This article incorrectly described the military honors that Capt. Roger Hill and 1st Sgt. Tommy Scott have received. Hill has been awarded a Bronze Star Medal, but it was not a Bronze Star for Valor. Scott's many decorations do not include a Bronze Star.
A War's Impossible Mission
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan Capt. Roger Hill stood behind a long wooden desk, reading from a piece of paper that trembled lightly in his hand. "Please know that seeing your brothers whittled down one by one by a cowardly and ghost-like enemy is difficult," he said, glancing up only briefly at the team of military prosecutors assembled around him.
Hill is a U.S. Army officer in Afghanistan accused of detainee abuse, including a mock execution, war crimes, dereliction of duty and other serious charges stemming from an incident last August at a U.S. military base outside the capital city of Kabul. Members of his unit allegedly slapped Afghan detainees, and Hill himself is said to have fired his pistol into the ground near blindfolded Afghans to frighten them.
But after exploring the personalities and circumstances involved in this case, it's hard for me to condemn Hill or his first sergeant, Tommy Scott, who has been charged with assaulting the detainees. Stuck in the deadly middle ground between all-out war and nation- building, these men lashed out to protect themselves. To me, their story encapsulates the impossible role we've asked U.S. soldiers to play in the reconstruction of this devastated country. They are part warrior, part general contractor, yet they are surrounded on all sides by a populace that wants nothing more than to kill or be rid of them.
The soldiers who have served at Hill's side call him heroic. Others describe the career that the 30-year-old West Point graduate might have had if he and his men hadn't apparently crossed the line one day last summer. Instead, I watched Hill fight for that career -- and for his freedom -- earlier this month in a conference room at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a large U.S. military base near the Afghan town of Khost, about 17 miles from the Afghan-Pakistani border.
As Hill tried to defend his actions at a military hearing, his soft voice filled the small, bare room: "Know that sifting through the charred and crumbling remains of fellow service members in order to identify their bodies, or picking up the pieces of another after this ghost-like enemy has hacked off his arms and cut out his heart . . . only for you to later find out that his fingers are being distributed downtown amongst the locals, can somehow make a commander more protective. "
It was against this "ghost-like enemy" that Hill, Scott and the rest of their unit were fighting at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, where Hill's company was the sole coalition force for miles around.
There are dozens of bases throughout the country like Airborne. They are full of soldiers who bear the dual and confounding burden of being both an army fighting the Taliban, with all the killing and dying that entails, and a corps of civil servants. They attend shuras (meetings with village leaders), construct roads and help train the Afghan police force. They are expected to work hand-in-glove with people who might have tea with them one moment and inform Taliban killers about U.S. troop movements the next. But talking with local leaders -- even leaders who might be playing both sides -- is the only way to begin progress toward building institutions in Afghanistan.
I traveled here to work as an embedded reporter with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., about an hour from my home in Nashville. I'd planned on spending most of my time with the 101st as they engaged the Taliban on the Pakistan border.
But while waiting at FOB Salerno for a helicopter ride to a smaller base, I heard talk about Hill and the Article 32 inquiry he was about to face -- the military justice version of a grand jury hearing. I learned that Hill and Scott could face life in prison if the matter proceeded to a court martial. Another half-dozen members of Hill's company will soon have Article 32 hearings of their own. One soldier is already being held in a military jail in Kuwait for his role in the incident.
I decided to stay.
Hill's path to the hearing room in Khost began, according to witness testimony, when he received reliable intelligence late last August that Taliban agents were working on his unit's base, which is manned by no more than 200 coalition soldiers. One of these reported interlopers, a man identified only as "Noori," was Hill's personal interpreter. Two more purported Taliban informants were running the base's small, locally owned coffee shop. The intelligence said that all three, as well as some others, were relaying information about U.S. troop movements and artillery positions to Taliban agents in Wardak, an area the size of Connecticut where Hill's small company faced off against a large number of hostile locals.
The intelligence report detailing how these Afghan men were working with the Taliban is classified "top secret." But an Army spokesman who has seen it said that the evidence against them was incontrovertible. "There was a legitimate report saying that [Hill's translator] was a bad guy and was sharing information with the Taliban," said Marine Capt. Scott Miller, media liaison for the hearing. "He was providing information to recognized bad people."