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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: SHIITE OFFICIAL SLAIN; SNIPER
TEAM'S ACCOUNT; MARINE TRIAL URGED

Snipers tell of pressure to notch more 'kills'

Army unit in Iraq accused in murder trials says orders from above blurred the line between right and wrong

October 05, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

"We needed to find a way so that we could get the bad guys the right way and still maintain the right military things to do," Michaud said. "But if we push this a little bit more, you know: 'Hey, did you feel threatened?' Bottom line: 'Yeah, I felt threatened.' Then it's OK."

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Heightened scrutiny

Under Hensley, the sniper unit's kill rate increased. Only one sniper kill had been recorded in the 5 1/2 months before his arrival. On Hensley's first mission, the section shot five Iraqis dead. Soldiers attributed the success to his training and drills. He also enjoyed a close relationship with the sergeant major, one of the top enlisted officers in the battalion, soldiers said. Defense attorneys allege that the baiting practice came from the sergeant major and the battalion commander, if not from higher authorities.

But the rising kill rate brought greater scrutiny. After two specialists in the sniper unit were caught sleeping on watch, they alerted Army officials to what they suspected was the baiting program.

The sniper unit was investigated for three incidents. Hensley is accused of shooting an unarmed man April 14 and of ordering Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. on April 27 to kill a man who was cutting grass with a scythe. Both Hensley and Vela face charges in the May 11 shooting of the Iraqi man who had stumbled upon their sniper position.

Murder charges against Sandoval were dropped last week. He was convicted of poor conduct, for planting detonation cord on the body of the man with the scythe.

The members of the unit -- and they still consider themselves a unit -- are angry over what has happened to them. They blame those outside their ranks. Sgt. Richard Hand, who was on the May 11 mission in which Vela said he shot the Iraqi, lashed out at the prosecutors and the Army command during his testimony in July. He criticized officers for not understanding life on the sniper teams, which survive by their wits in the Iraqi countryside.

"If you've never been outside the wire, you really have no basis -- you don't have a basis to judge what I do or what I don't do. You've never been in a life-or-death situation, where you've had to count on the guy to your left and right," Hand said.

"People who stay back here, in my opinion, are not mentally in the game. They've never been out there."

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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