Tank commander guilty in Iraq ‘friendly-fire’ death
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — A 1st Infantry Division soldier based in Vilseck was convicted Thursday in connection with a January accidental discharge death in Iraq.
Staff Sgt. James Leon Parker, a tank commander from Company B, 2nd Battalion, 63rd Armor, was convicted of negligent homicide and dereliction of duty. Parker, of Knoxville, Tenn., was sentenced to six months’ confinement at Mannheim Confinement Facility and a reduction in rank to E-1, or private.
Parker’s defense attorney, Maj. Thomas Roughneen, asserted that Parker was a victim of circumstances on Jan. 13. Roughneen wrote in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes that he would appeal the decision.
The e-mail contained court-martial results and a description of events leading up to the accidental discharge of an M-2, .50-caliber machine gun, which killed Pfc. Gunnar D. Becker, 19, of Forestburg, S.D. Until Roughneen’s e-mail, the Army had not made public the details of Becker’s death, or that Parker was being tried.
Becker was killed when a round discharged while crewmembers were dismantling and moving a machine gun, according to a 1st ID news release issued Monday. A panel found that Parker was negligent in his responsibility to clear the weapon, the release stated.
A 1st ID spokesman said Tuesday that Parker received a fair trial.
“The defense presented their theory and characterization of the evidence to a panel of five officers and five enlisted. After considering all the evidence, the panel found Staff Sgt. Parker guilty,” said Maj. Bill Coppernoll.
Roughneen wrote that neither he nor Parker would consent to follow-up interviews.
“We are simply reporting facts” of a chaotic situation, Roughneen wrote.
Parker did not fire the weapon that killed Becker, according to Roughneen’s account. An unidentified sergeant on the crew accidentally pulled the trigger as he and a private first class were handling the heavy machine gun without Parker’s knowledge. The accidental discharge sent a .50-caliber round into Becker’s head, killing him instantly. It’s not clear if either crewmember was charged.
Parker was convicted of dereliction of duty for not instructing his crew — the sergeant and two privates first class — to clear their weapons as they entered Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul.
However, in Roughneen’s account, Parker did not order the crew to clear because they re-entered FOB Marez in the middle of a firefight, with tracer rounds flying over the top of their M1A1 Abrams tank.
“He ordered his loader not to exit his hatch to clear the .240 machine gun and Parker did not clear his M2-48 .50 cal machine gun,” Rougheen wrote.
Another reason Parker didn’t clear the weapons was because he was under the impression he would be returning immediately to the firefight, Roughneen wrote. Finally, the defense attorney stated, it was not unusual for crews to re-enter the FOB without clearing weapons.
Roughneen said a number of questionable decisions by other noncommissioned officers, as well as alleged insubordination by a member of Parker’s crew, also contributed to the accident.
On the night of the accident, Parker’s tank was one of two on patrol attacked by insurgents with mortars, according to Roughneen’s account. Just after the attack, the other tank commander stated he was out of fuel and needed to return to base, where a firefight was raging.
However, Roughneen states that the other commander never refueled his tank, then walked away as Parker waited to go back out. “What was wrong with SSG Parker? Why was he insistent on planning to return to the violent firefight, with at least nine casualties, which was the exact reason the First Infantry tanks were sent to Mosul in the first place?” Roughneen wrote.
As Parker monitored the fight, two of his crew began to dismount the still-loaded weapons without permission, Roughneen wrote. As one handed the M-2 to the sergeant, the sergeant engaged the trigger. The crew was so inexperienced, Rougheen indicated, that Parker had ordered the private first class not to handle the M-2.
Parker, a nine-year veteran, won the Army Commendation Medal with a “Valor” device for his bravery in November 2004 for his actions during a battle at Baqouba. He passed the E-6 board in the fall of 2004, received a promotion while the unit was in Iraq and quickly assumed a tank commander position in December 2004, stated Roughneen.
“He should have declined it,” Rougheen wrote.