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Staff Sgt. William Pace

Staff Sgt. William Pace (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Staff Sgt. William Pace decided he just couldn’t do it anymore.

As a squad leader with the 25th Infantry Division’s quick reaction force — part of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment — Pace was responsible for nine soldiers tasked with responding to virtually any flare-up throughout southern Afghanistan.

It could be anything: reinforcing a remote outpost under siege, securing a downed aircraft, rescuing an ambushed convoy. Pace and his men wouldn’t know until they were loading into helicopters and on their way.

Just a few weeks into the mission, however, something wasn’t right. And so on May 10, Pace went to his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Pentz, and told him he wanted to step down as the leader of the 2nd squad.

Pentz told Pace to sleep on it and come back and talk him the next morning.

That evening, Pace gathered his men inside their tent next to the noisy Kandahar flight line and told them he was thinking about turning the squad over.

That’s where Pace’s commanders say he crossed the line.

A soldier’s duty

Last week, the 35-year-old soldier faced an Army court-martial, charged with dereliction of duty and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

Army prosecutors said the case cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a soldier.

“This is not a job at Wal-Mart,” Capt. Brett Egusa, the chief prosecutor, told the military judge, Col. Stephanie Browne. “At Wal-Mart, someone can quit as the cashier and it doesn’t matter. Someone else just fills in.”

But not in the Army, said Egusa. “You can’t quit in the infantry.”

The consequence, he argued, was sending “a message you no longer have to do what you’re told.” The risk: The whole Army could just “decide to step down.”

Perhaps ironically for a soldier who did not feel fit to lead his troops, Egusa argued Pace’s biggest sin was that he told his troops what was going on.

“What’s key here is that he went to his troops first,” said Egusa.

The reasons why Pace wanted to quit may never be publicly known. He did not testify in his trial and, on his lawyer’s advice, declined to be interviewed.

What is known is, that while stuck on recruiting duty in Maryland, Pace had lobbied hard to get reassigned into the division, volunteering to go to Afghanistan shortly before the unit moved out.

Not long after arriving, according to testimony during the trial, it was apparent that there was friction between Pace and some of his leaders. Whether that was the cause or the symptom of his uncertainty as a squad leader is unclear.

What Pace’s trial did reveal, however, is the difficulty soldiers can face when they aren’t comfortable performing their jobs. In a service where pilots can turn in their wings and officers can resign their commissions, Pace’s trial raises questions about when it’s appropriate for a leader to say he’s no longer fit to lead — and whom he should say it to.

Pace’s attorney, Capt. Paul Golden, argued that while Pace’s actions were outside of Army tradition, the soldier did the right thing.

“They don’t like that he requested to step down, but that doesn’t make it criminal,” said Golden. “In fact, you could argue that it was the responsible thing to do, as was telling his men.”

Pace “felt a responsibility to tell his troops that he was thinking about stepping down,” Golden said.

The first step

Pentz, the platoon sergeant, said he wanted to let Pace go.

“You can’t force someone to have authority he doesn’t want to have,” Pentz testified.

When Pace approached him, “He told me that he was thinking about stepping down ... ,” Pentz testified. “He told me he didn’t think he was up to par.”

The next day, said Pentz, Pace told him he had talked to his men.

“That’s when I knew he had hanged himself,” said Pentz. That’s also when Pentz took Pace to see company 1st Sergeant Jeffery Wilson, the top noncommissioned officer in Company A.

Wilson said Pace was evasive about why he wanted to step down.

“I spent 45 minutes trying to get him to tell me why,” said Wilson.

In the end, he said, all Pace would say is that “the standards were too high.”

Wilson said he wanted to help Pace but insisted “being a squad leader in the infantry, you don’t just quit your job.”

When cross-examined by Golden, Wilson said that he wouldn’t want his troops going into battle with a squad leader who wasn’t confident in his abilities.

“What is an NCO supposed to do if he doesn’t feel up to the job?” Judge Browne asked Wilson.

Wilson’s response was straightforward: “Bring it up with the chain of command.”

Yes, Pace appeared to have done exactly that, Wilson said. Yes, he had taken the proper steps, “right up until he talked to his men. After that, no.”

Turmoil

Lining up several of Pace’s soldiers, prosecutors tried to paint a picture of a unit turned upside down in the wake of Pace’s announcement.

Pfc. Robert Samuel was watching a movie inside the squad tent when Pace came in and gathered everyone around.

“In the next few days, I’m going to be stepping down as squad leader,” Pace told the squad.

Samuel said he was shocked. Ever since arriving in Afghanistan he had been nervous.

“I feared for my life,” said the grenadier. “I’ve never been in a combat zone before.”

Pace had always said he’d take care of him. Now, he was leaving.

“My morale dropped,” said Samuel.

One of the squad’s two team leaders, Sgt. George Vaavale, agreed.

“I felt let down,” Vaavale testified.

Vaavale was ordered to take over the squad the next day. At several times, he said, the soldiers would joke that they wanted to quit, too.

Going up the chain

After talking to Wilson, Pace said he wanted to see the battalion commander. But first, that meant talking to his company commander, Capt. Peter Farrell.

Sitting outside between the command tents later on May 10, Farrell said he talked with Pace for about an hour.

“What I expressed first and foremost was that this was serious; you don’t quit,” said Farrell.

Not long after, Pace found himself before the battalion command sergeant major.

“He said he wasn’t getting along with his platoon sergeant,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur Coleman. “His mind was made up, he wanted to quit.”

Soon afterward, Pace was handed an Article 15, nonjudicial punishment, for quitting his position. Usually, such punishment entails fines and being stripped of rank.

Exercising his right under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Pace declined the Article 15 and demanded a court-martial.

Days before the trial, Pace was offered another chance for an Article 15 with less punishment. He agreed, until he was told he’d have to sign a statement pleading guilty to the two charges against him — dereliction of duty and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

“I said ‘no way,’” Pace told Stars and Stripes. “They just weren’t true.”

Pace declined to elaborate, saying only that he feared retribution if he spoke to the press.

At the end of the court-martial, Browne offered no explanation as she pronounced Pace not guilty on both charges.

Most of Pace’s chain of command stormed out of the courtroom. At least a half-dozen soldiers, however, filed by to congratulate him.

Pace is now serving in the battalion’s headquarters company, working as a security guard for the airfield.


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