(MILITARY TIMES) CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq — The Army is weighing whether to prosecute two soldiers charged with maltreatment and cruelty of their troops, including a soldier who committed suicide just four days after joining the unit in Iraq.
Ten soldiers testified over the weekend that Staff Sgt. Bob Clements and Sgt. Enoch Chatman regularly punished them with verbal abuse and grueling exercise. The soldiers also described how Pvt. Keiffer Wilhelm, 19, of Plymouth, Ohio, was hazed and treated roughly by Chatman and Clements before the private killed himself Aug. 4.
The two days of testimony were part of an Article 32 hearing, a military equivalent of a grand jury, to determine whether there is enough evidence for a court-martial. Maj. Gen. Richard Nash, the top U.S. commander in southern Iraq, should decide in a few weeks.
The investigation against the unit’s leaders was launched in August after Wilhelm’s suicide. The army has not accused Clements and Chatman of directly causing Wilhelm’s death. But the prosecution, headed by Capt. Matthew Grady, attempted to show that the two non-commissioned officers had established a pattern of cruelty and mistreatment of the platoon’s soldiers that culminated with the abuse of Wilhelm.
If convicted, Clements, 29, of Eastland, Texas, would face up to 25 years in prison, while Chatman 30, of West Covina, Calif., could get up to 10 years.
Lawyers for both men said their clients are innocent and painted them as tough disciplinarians who pushed their soldiers to be their best while maintaining Army standards.
Soldiers from the unit, part of the 2nd Squadron, 13th Cavalry Regiment, said the harassment of Wilhelm began as soon as he arrived at a small outpost in Maysan province in southern Iraq. They said Wilhelm was ridiculed for being overweight and was mocked because he was trained to fire mortars but was sent to a platoon of mostly scouts.
Sgt. Branan Lawrence testified that Chatman and Clements told him even before Wilhelm arrived: “We got a new guy. Don’t go easy on him.”
Soon after arriving, Wilhelm was “smoked” — the term soldiers use to describe grueling exercises ordered for infractions — because he addressed Chatman while not standing at attention, Lawrence said.
Wilhelm underwent several other smoke sessions, including one that lasted about three hours after he apparently failed to keep his weapon on safe while inside the camp, Sgt. Stephen Ruth said.
Ruth said he made Wilhelm do several minutes of exercise before Clements took over and intensified the exercises. At a certain point, Ruth said, he became concerned that Clements was being too harsh.
“I knew what it was like to be smoked by [Staff] Sgt. Clements,” said Ruth, who also had been punished by Clements. “I tapped Sgt. Clements on the arm and said I’ll take over. He turned around and said he’d handle it.”
The next day, Wilhelm appeared exhausted and said he was scared to go near the platoon’s living quarters because he might run into Clements and Chatman and get into more trouble, Pfc. Justin Baum testified. One day later, Wilhelm was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Another soldier, Spc. Matthew Buchwitz, said he collapsed from dehydration after Clements made him go through a grueling smoke session in June. The unit’s combat medic, Sgt. James Thompson, said he warned Clements about his methods after that incident.
“I told him in no way did I want to tell him how to discipline his soldier or run his platoon, but … I just couldn’t have that anymore because it was dangerous,” Thompson testified. “He didn’t take my advice and said he would do as he saw fit.”
Spc. Timothy Park said he was forced into a two-hour smoke session with Clements months earlier after lying about shaving.
During cross-examination, Capt. Sandra Paul, one of Clements’ lawyers, noted the sergeant helped Park register his vehicle at the unit’s home base at Fort Bliss in Texas, and tried to improve the soldier’s self-esteem.
“Didn’t he teach you how to walk tall with your chest out?” Paul asked. Park acknowledged that was true, but said it was only because he feared Clements would punish him if he didn’t.
Another soldier is awaiting a preliminary hearing in the case: Spc. Jarrett Taylor, 23, of Edmond, Okla., who faces lesser charges.