Stryker 'kill team' trials left some soldiers' families deeply in debt
At least the waiting is over.
That's small consolation for friends and family of 12 Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers who spent much of the past two years ensnared in a sprawling war crimes investigation.
The trials tested families in ways they couldn’t have imagined when their sons and husbands enlisted in the Army. Some couples broke apart. Others came away intact, but found themselves thousands of dollars in debt from legal fees.
“Oh God, this isn’t what happens to us, this is what happens in movies,” Sara Bram, 25, remembered thinking as the trials unfolded and gained international attention.
Her husband, Staff Sgt. David Bram, is serving a five-year sentence for assaulting a subordinate and posing for a photo with a dead Afghan.
While the investigation included a range of lesser charges, it centered on five soldiers from the former 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division accused of murdering three Afghan civilians in the spring of 2010.
The so-called “kill team” investigation ended last week when the Army dropped murder and assault charges it had pressed against Spc. Michael Wagnon. He was the only accused soldier to walk away with a mostly clean record.
Eleven of Wagnon’s platoon mates were convicted at courts-martial. Seven received jail time, including a life sentence for kill team ringleader Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Three more were handed bad-conduct discharges that will deny them veterans benefits and give them felony convictions to answer for as they rebuild their lives.
At Lewis-McChord, soldiers and infantry units connected to the kill team can finally start putting the trials and the spotlight behind them.
Closing the books
The series of courts-martial kept lives in limbo even for soldiers who resolved their cases early on.
Spcs. Adam Kelly, Corey Moore and Emmitt Quintal received bad-conduct discharges for drug-use and assault charges in early 2011 but stayed on the Army’s payroll because commanders wanted them available for court dates in related cases.
Those days are over, and Lewis-McChord senior leader Maj. Gen. Lloyd Miles has ended Quintal’s service. The specialist is technically still in the Army, but he’s not receiving pay while his case goes to an automatic appeals court that will evaluate his punishment, Army spokesman Maj. Chris Ophardt said.
Kelly and Moore are next in line for the same kind of separation.
Ophardt said Miles commuted one part of Quintal’s sentence: The soldier won’t have to perform 90 days of hard labor as the judge had ordered early last year.
Miles viewed Quintal’s testimony as fulfilling the soldier’s last duty, and hard labor is considered more trouble for a unit than it’s worth. It can take the time and attention of noncommissioned officers who could otherwise be training for missions.
Two other soldiers who received jail time are out of confinement and back in the service. Staff Sgt. Robert Stevens and Sgt. Darren Jones have been reduced in rank to private in accordance with their punishment. But they are otherwise free men.
Stevens, a medic and key witness against Gibbs, is pursuing a clemency request that could restore his rank to sergeant, his attorney said.
“Bottom line is this: Robert has been instrumental in aiding the Army’s military justice efforts in rectifying one of the darkest chapters in Army history,” attorney Stephen Carpenter said.
Life moved on in other ways for those soldiers who were charged with comparably lesser crimes in the kill team investigation. Kelly of Grays Harbor and Jones of Pomona, Calif., told courts they’ve had children born since they came home from combat.
A new breadwinner
Sara Bram wants her family back.
She lost it under the glare of the courts-martial. For more than a year, she waited not knowing how long her husband would go to jail for beating up a subordinate and posing for a photograph with an Afghan corpse.
In the meantime, thuggish images of David Bram appeared on TV shows and in magazines, implying he took part in or at least condoned the unjustified killings that took place in his platoon.
Sara Bram viewed the photos as out-of-context images showing her husband goofing off with platoonmates in a stressful time.
Both she and her husband attended many hearings for Bram’s co-defendants, lending support for their friends while trying to figure out how Bram would fare.
They continue to stick by Gibbs, rejecting the Army’s depiction of him as a killer who manipulated soldiers into joining him in murder schemes.
Sara Bram described Gibbs as a “teddybear” whom her husband trusted. “We know who we are; we know who we stand for,” she said.
David Bram wasn’t charged with a murder, but his higher rank and his failure to halt the wrongdoing led the Army to come down hard on him. The five-year sentence he received for posing in the corpse photo and for beating up a junior soldier who blew the whistle on the platoon was greater than another soldier’s punishment for participating in an illegitimate killing.
A second disparity also frustrates Sara Bram: An officer who posed in the casualty photo was not punished in the same manner as her husband. Platoon leader Lt. Roman Ligsay wound up being promoted to captain despite a censure he later received stemming from the same deployment.
Sara and David Bram, who’ve been married seven years, separated last fall. They sent their children to live with David’s parents in Northern California to keep them away from the trial.
Sara Bram doesn’t tell Audrey, 6, or Adam, 4, that their father is in jail.
“We say ‘Daddy’s working,’ ” she said.
Their marriage was not the only one strained by the trials. Court records show that Gibbs and his wife prepared to divorce late last year, though his wife continued to show support by attending hearings with him. She was the only relative he wanted in court with him at his trial, his attorney said at the time.
Today, the Brams share letters to work on their relationship during his absence. They say they’ve put the stressful pre-trial days behind them and are ready to reunite with a reinvigorated Christian faith. David Bram’s minister was one of his character witnesses at his court-martial.
Sara Bram is still in the South Sound, working at a Lewis-McChord shop and taking classes at Everest College in Tacoma to prepare for a career as a paramedic. She plans to move home to California and get the children back this summer.
She says she knows she has hard work ahead in getting ready for her husband’s return.
“I won’t stop till my family’s back together,” she said.
Back in Boise
Dana Holmes and her partner traveled from Idaho to Lewis-McChord at least once a month to visit her son, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, while he awaited his court-martial on charges that he murdered an Afghan teenager in January 2010.
Andrew Holmes fought the charges but finally took a plea deal in which he acknowledged he suspected the victim was innocent when he pulled the trigger. Holmes is now serving seven years in jail.
At his court-martial in September, Holmes laid blame for the crimes on Spc. Jeremy Morlock, whom Holmes described as a “sociopath.” Morlock admitted taking part in three civilian killings and provided the Army with much of its knowledge of how the crimes unfolded. He’s serving a 24-year prison sentence.
Dana Holmes’ darkest days came in March 2011 when photos of her son, Morlock and their dead victim appeared in Rolling Stone and Der Spiegel magazines.
Dana Holmes felt powerless to help Andrew, and venom poured in online as the images sparked outrage around the world.
“We’ve gotten death threats,” she said. “It has affected us as a family emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
She and her family stretched their budgets to support their son’s defense. She put off long-awaited purchases and worked with United American Patriots, a group the raises money for soldiers accused of crimes in combat zones, to bolster her son’s chances in court.
Dana Holmes and her attorney declined to say exactly how much the effort cost, but others in the field said a defense for a case of this magnitude would run into the tens of thousands of dollars. At least two other families in related cases created websites and sought help with court costs in the run-up to the trials.
Dana Holmes said her son grew up quickly under the stress of the trials and lost his illusions that he could trust leaders to do the right thing.
“We just want Andy to come home,” Dana Holmes said in an interview last week. “He enlisted the day he turned 18. He turned 19 in Afghanistan and he turned 20 in jail. He just needs to come and start his life.”
Still campaigning in Florida
Several mothers of accused soldiers spoke in court at kill team courts-martial to stand up for their sons as character witnesses. Only one family testified as witnesses to the crimes themselves.
Christopher Winfield was called to testify at Gibbs’ November court-martial to describe a series of messages he received from his son, Spc. Adam Winfield. They described unjustified civilian killings among his platoonmates in February 2010.
“The Army really let me down out here,” Adam Winfield wrote to his father. “I thought I would come out here to do good, maybe make some change in this country. I found out that it’s all a lie. There are no more good men left here.”
For all the gravity, Christopher Winfield’s testimony registered one of the only light moments of the trials. Attorneys had to call his teenage daughter so she could explain that she managed her parents’ Facebook account. At the time of Adam Winfield’s troubling messages, his parents didn’t know how to use the social networking site, she testified.
Despite the alarm Adam Winfield raised in his father with his Facebook messages, Adam Winfield went on to join Gibbs and Morlock in a scheme to murder a civilian in May 2010. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a three-year sentence.
The world knows him as “the good boy in the kill team” because of his parents’ willingness to tell his story by sharing his messages about Gibbs and Morlock from early in the deployment.
The Winfields declined to be interviewed for this story. They’re still campaigning for their son, soliciting letters from supporters to bolster his bid for clemency.
“Just got off the phone with (Adam),” his parents wrote in an early January message to their supporters. “Our topic of conversation … wait for it … his plans for starting college in the fall!!! So excited that these are the things we are beginning to make plans for. Happy Dance!”