A young U.S. Marine officer whose career was jeopardized after he ordered his men to fire upon a tractor in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from using it has seen his cause taken up by members of Congress who are drafting legislation that would give combat troops accused of violating stringent rules of engagement a military hearing outside the chain of command.
First Lt. Joshua Waddell was relieved of his job as company executive officer and given a career-ending poor fitness report by his commanding officer after the Nov. 1 incident. Waddell's unit had taken casualties as a result of bombs planted by a Taliban sympathizer. Waddell's snipers targeted the bomb maker and mortally wounded him. He then ordered the snipers to disable a tractor he believed was being used by insurgents to evacuate the bomb maker.
No civilians were wounded in the engagement, according to a military review. But Waddell, 25, was still reprimanded by his company commander, who charged that shooting and damaging the tractor violated strict rules of engagement his battalion was operating under. That finding was partly based on the fact that teenage boys were in the area. Waddell argued that it was impossible to distinguish "teenage boys" from insurgents fighting for the Taliban. And none was hit by the sniper fire. Still, the Bronze Star recipient on his second combat tour in Afghanistan was demoted from his job as company executive officer and given an unsatisfactory fitness report that military experts said effectively ended his chance for career advancement.
After Waddell's story was published in The Washington Examiner earlier this year, members of Congress began exploring ways that soldiers and Marines could get a second chance to make their case when charged with violating what some consider counterproductive rules of engagement.
Jeff Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to U.S. Army Special Forces and current director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law, was asked for help in drafting the legislation, touted as the "Waddell Bill."
Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, was among those Addicott said wanted to address "confusing and often politically motivated rules of engagement that destroy careers and endanger lives."
Franks told The Examiner that the plan is "to craft a type of legislation that will empower those tasked with fighting and winning with the formula to set rules of engagement, so that they are not dictated by politics or political agenda."
Addicott provided details of the law some members of Congress would like to see.
"The legislation proposes the creation of a military ROE review board in the battlefield," said Addicott, who is representing Waddell. "Once the board is established it will provide soldiers with the peace and knowledge that there is an impartial review outside their chain of command. It will provide a layer of oversight that currently does not exist for soldiers facing this type of administrative action."
The administrative oversight board would be established and convened in the theater of combat operations, and the number of boards would be determined by the Department of Defense based on troop strength.
The legislation would also create a three-member administrative board drawn from the units operating in the combat zone. "Something needs to be done to protect the troops," Addicott said.
He said there is a "double standard" that often protects senior officers but leaves captains and lieutenants open to arbitrary punishment.
He cited an incident involving Waddell's battalion commander to support that claim. Several days before Waddell engaged the enemy combatant, the battalion commander authorized helicopter gunships to use both "precision and non-precision weapons" on insurgents hiding in a village in western Afghanistan's Sangin province, according to Addicott. But that would also violate the rules of engagement in place at the time, according to Addicott.
The battalion commander was cleared of any wrongdoing. He is still on duty in Afghanistan. The Examiner is withholding his name because he could not be reached for comment.
Mark Waddell, Joshua's father who served more than 25 years in the military and retired as a commander of a Navy SEAL team, said he was "astonished at the inconsistencies" in his son's case.
"They're protecting leadership for doing something wrong but burning junior officers, like my son, using the same rules," Waddell charged. "It's about all our troops, not just my son. These rules endanger their lives by making our troops second-guess everything they do in the field."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.