At Rape Hearing, U.S. Soldiers Describe Stress of War

By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 8 -- The constant fear of death and the trauma of several devastating incidents took a heavy toll on morale in the U.S. Army unit whose members included five soldiers accused of involvement in the rape and killing of an Iraqi teenager, witnesses testified Tuesday in a military court.

Pfc. Justin Cross said the 1st Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment was subjected to intense stress during the months it served in the area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death. Patrols, he said, put soldiers in constant fear for their lives.

"I couldn't sleep, mainly for fear we would be attacked," he said. Cross described his unit as "full of despair" and recalled worrying that he would be killed while manning a checkpoint.

Cross testified during the third day of an Article 32 hearing, the military's equivalent of a grand jury. The hearing is being held to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to try Spec. James P. Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard on charges of raping and murdering a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her parents and 5-year-old sister.

Another soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is accused of failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have participated.

The soldier described in testimony Monday as the ringleader in the attack, former private Steven D. Green, was discharged because of a "personality disorder" and does not face the possibility of court-martial. Green was arrested in the United States in June and has pleaded not guilty to federal rape and murder charges.

The alleged rape and killings were carried out on March 12 in the town of Mahmudiyah.

In his testimony, Cross said his unit was demoralized not only by the dangers of being posted in the Triangle of Death but also by several devastating setbacks. On Feb. 5, the unit's living quarters in Yusufiyah burned to the ground, destroying many soldiers' personal belongings. And the shooting of two members of the unit at a checkpoint "pretty much crushed the platoon," Cross said.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Fenlason, who testified that he had been sent to the unit to restore discipline, said that shortly after he arrived, he identified emotional and disciplinary problems in several soldiers, including Barker, Cortez and Green.

"I recall a conversation with [Green] regarding his lack of concern or caring for Iraqi life versus American soldiers' life," Fenlason said.

Eugene Fidell, a Washington military law expert, said Tuesday that the defense attorneys were most likely emphasizing combat stress to argue that their clients not face a possible death penalty in the event of a court-martial. "This is not a defense known to the law," Fidell said. "But this kind of evidence could come in during the court-martial, and it might be pertinent to the sentence. They could be setting the stage to avoid a death penalty."

Staff writer Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.

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