By Sonya Geis and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 16, 2006; A03
On March 12, a 15-year-old Iraqi girl was raped, and she and her father, mother and sister were gunned down in their home.
Three months later, three U.S. soldiers were slain by insurgents. One was shot and two others were kidnapped and killed and their bodies mutilated in what a group linked to al-Qaeda declared was retribution for the attack on the Iraqi family.
Four soldiers and one former soldier have now been charged in connection with the rape and homicides. Another soldier has been charged with failing to report the incident.
One of the questions surrounding two of the most dreadful incidents of the war is whether they are connected. Did the alleged rape and murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops beget the torture and slaying of their own comrades?
Earlier this month, the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council posted a gruesome video on the Internet showing the soldiers' disfigured bodies and said they were executed to "avenge" the rape and homicides. Army investigators deny the claims and say there is no connection between the incidents, though military spokesmen did not respond to questions last week about why they believe that.
Whether or not the episodes are connected, it is clear that the soldiers themselves were connected, bound by their experiences in combat. Members of the same unit, many of them were friends with one another. The alleged rape and homicides came to light, investigators said, only when some of the soldiers underwent a "combat stress debriefing" prompted by the deaths of the three soldiers.
The soldiers were all members of 1st Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Some family members said they believe there must be some connection between the two incidents.
"There's nine guys on a squad," said Nancy Hess, mother of Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, 21, who is one of the five charged in the crimes. "Three of them were killed. Six of them are being charged."
The three were Spec. David J. Babineau, shot during an ambush in which Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker were kidnapped. Menchaca was found with his throat slit, and he was so badly beaten he was unrecognizable. Tucker had been beheaded.
In addition to Spielman, those charged are Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spec. James P. Barker, Pfc. Bryan L. Howard and a former private, Steven D. Green, who had been discharged from the military for a personality disorder. Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe has been charged for failing to report the incident.
Spielman was close to Menchaca, Tucker and Babineau, his mother said. She said her son and other soldiers discovered Babineau's body at a checkpoint after Menchaca and Tucker were kidnapped. "His very best friend was laying there," Hess said.
Yribe's mother, Roberta Dachtler, said her son was particularly close to Babineau and eulogized him in a memorial service at the regiment's base camp south of Baghdad. "David was one of my son's closer friends," she said.
"Tony is devastated as he knows that you are, and wants you to know that you will never be alone, and that he cares a great deal about you," Dachtler wrote in a message posted for Babineau's family on a Web site devoted to U.S. troops killed in Iraq.
Green attended a service for Babineau at Arlington National Cemetery in June.
Barker expressed his sympathy to Menchaca in his own way. In late June, just before he was charged in the alleged rape and homicide, Barker placed a note on the slain soldier's MySpace.com Web page. "R.I.P," it read. "We ran a muk. I will miss you, sleep well my friend."
Menchaca, Tucker and Babineau were ambushed at a checkpoint on June 16.
Three months earlier, on March 12, soldiers from their platoon were drinking alcohol against orders and decided to rape the Iraqi girl they had seen pass through their checkpoint, authorities said. The girl and her family lived nearby, and the soldiers went into the house, raped the girl, shot the family and set the house on fire, according to the charges. Initially, they told their superiors that insurgents had killed the family.
Despite the terrible crime with which they are charged, the soldiers were in many ways typical military recruits, friends and relatives said.
Some had had brushes with the law. Others had left high school. They went by nicknames such as Vanilla, Bunky and the No-Town Soldier. They came from little towns and small cities. On their MySpace pages, they played heavy metal music, appeared brash, fantasized about one-night stands with movie stars, boasted about their cars and talked trash about their enemies in Iraq.
Spielman's friends in his home town of Chambersburg, Pa., told the local newspaper he was a fun-loving young man nicknamed "Vanilla" after, on a dare, he cut his hair to look like 1990s pop star Vanilla Ice. A 2002 high school graduate, he took technical courses and made the honor roll his senior year, they said.
On Spielman's MySpace page, he listed his interests as "Shooting stuff, meeting people, My car and workin on it." His heroes, he wrote, are the "men and women that serve our country, especilly the Army and Marines, furthermore the grunts."
Green's life was apparently the most troubled of all the indicted. Raised mostly in Midland, Tex., his parents divorced when he was 4. When he was 15, his mother was jailed for six months for drunken driving. Two years later, Green dropped out of Coleman High School, an institution for students who have trouble in regular school. Days before he joined the Army last year, Green spent three days in custody after being arrested for underage possession of alcohol. Previously, he had been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Relatives said they believed the Army would help straighten him out. By December of last year, a picture of Green about to shoot a lock off the door of an abandoned Iraqi house was featured beside an Army public relations article.
Green received an honorable discharge and left the army in mid-May after 11 months. He was discharged because of an "anti-social personality disorder," according to military officials and court documents, although officials said his discharge was not related to the alleged crime.
Barker, 23, was raised a Jehovah's Witness in Fresno, Calif. He worked as a go-cart attendant before joining the Army, his friends said. He has two children with a wife he is divorcing, and a newborn at home with a girlfriend.
The friends, who call him "Bunky," were staggered by his arrest. "We never thought of him doing something like that. He was a pretty swell guy," Jesus Caranza told the Fresno Bee. "When he left for the Army, he didn't really want to go, but he went out of obligation because he had nothing else going for him. No job."
Barker posted a note on a friend's MySpace page on May 29: "I miss you so much, all the fun times, i wish it could still be that easy, but hay now i get to shoot at people all day, lol."
Friends described Cortez as a quiet man of deeply religious beliefs who favored skateboarding and track in the Southern California town of Barstow, where he was raised. Cortez's mother, Pat Adams, raised her son in motels in the area and lives in one now. She declined to speak with reporters.
Cortez was stationed for a while at Fort Carson, Colo., but was reassigned to the 101st Airborne Division in January 2005 and deployed to Iraq. "He would never do something like that," former girlfriend and Central High School classmate Alicia Fox told the Desert Dispatch. "He would never hurt a female. He would never hit one or even raise his hand to one. Fighting for his country is one thing, but not when it comes to raping and murdering. That's not him."
Howard always wanted to be a soldier, his father said. "He just was fascinated by it; he talked about it even at a younger age, and he just loved it," Lynn Howard said. "His goal was to get in the Army and get in the Rangers and do what he could for his country."
Lynn Howard said his son "never gave me any trouble, not once. That's why I don't understand."
Bryan Howard spent his high school years in Huffman, Tex., in JROTC, where he excelled, his father said. His teacher in the program, 1st Sgt. Terry Vaughn, told the Houston Chronicle that Howard "was an awesome kid in high school. No discipline problem and a pleasure to teach."
Howard's friend, Michael Doke, said Howard "showed up early every day and reported in after school. We also did color guard together and went to basketball games and football games to do the flag." His friend earned good grades and is a fun-loving person, Doke said.
When he heard the news of Howard's arrest, "The first thing I thought is, I figured it was someone from his unit or squad and they're lumping everyone together, because that's what they do," Doke said. "A couple people from the squad do something, and the whole squad gets into trouble."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.