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Army's buddy system is put to the test

In North Carolina, a soldier who used a chokehold to subdue a drunk comrade is accused of causing his death. Is it a case of 'leave no man behind'?

October 02, 2009|David Zucchino

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — Before soldiers leave on missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, they often are ordered to do everything in their power to bring their buddies back. "Leave no man behind" is the motto.

But does that military ethos apply to soldiers heading out for a rowdy weekend in the United States?

That question is being raised at an unusual court-martial on this massive Army base, where a young paratrooper who struggled to bring a combative, drunk soldier back to the barracks has been accused of causing his death.

Pfc. Luke Brown died after a night of drinking at the Ugly Stick Saloon in nearby Fayetteville, N.C., in July 2008. Sgt. Justin Boyle, whose lawyer has said he was only trying to help an incapacitated buddy, was charged with involuntary manslaughter after using a chokehold to subdue Brown.

The case, which is expected to go to the jury today or Monday, is providing a rare inside look at how unit solidarity and commanders' orders play out in noncombat situations.

During testimony this week, soldiers described a wild, hourlong chase through dense woods at night as Boyle and fellow soldiers in his intelligence unit tried to corral Brown, 27, a hulking soldier built like an NFL lineman.

They also talked about their regular Friday safety briefings, in which they said commanders order those bound for weekend revelry to "do whatever it takes" to bring everyone back to base. One soldier testified that commanders have told troops "to choke someone out if you have to."

And that, according to testimony, is exactly what Boyle did after an enraged Brown threw one soldier into a pickup, choked and dragged another under a chain-link fence, and punched a third in the face.

But military prosecutors have said Boyle went far beyond orders, continuing to choke Brown after he stopped resisting.

"This is a case where the ends do not justify the means," said Capt. Richard Gallagher, the lead prosecutor. "Sgt. Boyle choked Pfc. Brown to death."

Even as Brown was gasping and begging to be let go, Gallagher said, "Sgt. Boyle ignores those pleas."

But Anita Gorecki, Boyle's civilian lawyer, said the soldiers believed they had a duty to bring Brown home. They feared he would hurt someone, or himself. And Boyle felt a special responsibility because he was the senior noncommissioned officer present.

"The question really is the buddy system: Are we our brother's keeper at the end of the day?" Gorecki told the jury of four officers and five senior noncommissioned officers.

Though any paratrooper's death is a tragedy, she said, "these actions are not criminal."

Boyle, 28, a sturdily built paratrooper with close-cropped hair, faces up to 10 years if convicted. Three fellow soldiers in his 82nd Airborne Division unit also face courts-martial. Two others have pleaded guilty to lesser charges; the charges against a seventh soldier were dropped.

Even Brown's family seems to accept the concept of soldiers making sure every man comes home, whether from a combat mission or a night on the town.

"The family has forgiven these guys," Adam Brown, Luke's 26-year-old brother, said outside the courtroom. "I know these guys were looking out for Luke's best interests. It was just a terrible accident."

At the hearing, Boyle and several other accused soldiers approached the Browns to offer their sympathies. "They all said they were sorry about what happened," Adam Brown said.

James Culp, who represents two of the accused paratroopers, said Brown put his buddies in an untenable position by crashing through the woods drunk. The leave-no-man-behind code obligated them to go after him.

Sgt. Christopher Mignocchi, who was convicted of negligent homicide under a plea deal, said he had heard commanders tell soldiers to bring their buddies home "if you have to knock them out and drag them back."

He added: "I thought that we were doing what we had been told."

Mignocchi said one reason for the orders was to "not air our dirty laundry" by getting local police involved in arresting unruly soldiers.

"Officers say things at safety briefings and then don't stand behind them when something happens," Mignocchi said.

Luke Brown stood at least 6 foot 3 and weighed 250 pounds, with the words "love drives me insane" and "pain keeps me sane" tattooed on his chest. His buddies said he was an accomplished runner and nimble athlete.

"He was a man amongst men," Mignocchi said.

When Brown ran from the Ugly Stick at 2 a.m. after downing another soldier's beer and arguing with bouncers, soldiers testified, he kept saying, "Nobody loves me" and "I want to die."

One soldier attacked by Brown told him, "You're choking me!" Brown replied: "I know. I'm sorry," but continued the assault until he was tackled by Boyle.

"Everybody's goal was to calm him down and get him home," Mignocchi said. Other soldiers said no one intended to harm Brown.

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