BAGHDAD — U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Vela spoke in a low voice Thursday at the court-martial for his fellow soldier. Tears slid down the 23-year-old's cheeks and the judge prompted him to talk louder.
On May 11, Vela's sniper team had detained an Iraqi man near Jarf Sakhr, Vela testified. Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley undid the ropes that had pinned the prisoner's arms and asked Vela whether he was ready, he said.
The dark-haired Idaho native told the court he wasn't sure what his superior meant at the time. Vela said Hensley cradled the Iraqi's head, straightened his headdress, then moved away from Vela, who gripped a 9-millimeter pistol.
"I heard the word 'shoot.' I don't remember pulling the trigger. I just came to and the guy was dead. It took me a second to realize the shot came from the pistol in my hand," Vela said.
Vela is one of three soldiers from the same sniper team who are accused of premeditated murder in three shootings this spring. Their cases have provided a picture of mentally exhausted troops and the role they allegedly played in a "baiting program," in which snipers are believed to have planted fake weapons and bomb-making materials, then killed anyone who picked them up.
The alleged tactic was revealed in a hearing in July that eventually sent Hensley and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. to face court-martial on murder charges. The Pentagon refuses to speak publicly about baiting or other such tactics, but insists that military practices are within the law.
"My client is no murderer. He is a victim," said James Culp, Vela's civilian defense attorney, who suspects that baiting contributed to the slaying of the Iraqi man on May 11.
"The rules of engagement are difficult on the best day. The rules for snipers are twice as difficult," Culp said. "You can't expect to muddy the waters of the rules of engagement for snipers without consequences."
Vela made his surprise confession Thursday on the second day of Sandoval's court-martial on charges of murder, dereliction of duty and poor conduct. Sandoval also faces murder charges in the shooting of another Iraqi man in the same region south of Baghdad; he's accused of placing a detonation wire on the body. Like Vela and Hensley, he faces a possible life sentence.
Vela, who was flown from a detention facility in Kuwait to testify in Sandoval's defense, told the court that Sandoval was standing guard at a nearby pump station at the moment of the Iraqi man's execution.
Vela has been promised that his statements in the Sandoval case won't be used against him when he faces legal proceedings in connection with his alleged role in the slaying.
But Vela's first hearing has been delayed by his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he suffers flashbacks and hallucinations, and is taking antipsychotic and antidepressant medications
Vela's account Thursday portrayed a unit that had lost sleep and lost control. In three days, he said, he had closed his eyes for less than four hours.
The mission, to watch the house of a suspected militant and to support nearby troop operations, started on May 8, Vela said.
The terrain south of Baghdad near Jarf Sakhr is a mix of swamps, sewage-filled canals and tall grass. The five men carried rucksacks, which they called "sucks," weighing up to 150 pounds. After two days, Vela said, one soldier was sent to the rear after twice receiving intravenous treatment for heat exhaustion.
Vela said he was in a daze the morning of May 11. He couldn't recall Thursday how the Iraqi had shown up where the troops were sleeping. The man seemed to just materialize, he said.
Vela didn't know what to do, so he woke up Sandoval, who told him to hold the man at gunpoint while Sandoval woke the others, Vela testified. They placed the man on the ground and searched him, he said.
Hensley appeared agitated after waking up, and slammed his knee into the man's back, Vela said. Then Hensley grabbed the man by the mouth and threatened to kill him, he said. Hensley then strung the Iraqi's arms behind his back, and sent Sandoval and his colleague off to guard a pumping station nearby, he said.
Vela said he heard Hensley call his platoon commander on the radio and say he had seen a man running, carrying an automatic rifle.
A child wandered up to their camp, and Hensley briefly held the child on the ground, holding a poncho over his head, Vela said. He eventually released the boy, who looked at the Iraqi man and called him "father." Then the boy fled.
Vela said he thought they were going to free the man, but Hensley called their platoon commander and said he saw a "suspicious national" moving toward their position. Hensley then asked for permission to shoot to kill, Vela recalled.
"At this point, I was really confused about what he was saying," Vela said.
The only other soldier on the scene was so exhausted that he slept through the commotion, Vela said.
Hensley then gave Vela the order to shoot the Iraqi, Vela said.
Once it was done, Vela testified, he watched Hensley grab an AK-47 rifle from his backpack and place it beside the dying man. Hensley radioed his captain and told him that they had engaged AIF, military jargon for firing on insurgents.
The Iraqi man convulsed. Blood covered his face and beard.
"Sgt. Hensley was kind of laughing about it. He hit him in the throat and said shoot him again, which I did," Vela told the judge.
Addressing the court, Vela's voice dropped nearly to a whisper and his tears continued to stream, so the judge gave him a break.
The court called Sgt. 1st Class Tarrol Peterson, the man in charge of the U.S. Army sniper school in Fort Benning, Ga.
"As snipers we look through a scope, we see a face," he said. "It's a lot different than shooting someone 100 meters away with an ordinary rifle. When snipers break, they break bad."