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Four seconds in Afghanistan: Was it combat, or a crime?

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times –

BAMBERG, Germany — Sgt. 1st Class Walter Taylor’s life collapsed in four interminable seconds in a dusty field in central Afghanistan.

His convoy was reeling from a roadside bomb, his fellow soldiers were engaged in combat with insurgents — and a mysterious black car had just screeched to a stop in the middle of the firefight.

Second 1: A figure dressed in dark, bulky clothing emerges from the back seat.

Second 2: The figure begins walking toward the trunk.

Second 3: Taylor, with five wounded comrades behind him, sees a thin trigger wire seeming to snake directly toward the black car. Could there be a second bomb in the trunk?

Second 4: Taylor squeezes the trigger on his M-4 carbine. The figure crumples to the dirt.

The figure was not an insurgent, but Dr. Aqilah Hikmat, a 49-year-old mother of four who headed the obstetrics department at the nearby Ghazni provincial hospital. Also dead inside the car were Hikmat’s 18-year-old son and her 16-year-old niece. Hikmat’s husband, in the front seat, was wounded.

Army prosecutors say Hikmat’s killing in July 2011 was not just a casualty of combat, but a crime. Charged with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, Taylor will face a hearing June 19 before a U.S. military judge in Germany to determine whether the case goes to a full court-martial, with the possibility of three years in prison.

Ten days after the explosion and firefight, Taylor got what he is convinced was a dose of Afghan street justice: His vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, which blew off his nose, shattered his cheeks, ripped open his lips, drove his teeth back toward his throat, blinded him in one eye — in short, left him without a face as he had known it.

The 30-year-old sergeant, who had served three previous combat deployments, accepted a Purple Heart in August 2011 and a criminal charge sheet shortly thereafter.

“I feel to this day that this makes no sense. It’s just wrong,” Taylor said recently, sitting at a table in the kitchen of his small apartment near Bamberg, Germany, with his German wife, Nina, and their two young children. “I mean, can people please look at everything I did, and why I did what I did?”

Taylor was a well-regarded field leader whose split-second decision came as the Army was trying to minimize allied-caused civilian casualties.

The military increasingly has emphasized precision weapons and positive identification of targets before shooting. Its leaders have emphasized that unidentified people should be presumed to be civilians who can’t be engaged unless they show obvious signs of hostile intent.

Last year there were 3,021 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. This year so far, deaths are down 36 percent from the same period last year, though violence has been spiking in recent weeks as the weather has warmed.

Hikmat’s death put the Army on the defensive, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling for an investigation.

Taylor’s civilian lawyer, James Culp, will argue at next week’s hearing that every soldier is entitled to shoot in self-defense, no matter what the rules of engagement say. Infantrymen who engage heavily armed combatants have fewer protections under the law than police officers, he contends.

“Before criminal charges can be filed (against a police officer), it has to be demonstrated … that no other police officer under those circumstances would have acted that way,” he said. “But there’s no such system for guys who are 100 times more likely to encounter a lethal scenario on a daily basis and die, and that’s our soldiers.”

Army officials would not comment on Taylor’s case but said commanders of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force were determined to uphold the law.

“(Our) main mission is to protect the Afghan people and ISAF realizes that incidents of this kind damage the confidence of both the Afghan people and the government in ISAF,” Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr., a spokesman for the force in Afghanistan, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “We try to prevent accidental or unintentional casualties through a variety of measures which call upon our forces to exercise restraint during operations.”

Taylor didn’t lead his platoon by swagger and intimidation. For one thing, he weighs only 114 pounds. With quiet authority and wry humor, Taylor pestered the 44 soldiers of the 541st Sapper Company’s 38th Route Clearance Platoon to put on their goggles, and he annoyed them by calling for yet another drill. On a mission, he would walk with 18-year-old privates as they scanned roadsides for improvised explosive devices, vulnerable outside their armored machines.

The 541st, nicknamed the Outlaws, had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army. It was charged with detonating or dismantling bombs found along the so-called Highway of Death between Kabul and Kandahar, while fighting off the insurgents who planted them. Between January and October of last year, Taylor’s unit was hit by hidden bombs 16 times. Thirty-eight men were injured in those explosions; 12 were hit three times; two died.

“He’s a hard man to work for — oh, my God. But overall, he’s one of the only NCOs I’ve ever seen that takes care of his soldiers,” said Spc. Wayne Wedgeworth, a former corrections officer from Texas injured in the July 2011 attack.

“Get everybody home,” is what Taylor most often says when he talks about what a platoon sergeant is supposed to do.

He grew up in the little town of Wimauma, Fla., in an immigrant-heavy neighborhood where a lot of the people were on welfare. He lived with his mother, four brothers and an older sister in a two-bedroom, single-wide trailer (later, they traded it in for a double-wide).

Taylor spent summers rounding up kids for summer camp at the local parks, where he worked as a youth director. He got a job at the grocery store when he was 14 and, when he had enough money, he bought an old Chevy for $350. He used it to drive his mom to work at a Bealls department store and to provide rides to half the rest of the neighborhood. They called him the “taxi driver.”

There were two dozen black kids from Taylor’s neighborhood at his high school; Taylor said he was the only one who graduated. Two of his brothers had spent time in jail by then.

“I’d be the one keeping people from fighting,” Taylor said, “protecting anybody at my school whenever we’d go out and there’d be issues.”

His grades were good enough that he’d been offered several scholarships to state schools. But his best friend wasn’t so lucky, and the two of them suddenly made a pact to join the Army together.

“He felt it was something he could tackle, and he was so proud of doing it. We had babied him to death, and this was like him breaking away into his manhood,” said his older sister, Lisa “Tina” Armstrong.

After he went overseas, Taylor bought cars for the two younger boys, hoping it would help them get jobs. “Anything he could do to try to help, he did it,” Armstrong said. “There’s a host of nieces and nephews — one brother has six kids — and he came one year and he bought every one of the nieces and nephews a pair of shoes.”

He met Nina through a friend in Giessen, Germany. Their son Jamie, now 6, was born while Taylor was in Iraq — two weeks before one of Taylor’s best friends lost both his legs to a roadside bomb. Nala’s birth wasn’t timed much better: Taylor, offered a brief leave from Afghanistan, had to decide between going to his father’s funeral or his daughter’s birth. He chose the one who was still alive.

As Taylor’s platoon patrolled the turbulent Tangi Valley, it regularly came under attack from small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and the periodic, sickening boom of the bombs they’d failed to find.

“It was like lambs to the slaughter,” Wedgeworth said. “We’d fight, take casualties, and we’d be out there again the very next day.”

During times of the year when the brush grew thick, the sappers would dismount and walk along the edge of the road looking for explosives. “They could be next to a tree, in a ditch where water’s flowing. So you actually had to get out and look. And when you’re out walking along the grass, you could get hit,” Taylor said.

In March 2011, a few months before the July attack, Taylor’s unit still had three seasoned squad leaders, one of the best of whom was Staff Sgt. Joshua Gire. Gire too had a German wife and kids, and the two families socialized on leaves back in Germany. His death in an explosion that month — Taylor had to pull his friend’s body, missing a face, from the vehicle where he’d died — weighed heavily on Taylor. He’d promised Gire’s wife he’d bring her husband home, he kept telling himself.

Sometime after that, Taylor called home and talked to his sister.

“He was like, ‘Tina?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, Mosie?’ ‘Cause that’s what we call him, Mosie. And he was, ‘Tina?’ ‘Yes, Mosie.’ He said: ‘Pray.’”

He started telling her about all the guys who’d been injured, all the days he’d spent under fire.

“He said, ‘We’re fighting as hard as we can, but we’re losing.’ He told me, ‘Sissie, it’s just too much.’”“

Taylor’s day of decision — the four seconds in which he ended Hikmat’s life — came on a routine patrol late in the afternoon of July 21, 2011, near the village of Shekhabad.

The blast of the roadside bomb was so powerful it hurtled one of the 45,000-pound Buffalo mine-clearing vehicles 10 feet into the air with Wedgeworth and four other men inside it. Taylor and his fellow soldiers clambered out of their vehicle and began exchanging fire with insurgents on the hillsides and in a pair of white cars fleeing the scene.

Almost simultaneously, a black Suzuki sedan raced up behind the white cars and sped past one of them before skidding to a halt under a withering hail of gunfire. “Cease fire!” someone yelled over the radio as the white cars disappeared into the distance.

Taylor and three of his soldiers crept cautiously across the empty field, seeing the thin wire from what had been the roadside bomb and tracing it back to what appeared at the time might be its source — the black car.

“I thought they were insurgents,” Sgt. Nicholas Wilson, who also fired at Hiqmat during those few seconds, told investigators. “I wanted to make sure we all got back safe.”

Hikmat’s husband, Sayed Mir Agha Hikmat, told The Times he and his family were making their way to Kabul — as they often did for the weekend — when they came upon the convoy, and the explosion.

It is precisely such situations that frighten Afghans. Many worry about traveling on the country’s highways, fearing that if they get caught in a crossfire, foreign troops might shoot without waiting to determine exactly who they are.

The family parked by the side of the road, along with other wary onlookers, and waited, he said, but it began to get late and they didn’t want to be caught out after dark. Finally, the Hikmats — with several other cars following, he said — decided to try to make their way around the scene.

“Suddenly, they started shooting,” he said. When the soldiers kept advancing on foot toward the car, Aqilah Hikmat “couldn’t stop herself,” and got out, he said.

“She raised her arms and said, ‘We are civilians, we are unarmed, why are you shooting?’ her husband recalled. “One of the soldiers opened fire and shot my wife in the forehead and killed her.”

Taylor insists Aqilah Hikmat never raised her arms, never said a thing, and just walked toward the back of the car, where he feared she might be going for a weapon.

Witness statements from the Army investigation show that Taylor wasn’t the only one who thought the black Suzuki was a threat. An alarming lack of coordination on the ground after the explosion made it difficult for any of the soldiers to know what had been confirmed about the enemy, a preliminary Army inquiry concluded.

The lieutenant who should have been coordinating never left his vehicle. Soldiers were talking over one another on their radios. One person declared the black car was not hostile, while someone else claimed to have seen muzzle fire coming from it. No one but the Afghan translator appeared to have seen Hikmat raise her arms, and no one had heard her say anything.

“There was a leadership failure in this incident,” the initial investigation concluded, finding that the lack of organization “set the patrol up for failure.”

None of the criminal case concerns the dozens of rounds of ammunition that sprayed the black car, fired from nearly all quarters during the heat of the gun battle, which killed Hikmat’s son and niece. Nor were any charges filed against Wilson, the junior soldier who also fired at Hikmat when she emerged from the car.

The crux of the case will be what judgment Taylor used during those few seconds as Hikmat got out of the car, perhaps nine minutes after the initial firing stopped. Army investigators believe he did not meet the primary criteria under the Army’s rules of engagement — making a positive identification of his target as a combatant and, beyond that, confirming that the unknown figure had hostile intent.

But Army investigators have also sought to explore Taylor’s state of mind. After Hikmat was dead and the soldiers converged on the car, Hikmat’s husband began yelling at them, Taylor told investigators. “I didn’t say anything to him, but he said to me: ‘Shoot me too! You killed my wife — shoot me too!’ “

Investigators responded: “How would you explain that Sgt. (Richard) McKelvey overheard you yelling that they had gotten what they deserved, or words to that effect?”

Taylor insisted he never said such a thing. No one else apparently heard it. Culp, his lawyer, says the exchange was likely misreported. If not, he says, such a comment would simply have been the adrenaline talking.

Army investigators also wanted to know why neither Taylor nor Wilson in their initial interviews mentioned that Hikmat wasn’t shot during the heat of the initial battle. That revelation didn’t come until later. Taylor told investigators he wasn’t asked about it during the initial inquiry and didn’t consider it important. Wilson said he had been worried about the sergeant’s precarious health after the grenade attack and “didn’t want to get him in trouble.”

Sayed Hikmat said someone must be held accountable. “If this soldier was punished in a meaningful way, we would be glad. So many lives were destroyed by this,” he said.

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