NORFOLK, Va. — Immediately after a grenade explosion injured their medic, members of the SEAL Team 10 unit raced to retrieve their injured comrade.
At first, they assumed the attack at their base in southeastern Afghanistan came from outside.
But as the hours passed without incident, tension grew between the Americans and their Afghan counterparts, whom they began to view suspiciously. Was this one of those “green on blue” attacks, in which Afghan forces target their American mentors?
In the days that followed, the Afghans, feeling the scrutiny, stopped cooperating with the SEALs. They refused to coordinate on missions or leave the base on patrols with the Americans. Operations came to a halt.
Meanwhile, investigators were arriving at a startling conclusion: that the hospital corpsman, Petty Officer 1st Class Omar Pescador-Montanez, was the only person who could have thrown the grenade.
The platoon leaders were ordered not to share that with team members, who were left to wonder why no one was doing anything to catch the perpetrator.
That account emerged over a four-day court-martial at Norfolk Naval Station this week.
On Thursday, a military judge, Cmdr. Michael Luken, found Pescador-Montanez guilty of detonating a grenade to injure himself, recklessly endangering two Afghans in an earlier, failed attempt to explode the grenade and negligently discharging his firearm.
The prosecutor, Capt. Keaton Harrell, asked the judge to sentence Pescador-Montanez to the maximum punishment, saying the corpsman not only injured himself, but also crippled the mission.
“Rare is the case where the maximum punishment in a special court-martial is requested,” Harrell told the judge. But Pescador-Montanez’s actions had “vast and drastic effects, impacts and consequences.”
Colleagues and relatives testified that Pescador-Montanez is a nurturing man and until that point was an exemplary sailor who loved his job so much that he asked his church back home to send him baby wipes, bottles, formula and diapers for Afghan villagers.
“That’s not a person who would hurt other people or himself,” his sister, Xiamara Pescador, told the court.
The SEAL unit had been mentoring Afghan special forces at the joint base Village Stability Platform Shobar since June 2013. As the independent duty corpsman, Pescador-Montanez treated sick or injured Americans, as well as Afghan soldiers and villagers.
On Aug. 2, the corpsman did not expect to be at the clinic so late in the day. But Ahmad Jan, an Afghan member of a civilian bomb unit, complained of leg pain, so the two men and an interpreter went to the clinic on the Afghan side of the divided compound.
In testimony conducted via video teleconference from Afghanistan, the interpreter, Sheherzadar Haroon Khan, said that during that examination, Pescador-Montanez left the clinic, ostensibly to check outside for patients, even though it was dark and patients didn’t come at night.
Haroon said Pescador-Montanez ran back into the room, shouting, “Get down, get down!” because someone had thrown something in his face.
All three stayed on the floor for a minute. Nothing happened. Jan checked outside, then the three left the clinic. As they headed back to their rooms, Haroon said, Pescador-Montanez turned and went back to check the clinic alone.
Moments later, the blast went off.
Investigators concluded that Pescador-Montanez tried to detonate the grenade the first time he left the room. But he forgot to remove the safety clip when he pulled the pin. So he went back a second time.
Investigators determined that the grenade was an M67 from the stockpile the SEALs kept unsecured on base. The grenade has several layers of safety: the clip, the pin and the grenade spoon, which will fly off once the first two are removed unless the user holds it in place.
The blast went off in the front room of the building. The grenade spoon was found in the same room but closer to the doorway of the second room, where Pescador-Montanez was injured. The safety clip was found a few feet away from him in the second room.
A Navy ordnance expert involved in the investigation told the court that the trail of grenade pieces suggested that Pescador-Montanez stood in the second room, removed the safety clip, then threw the grenade into the first room, with the spoon flying off midflight. The pin was never found.
He said that given how the pieces landed, it was highly unlikely that the grenade could have been thrown through a door or a window.
“We have evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the grenade was deployed from within that room,” Harrell said. “We know it was HM1 Pescador that deployed the grenade because he was the only one in the room.”
The defense argued that the possible motives the Navy attributed to Pescador-Montanez – that he wanted to get out of his duties or that he was hoping to earn a Purple Heart and its financial benefits for his children – didn’t hold up.
His lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Kelly, also argued that it would be absurd for Pescador-Montanez to pick up a grenade that had failed to explode. She said he had no reason to detonate a grenade because he loved his job. It was possible, she argued, that the attack came from outside.
The judge sentenced Pescador-Montanez to 90 days hard labor without confinement, a reduction in rank to petty officer second class and 25 days in confinement. He could have received up to a year in prison or a bad-conduct discharge. His command can still seek to discharge him administratively, Kelly said.
To Senior Chief Petty Officer James Bradley, one of the SEALs who ran to the corpsman’s aid that night, the punishment isn’t nearly strong enough. The explosion nearly ignited a battle between the Americans and Afghans and harmed the mission for months.
“I have no qualms risking my life for an American at all,” Bradley testified. “But the amount of risk we assumed that night – had things gone the other way, that’s hard to fathom.”