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Four seconds in Afghanistan: Was it combat, or a crime?

A seasoned Army sergeant makes a split-second decision to stop a possible bombing. Now he's stunned to be charged with negligent homicide.

June 10, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Sgt. 1st Class Walter Taylor before he was injured in Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Walter Taylor before he was injured in Afghanistan. (Provided by Sgt. 1st Class…)

Sgt. 1st Class Walter Taylor's life collapsed in four interminable seconds in a dusty field in central Afghanistan.

His convoy was reeling from a roadside bomb, his fellow soldiers were engaged in combat with insurgents — and a mysterious black car had just screeched to a stop in the middle of the firefight. Some nine minutes later, a black door opens.

Second 1: A figure dressed in dark, bulky clothing emerges.

Second 2: The figure begins walking toward the trunk.

Second 3: Taylor, with five wounded comrades behind him, sees a thin trigger wire seeming to snake directly toward the black car. Could there be a second bomb in the trunk?

Second 4: Taylor squeezes the trigger on his M-4 carbine. The figure crumples to the dirt.

The figure was not an insurgent, but Dr. Aqilah Hikmat, a 49-year-old mother of four who headed the obstetrics department at the nearby Ghazni provincial hospital. Also dead inside the car were Hikmat's 18-year-old son and her 16-year-old niece. Hikmat's husband, in the front seat, was wounded.

Army prosecutors say Hikmat's killing in July 2011 was not just a casualty of combat, but a crime. Charged with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty, Taylor will face a hearing June 19 before a U.S. military judge in Germany to determine whether the case goes to a full court-martial, with the possibility of three years in prison.

***

Ten days after the explosion and firefight, Taylor got what he is convinced was a dose of Afghan street justice: His vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, which blew off his nose, shattered his cheeks, ripped open his lips, drove his teeth back toward his throat, blinded him in one eye — in short, left him without a face as he had known it.

The 30-year-old sergeant, who had served three previous combat deployments, accepted a Purple Heart in August 2011 and a criminal charge sheet shortly thereafter.

"I feel to this day that this makes no sense. It's just wrong," Taylor said recently, sitting at a table in the kitchen of his small apartment near Bamberg, Germany, with his German wife, Nina, and their two young children. "I mean, can people please look at everything I did, and why I did what I did?"

Taylor was a well-regarded field leader whose split-second decision came as the Army was trying to minimize allied-caused civilian casualties.

The military has increasingly emphasized precision weapons and positive identification of targets before shooting. Its leaders have emphasized that unidentified people should be presumed to be civilians who can't be engaged unless they show obvious signs of hostile intent.

Last year there were 3,021 civilian deaths, according to the United Nations. This year so far, deaths are down 36% from the same period last year, though violence has been spiking in recent weeks as the weather has warmed.

Hikmat's death put the Army on the defensive, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai calling for an investigation.

Taylor's civilian lawyer, James Culp, will argue at next week's hearing that every soldier is entitled to shoot in self-defense, no matter what the rules of engagement say. Infantrymen who engage heavily armed combatants have fewer protections under the law than police officers, he contends.

"Before criminal charges can be filed [against a police officer], it has to be demonstrated ... that no other police officer under those circumstances would have acted that way," he said. "But there's no such system for guys who are 100 times more likely to encounter a lethal scenario on a daily basis and die, and that's our soldiers."

Army officials would not comment on Taylor's case but said commanders of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force were determined to uphold the law.

"[Our] main mission is to protect the Afghan people, and ISAF realizes that incidents of this kind damage the confidence of both the Afghan people and the government in ISAF," Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr., a spokesman for the force in Afghanistan, said in a statement to The Times. "We try to prevent accidental or unintentional casualties through a variety of measures which call upon our forces to exercise restraint during operations."

***

Taylor didn't lead his platoon by swagger and intimidation. For one thing, he weighs only 114 pounds. With quiet authority and wry humor, Taylor would pester the 44 soldiers of the 541st Sapper Company's 38th Route Clearance Platoon to put on their goggles, and annoy them by calling for yet another drill. On a mission, he would walk with 18-year-old privates as they scanned roadsides for improvised explosive devices, vulnerable outside their armored machines.

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