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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — An Army noncommissioned officer was sentenced to 20 months’ confinement Tuesday after pleading guilty to causing the death of two other soldiers in a drunken-driving incident last May near Camp Foster.

Staff Sgt. Byron Anthony West, 40, also was demoted to E-1 and received a bad-conduct discharge.

However, the judge, Col. Donna Wright, recommended West’s punitive discharge be suspended to allow him to retire with full benefits.

He had faced a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, a demotion to E-1, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.

West, a motor sergeant with the 1-1 Air Defense Artillery Battalion, a Patriot Missile battery on Kadena, is married and has three grown children.

According to trial testimony, West was driving with two friends from his unit when he fell asleep shortly before 5 a.m. on May 12 and slammed into a signpost on Highway 130. The crash occurred in front of the Marine Corps Base Fire Station just outside Camp Foster.

In the days that followed, Staff Sgt. Kenneth J. Thomas, 25, and Sgt. Richard T. Smith, 27, died of their injuries.

West pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide, drunken driving and disobeying an order that makes drivers responsible for ensuring passengers wear seatbelts.

He said he had not slept in more than 24 hours before the crash and had been drinking since the previous evening.

“Because I was really fatigued and I had been drinking earlier,” he told Wright, “I know I shouldn’t have been out there like that.”

West said he had attended two safety briefings, which covered drunken driving and the use of seatbelts, the day before the incident.

“I hope that I will not be labeled a criminal because of what has happened,” he told the judge. “I am truly sorry. Thomas and Smith were friends and I will have to deal with this tragedy for the rest of my life.”

He begged to remain in the Army.

The two rows of spectator seats in the courtroom were packed with soldiers from his company, West’s wife and friends. For more than an hour they listened to a parade of West’s superiors praise him for his work ethic and leadership skills.

Defense lawyer Capt. Michael Korte stressed that his client had a clean record before the incident and that West had 18 years of service, with deployments to Bosnia, to the first Gulf War and tours to Iraq in 2003 and 2005.

Korte argued that West should be allowed to remain a soldier, a 40-year-old private first class with something to teach others.

“He needs to see every soldier in Japan and tell them what has happened to him,” Korte said. “He needs to personally look these soldiers in the eye and teach them.”

Lead prosecutor Capt. William Suddeth reminded the judge that West’s actions resulted in the deaths of “two high-speed, battle buddy NCOs” and left Thomas’ wife a widow with two young children to raise.

“He consciously made a decision to disregard the safety briefings,” Suddeth said. “This was not a mistake; it was a conscious decision that was dishonorable and inappropriate.”


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