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No good choices

"No good choices" Continued...

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

So they set out to get them.

"It wasn't the best thought out plan," said Puckett. "Roger [Hill] and his first sergeant decided to turn Jack Bauer on the detainees."

The details of that were revealed at an Article 32 hearing held at FOB Afghanistan in early December. Such a hearing occurs when a senior officer-in this case, Lt. Col. Robert Byrd, a military police officer-is appointed to investigate whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant further proceedings against a defendant, such as a court-martial.

Both sides put on evidence in the case. Then it was up to Byrd to weigh the evidence and make a recommendation on Hill's future.

The Army presented evidence that under Hill's command, 1st Sgt. Scott straddled the chest of at least one bound detainee as he lay on the ground and slapped the detainee in the face while shouting questions at him. The Army also showed that while Scott held several detainees in the FOB coffee house, Hill, standing outside with other detainees, fired his handgun into the ground about 20 yards away from the nearest prisoner, in effect performing a mock execution in order to scare the detainees inside into confessing.

At least one did, according to Puckett. Two separate medical exams showed that none of the detainees was injured.

According to Puckett, the Army characterized Hill and Scott's actions as war crimes-assault with a dangerous weapon and inflicting psychological harm on the detainees-in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Lt. Col. Byrd was not available for an email or telephone interview, and the Army declined WORLD's request to interview any command representative familiar with the case and able to speak on the record.

Puckett argued that Hill's actions, particularly given his sterling service record, were a lapse in judgment and not a criminal act. "I'm sure that the recent loss of Carwile and Conlon had an emotional impact on their decision-making," Puckett told WORLD.

There was no chance, Puckett said, that the Army would simply release Hill and his men unpunished. So, after the Article 32 hearing, with the possibility of a court-martial and federal felony convictions looming, Puckett went to see Lt. Col. Patrick Huston, a legal advisor to the commanding general in the case. Would it be possible, Puckett asked, to reduce the charges against Hill so that he would be eligible for what the Army calls non-judicial punishment, such as a letter of reprimand and forfeiture of pay?

No, Huston said. The more likely outcome would be prison time-and an other-than-honorable discharge was near certain. Meanwhile, Huston said the brigade was waiting for Lt. Col. Byrd's final report.

But less than a week later, Puckett received an urgent email from Huston, who wrote that if Puckett and his client acted quickly, they could get the reduction in charges after all.

Given the alternative, Hill took the deal. Even today, though, neither he nor Puckett has seen Lt. Col. Byrd's final report on the Article 32 hearing. "We've asked several times and have been denied it. Byrd said it was sealed and he was told by brigade that he couldn't release it to anyone else." Puckett said Byrd also would not tell him what his report had recommended.

"There's no good reason to deny us access to that report unless . . . it is contrary to what the brigade expected it to be," Puckett said. "We really put the battalion on trial in their shortcomings and lack of support to Roger's company."

Soon, a new unit of nearly 1,200 soldiers will move to FOB Airborne, taking over responsibility for the violent province previously held by Hill's 90-man unit.

The 12 Taliban spies were released.

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