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The frustration and confusion that permeated the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, was so pervasive that the brigade almost wasn't certified to deploy, and senior commanders in Afghanistan lost confidence in the brigade commander's ability to lead, according to an Army investigation.
The 4,000-member brigade, commanded by Col. Harry Tunnell, was rife with lapses of discipline, misdirection and mixed signals about its mission in one of the most important regions of Afghanistan.
Much of the blame is put on Tunnell, whose lack of emphasis on administrative matters such as command inspections and urinalysis "may have helped create an environment in which misconduct could occur," the investigation found.
The environment created the setting for a series of deadly events:
• Five soldiers from one platoon in 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, were accused of killing innocent Afghan civilians "for sport." Four of the soldiers have been convicted for their involvement in the deaths.
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the accused ringleader, was convicted Nov. 10 of 15 counts, including three counts of premeditated murder, and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The court-martial of the fifth soldier is scheduled for January.
• One soldier died from a vehicle rollover in part because he was not following regulations requiring seatbelt use.
• Seven soldiers and an interpreter were killed when a platoon ignored procedure and failed to dismount from their Stryker before driving over a "suspicious chokepoint" — when the platoon directly in front of them did so to minimize the risk of being hit by a roadside bomb. A massive bomb hidden in that chokepoint was "detonated by a patient triggerman," an officer from the unit told investigators.
• About 15 soldiers from the same platoon are accused of regularly smoking hashish in their housing units and even in one of the unit's Strykers.
As a result, at least eight soldiers — five officers and three senior noncommissioned officers — have been recommended for letters of admonition, memoranda of reprimand or letters of concern.
The inside story of the brigade came in a scathing 532-page report obtained by Army Times. Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty, the investigating officer appointed to determine the command climate within the brigade and whether it had any causal relation to the alleged criminal activity, describes a brigade that was rife with turmoil from the start.
"Col. Tunnell is no longer in command," Twitty wrote in his report. "If still in command, I would recommend that Col. Tunnell be relieved of his responsibilities as a brigade commander."
At the same time, the report says that Tunnell's failure to "adequately communicate his tactical vision" did not lead to the alleged murder of three Afghan civilians at the hands of the brigade's soldiers, the report said.
Tunnell, who is now assigned to Accessions Command, declined to comment through a spokeswoman, citing the ongoing investigation and courts-martial proceedings.
The 5th SBCT, which has since been reflagged as 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, was built from the ground up and was the first Stryker brigade to be deployed to Afghanistan.
When Tunnell took command of the brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., in May 2007, he was "generally liked" and viewed by many of his subordinates as "an intelligent and a tactically and technically proficient leader," according to the report.
However, his subordinate officers and noncommissioned officers were reluctant to challenge his decision to focus on counter-guerrilla tactics instead of ISAF-mandated counter-insurgency operations, and many described Tunnell as "introverted, stubborn, unapproachable, close-minded, and as a person who thinks he knows more than most," the report stated.
Tunnell had limited social interaction with his officers and NCOs, and he rarely counseled or mentored his subordinates, according to the report.
Twitty interviewed 86 people and got sworn statements from more than 50 soldiers within the brigade, and found varying opinions of Tunnell.
"For reasons I can not explain, most of the battalion commanders in 5/2 had difficulty communicating with Col. Tunnell," Lt. Col. Karl Slaughenhaupt, the brigade deputy commander, said in his sworn statement. "I found him very approachable, personable, and generally affable. Col. Tunnell can appear imposing to some, but I never saw him lose his temper or even raise his voice."
Slaughenhaupt went on to praise Tunnell further.
"I want to go on the record having said that Col. Tunnell is the finest leader with whom I have served in my career, and it was a great honor to have served in 5/2 SBCT," he said.
Slaughenhaupt, in an interview with Army Times, said of Tunnell, "By the end of the deployment, I had tremendous respect for the guy. Everything he did, he was ethical, moral, legal, took great care never to issue an order that could be construed as inappropriate."
What some subordinate commanders viewed as standoffishness was really Tunnell giving them a "great deal of latitude," Slaughenhaupt said.
"He had a lot of confidence in his battalion commanders and in me," he said.
"I found him to be very approachable, affable, very easy guy to get along with," he said. "I still don't understand why his subordinate commanders claim he was hard to deal with. "
Col. William Clark, who was the commander of 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, disagreed.
"I view Col. Harry Tunnell as the most difficult senior leader I have worked alongside in my 26-plus years of military service," Clark said in his sworn statement. "I would not work with or for him in the future."
Tunnell did not request, value or weigh his subordinate commanders' input, Clark said, and "at no time would I say that Col. Tunnell portrayed or professed a balanced approach to command — in training, combat, outside relations or administratively."
Clark also claimed that Tunnell told him, during a conversation in Tunnell's office, that he was "after revenge for being shot in the leg while serving in Iraq."
Tunnell reportedly kept the metal rod from his wounded leg on the desk in his office and would use it as an illustration, Clark said.
As the brigade prepared to deploy, it was set to go to Iraq. However, three weeks before the soldiers were to leave for their mission readiness exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., the brigade was notified that it would be going to Afghanistan instead.
Lt. Col. Richard Demaree, commander of 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, was deemed "too harsh" and his commanders felt he was "running the unit into the ground" by always being in the field or keeping his soldiers after normal duty hours, according to the report.
Tunnell and Demaree were "very open in their disregard for one another," Lt. Col. David Abrahams, the executive officer for 2nd Battalion, said in his sworn statement.
"Each spoke poorly of the other in less than private forums, which put subordinates in uncomfortable positions," he said. "Both officers were difficult to work for, but for different reasons."
Abrahams also said that his first year with the battalion "was absolutely the worst command climate I have ever operated under."
Reached by phone, Demaree, who retired in December 2009 and now works as an Army civilian, said the two years he worked for Tunnell were frustrating — and that he was told his command was being curtailed because of a personality conflict.
When asked about the report's charge that he ran his unit into the ground, Demaree said he did what he thought he needed to prepare his soldiers for war.
"If that meant training hard, that's what I wanted to do so you didn't have massive amounts of casualties in your first 100 days [in theater] because you weren't prepared," he said
Lt. Col. Jeffrey French was named to succeed Demaree, but because of the timing of his selection, French was able to only observe the brigade's training at the NTC.
When the brigade arrived at the NTC, the commander of the operations group, Brig. Gen. Randy Dragon, and his cadre thought the brigade's mindset was "too aggressive and lethally focused on defeating the enemy" instead of adhering to the Army's population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine, according to the report.
Tunnell disagreed, leading to "heated confrontations" between the brigade staff and the NTC cadre.
The disagreements got so bitter that Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, then the commander of the NTC, requested a visit from senior leadership for I Corps to resolve the dispute.
"The unit was on the verge of not being certified to deploy to Afghanistan," according to the report.
Pittard also asked the deputy commander of operations for Regional Command-South in Afghanistan, where the 5th SBCT ultimately was going to serve its deployment, to visit the NTC.
Dragon, who was a colonel at the time, told Twitty that "during his two years as the NTC [commander of Operations Group] that 5th SBCT's was his most challenging rotation due to the reluctance of Col. Tunnell to follow and train his formation using current doctrine."
The 5th SBCT arrived in Afghanistan in July 2009. They were assigned to RC-South, which at the time was commanded by Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif.
"While interacting directly with the RC-S staff, I learned first-hand that our brigade was already looked upon as a 'problem unit' well before we even got on the ground," Abrahams said, "simply due to the problem interactions between the commander and nearly everyone around him."
One of the brigade's first missions was to clear the Arghandab Valley, a tough and hotly contested area that had seen very little U.S. or NATO forces since the war began.
The brigade, primarily soldiers from 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, fought a long, difficult fight in the valley, with 21 soldiers killed in action and numerous others wounded.
"There's been some suggestion that the brigade was overly lethal, which was almost silly to say given that we were in Kandahar province," Slaughenhaupt said.
In addition to fighting the enemy, the brigade also tasked its Special Troops Battalion to oversee governance, reconstruction and development projects in the brigade's area of operations, Slaughenhaupt said.
"A brigade that's overly lethal and only focuses on killing people wouldn't have spent 60 percent of its budget on [Commander's Emergency Response Program] projects," he said. "Anything we did in Afghanistan, we went through the proper procedures to gain approval for every mission we did," he said. "We weren't just running around doing whatever we wanted."
In November 2009, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter took command of RC-South, relieving de Kruif. American Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges became the RC-South deputy for operations.
Carter had different plans for the 5th SBCT. He decided to pull the brigade from the Arghandab Valley and tasked them with securing freedom of movement along Highway 1, the main route in Afghanistan.
Tunnell felt this was a "misuse of his highly lethal Stryker brigade and vehemently disagreed with Maj. Gen. Carter about the mission," according to the report.
Battalion and company commanders within the brigade agreed with Tunnell; they wanted to stay in the Arghandab Valley because they had cleared ground and suffered significant losses along the way.
"It was their fight, and being replaced by [4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division] was seen as a slight against them," according to the report.
Hodges said Tunnell misunderstood Carter's mission, the report stated.
"The expectation of Col. Tunnell by Maj. Gen. Carter was to not just run Stryker vehicles up and down the road, but to get involved with the local populace," Hodges told the investigating officer. "It seemed to me that Col. Tunnell never bought into the mission, which became a point of friction for us. He did not seem to really get what was going on out there."
The relationship between Tunnell and his superiors at RC-South continued to deteriorate, with Tunnell challenging "virtually every order" issued by his bosses, according to the report.
"Maj. Gen. Carter and I had lost confidence in Col. Tunnell's ability to command from his failure to follow instructions and intent," Hodges told the investigator.
"Looking back on my relationship with him, I regret that I wasn't more involved in his professional development during his tenure as a brigade commander," Hodges said. "I should have specifically told him that Maj. Gen. Carter and I had lost confidence in his ability to command."
Meanwhile, Tunnell's battalion commanders felt "hamstrung" by having to choose between Tunnell's emphasis on counter-guerrilla fighting, applying counter-insurgency tactics on the sly, or openly going against Tunnell's counter-guerrilla approach.
One battalion commander felt he received an average Officer Evaluation Report, effectively ending his career progression, because he openly challenged Tunnell's strategy, according to the report. Other commanders would change their command update briefings because they felt Tunnell would disagree with the counter-insurgency strategy they were implementing in their areas of operation.
Many captains in the brigade told the investigator they disagreed with Tunnell's approach, but his philosophy didn't impact the way they operated at the company level.
In his sworn statement, Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Lewis, who was the chaplain for 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, which suffered heavy losses in the Arghandab, said "it seemed that our [battalion commander's] overriding concern was looking good to his boss. He did not want to appear to contradict him in any way."
Subordinate leaders in the battalion felt the commander, Lt. Col. Jon Neumann, "did not listen to them and took feedback like defiance," Lewis said.
A weak command sergeant major and a lack of discipline except for "pockets where there was strong NCO leadership" contributed to a dysfunctional unit, and the lack of discipline is partly to blame for the deaths and injuries of some of the soldiers, Lewis said.
Despite the problems the brigade was encountering, Tunnell was known for strictly adhering to the rules of engagement and investigating possible violations, according to the report.
Despite the frustration and confusion that spread through the brigade, there was no evidence that the alleged murders occurred as a result of the command climate, Twitty concluded in his report.
"This climate was overcome by subordinate leaders who understood what needed to be done in their unique areas of operation and did it," according to the report. "Their actions allowed the SBCT to achieve successes both lethally and non-lethally, which, unfortunately for the soldiers of the brigade, have been overshadowed by the alleged criminal actions of the few."