite the serious charges against Prasesnki, after admitting that he shot Cole, Prasenski was seen in Washington D.C., face-to-face with Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Last March, while his court-martial trial was pending, Prasenski stood in uniform with another Army soldier inside the Capital Rotunda at a ceremony honoring soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They greeted and spoke with McCain as wire-service photographers snapped pictures of them in casual conversation.
It is unclear how a soldier who stood accused of shooting a member of his own unit and who had since showed signs of psychiatric problems was permitted to get so close to the Republican presidential candidate. An oversight, poor judgment, a security breach?
Army spokesman Paul Boyce says that it is up to the military’s judicial branch to decide whether restrictions on soldiers awaiting trial are warranted. “These usually will depend on what is requested by the prosecution (the Government) and approved by the court, based on the specific circumstances of each case,” he wrote in an e-mail response.
In Prasenski’s case, he says, there were no pretrial restrictions. “He was not considered a threat or potential for further misconduct,” Boyce says.
During his trial last summer, Prasenski exhibited behavior similar to what his attorney described at Cole’s deposition. Ultimately, a military judge found him guilty on all counts. He faced up to 13 years in military prison. But, much to Cole’s dismay, Prasenski was sentenced to four and a half years.
He is now serving his sentence in a military prison. He declined comment through his attorney. Rugel and Medrano were never charged for making false statements. Rugel was redeployed to Iraq on Sept. 15, according to the Army, and was not available for comment. Medrano, an Army reservist from New York who is no longer on active duty, declined comment.
Cole and his wife now live in Maryland, close to a rehabilitation facility, where he holds out hope that he can regain more function in his arms and hands.
‘”I haven’t really lived much of a life. I’m still young. I’m 28 years old. You can see my present condition, that I really can’t do much for myself,” he says, wistfully. “Someone has to be there to do for me what I can’t do for myself. I always pray to God that I, that I will be able to recover from this. But I don’t know, to be honest with you.”