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Soldiers recall Iraq murders, aftermath at Army ethics conference

Jul. 31, 2014 - 09:11PM   |  
Self portrait of then Pfc. Justin Watt in Iraq in 2005. Watt notified authorities when he belived members of his platoon had participated in the 2006 rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl and the killing of her family. Today his story is used as a teaching tool for NCOs. (Courtesy of Justin Watt)
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Staff Sgt. John Diem uses his real-life experience addressing an Army whistle-blower complaint to educate soldiers about ethics. (Army video screenshot)

WEST POINT, N.Y. — More than eight years ago, then-Pfc. Justin Watt reported members of his platoon who he believed had participated in the 2006 rape and murder of a teenage Iraqi girl in Yusufiyah and the killing of her family.

Four soldiers from the unit were later convicted in relation to the crimes at court-martial, a fifth was convicted in civilian court, and a sixth received an other-than-honorable discharge after testifying against the others.

Watt’s story has become a teaching tool — he and the noncommissioned officer who received Watt’s report, Staff Sgt. John Diem, present their experiences to soldiers under the banner of the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic.

And at every one of the more than a dozen sessions, Watt said, at least one soldier calls him a snitch. Or worse.

“They’d have me wait [backstage] until the end of an event,” Watt, who has since left service, said during a break in the Army Profession Annual Symposium here Wednesday. “And they’d watch the videos of me and they didn’t know I was there. They’d watch the videos, talk about what they’d do in my position, in John’s position, and then at the very end, they’d go ‘Oh, we’ve got a surprise,’ and I’d come out.

“I’d been listening to people talk about me for an hour. In plenty of cases, it’s less than flattering. ... I’d get out, and I’d hear that, and I’d lean over the wall and I’d be like, ‘That mother ...’ ”

Diem, now a recruiter in Michigan, pretty much summed up what happens next.

“One of the strengths that we bring to the table when we’re talking to midgrade and junior personnel in the Army is that we’ll fight you,” he said. “I’m going to tear down that informal leader in front of his peers. In front of God and everybody.

“The vast majority of the Army will respond to rationality when you present that thought process to them. But most people in the Army haven’t had the occasion to think deeply about these things. When you force the conversation ... they’ll respond to that.”

The ability to force that conversation made Diem and Watt ideal contributors on Day 1 of a two-day symposium surrounding the Army ethic, at least from the perspective of Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the top enlisted soldier with U.S. Forces-Korea. Asked to speak at the event, Troxell told organizers that “I can give my perspective, but I need home-run hitters.”

“I had read the ‘Black Hearts’ book [an account of the presenters’ unit, 502nd Infantry Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and its time in Iraq], and I thought, ‘What power will this bring to the conversation.’ Just the focused look on these strategic and operations leaders that were there. It was powerful.”

The message

Media members were permitted to attend the conference but not allowed to attribute statements made during presentations to any individuals. But afterward, Watt, Diem and Troxell all emphasized some key themes of the talk during an on-the-record interview:

Skewed allegiance. Small-unit leaders and others who allow soldiers to stray from the simplest of Army rules, such as blousing their boots, may do so to inspire personal loyalty from their charges, Watt said.

As soon as soldiers become lax in those areas, “you’re not a part of the Army anymore,” he said. “You’re now in so-and-so [leader]’s Army. You’re no longer chained to that 239-year-old institution.”

This leads to over-reliance on an individual, Watt said — one who could be killed on the next patrol, or, in an even more extreme case, instill a set of beliefs so divergent from the Army’s core values that his soldiers could commit criminal acts.

‘Ninjas’ need not apply. “The cool guy” played a big part in Watt and Diem’s leadership lesson: The leader who may create the aforementioned lax rules to curry favor, or may stress his personal combat record in situations where he should be stressing something else.

“Let’s forget about the cool-guy stuff; let’s focus on what you’re supposed to be doing,” Watt said.

Diem gave more colorful examples: “The Army doesn’t want ninjas. You can be a great soldier, and nobody has to be a dual-battle ax-wielding monster.”

Defining concepts. While Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno established the symposium to define “the Army ethic,” Watt and Diem addressed some soldiers’ confused concept of loyalty as a trouble spot.

Those who disagreed with Watt’s actions (before rationality exposure, as Diem described) often cited “loyalty” as the bond between squadmates, one that would make reporting their criminal acts seem like a breach of trust. The presenters stressed the importance of loyalty to the greater good and the Army’s core values — another commenter at the conference went further, saying the loyalty should be to the Constitution, not to any uniformed agency.

Teaching the force

CAPE’s online educational materials already include videos and testimonials from the presenters. Troxell said that such materials can be the cornerstones of small-group, interactive learning sessions that will impart more to an audience of young soldiers than any amount of check-the-box PowerPoints.

“It’s got to be interactive,” he said. “Videos. Role-play. Get people involved in making decisions, instead of, ‘Slide ... slide ...’ ”

Watt said such instruction plays a tangible, tactical role in building a successful force.

“This is combat efficiency training,” he said, adding that senior leaders “don’t physically control anybody. ... What keeps those [soldiers] from doing the wrong thing?”

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