World and Nation

Testimony Describes a Sniper Squad Pressed to Raise Enemy Body Count

An Army sniper is taught to kill people “calmly and deliberately,” even when they pose no immediate danger to him. “A sniper,” Army Field Manual 23-10 goes on to state, “must not be susceptible to emotions such as anxiety or remorse.”

But in a crowded military courtroom seemingly stunned into silence on Thursday, Sgt. Evan Vela all but broke down as he described firing two bullets into an unarmed Iraqi man his unit arrested last May.

In anguished, eloquent sentences, Vela, a member of an elite sniper scout platoon with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, quietly described how his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, cut off the man’s handcuffs, wrestled him to his feet and ordered Vela, standing a few feet away, to fire the 9 mm service pistol into the detainee’s head.

“I heard the word ‘Shoot,’” Vela recalled. “I don’t remember pulling the trigger,” he said. “I just came through and the guy was dead, and it just took me a second to realize the shot had come from the pistol.”

Then, Vela said, as the man, a suspected insurgent, convulsed on the ground, Hensley kicked him in the throat and told Vela to shoot him again. Vela, who is not on trial but faces murder charges for the killing, said he fired a second time.

His testimony on Thursday, in the court-martial of Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, Jr., another sniper who is accused of murder, provided a glimpse into the dark moments of a platoon exhausted, emotionally and physically, by days-long missions in the region south of Baghdad that soldiers call the “triangle of death.” In their testimony, Vela and other soldiers described how their teams were pushed beyond limits by battalion commanders eager to raise their kill ratio against a ruthless enemy.

During a separate hearing here in July, Sgt. Anthony G. Murphy said he and other 1st Battalion snipers felt “an underlying tone” of disappointment from field commanders seeking higher enemy body counts.

“It just kind of felt like, ‘What are you guys doing wrong out there?’” he said at the time.

That attitude among superiors changed earlier this year after Hensley, an expert marksman, became a team leader, according to soldiers’ testimony. Though sometimes unorthodox, soldiers said, Hensley and other snipers around him began racking up many more kills, pleasing the commanders.

Soldiers also testified that battalion commanders authorized a classified new technique that used fake explosives and detonation wires as “bait” to lure and kill suspected insurgents around Iskandariya, a hostile Sunni Arab region south of Baghdad.

As their superiors sought less restrictive rules of engagement — to legalize the combat killing of anyone who made a soldier “feel threatened,” for example, instead of showing hostile intent or actions — the baiting program, as it was known, succeeded in killing more Iraqis suspected of being terrorists, soldiers testified.