Opinion: Columnists

A soldier's choice: Death or prison

Opinion,Diana West,Columnists

I am sitting in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, the highest appeals court for the U.S. military, waiting for Army Sgt. Evan Vela's final appeal to begin.

I glance over at Evan's father, Curtis Carnahan, and Evan's wife, Alyssa, sitting together in the otherwise empty first row, and I can't believe it's been more than four years since Curtis first emailed me. "I am Sgt. Evan Vela's father," he wrote. "I do no not know if you have followed my son's case but some people have drawn similarities between the Luttrell situation and Evan's."

Curtis was referring to Marcus Luttrell, whose 2007 best-seller, "Lone Survivor," tells of four Navy SEALs, Luttrell among them, whose 2005 mission in Afghanistan was compromised when two unarmed Afghan goatherds discovered the SEALs hiding deep in Taliban territory. I had written a column discussing the excruciating fact that the thought of being brought up on legal charges in a military court back home weighed so heavily on these young Americans' minds that they decided not to save their own lives and their mission by killing the two Afghans, but rather to take their chances against the veritable Taliban army the pair would summon against them.

"It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brain decision I ever made in my life," Luttrell later wrote of his decisive vote to let the two Afghans go. As a result of the decision the SEALs made on an Afghan mountaintop far from any courthouse, 19 Americans -- Luttrell's three SEAL teammates and 16 more special forces -- would be killed that same day.

But no one went to court.

In Evan's case, the leader of his elite sniper squad ended up choosing the other path in Iraq. In 2007, an unarmed Iraqi man compromised the team's "hide" in Iskandariyah and refused to cooperate quietly. The team leader chose not to risk drawing local insurgents to their position, but instead ordered Evan to kill the man.

As a result of this decision, all of our soldiers came home that day. But then they went to court. To make a long story short, Vela became the only soldier convicted for the killing. Sentenced to 10 years, he joined the so-called Leavenworth Ten, a nickname for a group of Iraq War veterans incarcerated for a variety of desperate, blurry, fog-of-war shootings.

Listening to the procedural review of Evan's case, I am struck again by the ghastly surrealism of their plight -- the penalties the U.S. government has forced on its most dutiful sons for not committing, in effect, suicide as the Navy SEALs did in choosing to escape prison rather than death. Meanwhile, literally thousands of incarcerated terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan have been granted clemency or otherwise found their freedom. That includes Ali Musa Daqduq, a Hezbollah mastermind who confessed to kidnapping, torturing and killing five Americans soldiers in 2007. He was given his freedom in Iraq this month.

Stealing another glance at the Carnahans, I remember the flutters in the news in 2009 about a possible pardon for Evan from outgoing President George W. Bush. Then nothing. Which was unpardonable -- Bush, that is, for not pardoning Evan and the other soldiers, now prisoners, whom he'd sent to wage war with a straitjacket of rules for armor against an army without uniforms on a battlefield without lines.

And so, the Leavenworth Ten sit in prison: Michael Behenna, Corey Clagett, John Hatley, William Hunsaker, Larry Hutchins, Michael Leahy, Joseph Mayo, Michael Williams, Evan Vela.

Memorial Day -- the day we mourn our war dead -- is coming. President Obama, give these men another chance at life. Pardon them.

Examiner Columnist Diana West is syndicated nationally by United Media and is the author of "The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization."

View article comments Leave a comment