Punishment lighter for higher officers

Administrative action taken against 3 in Iraq death

soldiers face prison

July 08, 2004|By DENVER POST

FORT CARSON, Colo. - High-ranking officers accused of conspiring with 3rd Brigade Combat Team soldiers to cover up the death of an Iraqi civilian thrown from a bridge into the Tigris River have not been criminally charged and received only administrative punishment, the Army confirmed yesterday.

Documents summarizing the allegations against the soldiers say three officers encouraged lower-level soldiers involved in the drowning incident to deny what happened.

They were identified as Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, the battalion commander; Maj. Robert Gwinner, Sassaman's executive officer; and Capt. Matthew Cunningham, the company commander.

Two men were thrown from a bridge in Samarra, north of Baghdad, Jan. 3. One drowned; the other escaped.

Criminal charges reportedly have been filed against four Fort Carson soldiers in connection with the drowning. Charged with manslaughter were 1st Lt. Jack M. Saville, Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins and Sgt. Reggie Martinez. Spec. Perry Bowman was charged with assault.

Under military law, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 10 years in prison.

The military denied for months that anyone died, even after a criminal investigation began in mid-January.

The initial investigation started when members of an Iraqi council approached the brigade to say that a civilian was dead after being thrown from the bridge, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, to which the 3rd Brigade Combat Team is linked.

Both Sassaman and Gwinner were disciplined under the military's Article 15 process, a non-judicial punishment, while in Iraq. Both stayed in their jobs for the duration of their tours in Iraq, officials said.

The decision to punish Sassaman and Gwinner in that manner came from Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno while he was the commander of the 4th Infantry Division. Cunningham received some form of punishment, but it was not an Article 15 process, Withington said.

News of how the Army has handled the case is drawing criticism from military experts and members of Congress.

Eugene Fidell, director of the National Institute for Military Justice, said the case shows a disparity in punishments between the officers and the soldiers. "It's sufficiently disturbing," Fidell said. "The various outcomes [in punishments] is becoming a common pattern."

The administrative punishments don't necessary preclude the filing of additional charges, Fidell said. But the defense could argue in any subsequent court-martial that the officers have already been punished, "softening the blow with respect to a sentence," he said.

Withington said the matters are closed, at least with Sassaman: "The case is over with. He is still the commander."

The lower-ranking soldiers, Saville and Perkins, each face 26 years in confinement on the manslaughter charge and on accusations of trying to impede the investigation and making false statements.

No hearing date has been set to determine whether the soldiers will be court-martialed, but Withington said he expects a hearing late this month at Fort Carson.

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