The Army is preparing to prosecute a soldier for the death of Pfc. Neil Turner, a Lincoln High School graduate, at an outpost in eastern Afghanistan early this year.
Army officials initially called Turner’s death a “training accident,” but now are bringing charges of manslaughter against Spc. Francisco Perez, who’s accused of firing a rocket at Turner inside their forward base at Combat Outpost Kherwar in Afghanistan’s Logar province.
Perez allegedly killed Turner, 21, on Jan. 11 with a light anti-tank weapon, a shoulder-fired rocket launcher designed for use against armored vehicles and other hardened targets. The weapon did not detonate, but was fired at close range and pierced Turner’s upper chest, according to Turner’s family and Army charging documents.
Perez’s assignment called on him to store weapons as soldiers returned to their base from missions. Witness reports in documents reviewed by Turner’s mother, Charlotte Cox-Turner, suggest Perez had been scolded more than once for “horseplay” with weapons in his charge.
The maximum penalty for manslaughter under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is 15 years in confinement. Perez is accused of negligent homicide and failing to obey an order to separate loaded weapons from unloaded ones.
He has not been put in custody, according to the Army charging documents dated from July. He is expected to go to his court-martial next month. He has not hired a civilian defense attorney.
Maj. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for the 1st Armored Division, to which Perez belongs, declined to release Perez’s age or a description of his service record. Perez’s current enlistment began in February 2010.
The Army generally does not release much information about criminal investigations until after courts-martial.
“We take all fatalities seriously,” Buccino said.
The Turner family plans to attend the court-martial.
Neil Turner graduated from Lincoln High in 2008. He had three younger brothers, Maxwell, Jordan and Tucker.
His high school and his neighborhood both held vigils to pay their respects to him after his death.
His brothers attended an Army grief camp in Virginia this year and were featured in a CNN special report on children coping with the loss of loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army sent Neil Turner’s squad leader from Afghanistan to the camp to mentor his oldest brother after Cox-Turner asked his unit to involve someone who knew her son.
In one account described to the family at the camp, Turner was killed when Perez demonstrated how to use the light anti-tank weapon.
In another provided to Cox-Turner, Perez was messing around with weapons inside a building when he should have been putting them away. He reportedly hit the trigger on one launcher he thought was safe.
An Army investigator told Cox-Turner the rocket did not detonate because its firing mechanism lodged in her son’s chest as the weapon passed through his body.
“Neil caught it,” she said. “He caught it.”
Buccino said three other soldiers were hurt in the accident that killed Turner. Accounts Cox-Turner obtained suggest they received concussions.
“Neil’s death was totally wasteful and incomprehensible,” Cox-Turner said.
Neil Turner joined the Army in the summer of 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan in the fall of 2011. He was serving with 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division out of Fort Bliss, Texas.
Friends describe him as someone who knew he wanted to join the Army in high school. Neighbors recognized him as a sociable teenager who played music in his garage or rode around town on a bicycle with a seemingly limitless catalogue of song lyrics in his head.
He also got involved in neighborhood organizations. Friends placed a small monument to him at the Dometop Community Garden.
The manner of her son’s death haunts Cox-Turner. It was a threat she could not foresee when she said goodbye to him after his mid-tour leave in November 2011.
“As a mom, I feared IEDs hurting or killing my son, or possibly a firefight,” she said. “I never imagined and still can’t get my head wrapped around what actually happened to him.”