LEAVENWORTH — As major U.S. combat operations in Iraq end, some families of soldiers and Marines convicted of crimes during battle hope the nation doesn't forget their sons.
The men, known as the "Leavenworth 10," were convicted by military courts for the murder of Iraqis over the past seven years. They're serving sentences ranging from 10 to 40 years at Fort Leavenworth. But their families say it's all an injustice and want other Americans to share their outrage over what happened to their loved ones.
"For a soldier not to get any benefit of the doubt for serving their country, it's a horrible situation," said Vicki Behenna, whose son is serving time at Fort Leavenworth. "Unless you see your men die in battle and don't know where the next (bomb) is coming from, I think it's unfair for us to second-guess their actions."
Today, the families led by Vicki and her husband, Scott Behenna of Edmond, Okla., are holding a motorcycle rally in Leavenworth to bring attention to the men's cases.
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The soldiers and Marines were convicted for actions during a span in the Iraq war when conditions were extreme. Mounting U.S. casualties amid attacks from insurgents, foreign terrorists and rival Shiite and Sunni religious factions led to intense fighting. The violence led to changes in U.S. tactics and a surge of troops in 2007 to stanch civilian and military deaths.
The conduct of U.S. soldiers and Marines in the conflicts came under scrutiny after reports surfaced of abuse and torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
The Behennas say the "Leavenworth 10" are victims of injustice who were caught up in changing military policies and frustrated by seeing their buddies wounded and killed.
But former military prosecutor Michelle McCluer said commanders, who decide to file such charges against soldiers, and court martial juries that issue verdicts and sentences, are familiar with the "fog of war" or stress of combat. They take all of that into account when deciding how to handle cases.
"Everyone, from their basic training, is drilled with the laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and how you treat prisoners," said McCluer, who is executive director of the Washington-based National Institute of Military Justice. The response from commanders is "we understand the fog of war, but we felt we had to take action and send them to court martial because of discipline, which goes to the heart of running an effective military."
Two soldiers' cases
At the facility in Fort Leavenworth, about 20 miles northwest of Kansas City, all the inmates have been sentenced to at least five years. Soldiers who receive lighter sentences serve their time at other facilities across the country.
Two of the 10 have been released. In one of the remaining cases, 1st Lt. Michael Behenna was guilty of taking a detainee in May 2008 to a secluded railroad culvert and shooting him execution-style after interrogating the man at gunpoint.
Michael Behenna claimed he was defending himself after the man reached for his gun. He said he defied orders to release the detainee because he wanted to question him again, believing the man had a role in planting a bomb that killed two of Behenna's men a month earlier.
His sentence was cut from 25 years to 15 years, and he is eligible for parole after serving a third of the time.
Military prosecutors in Behenna's case refused to comment and referred questions to the Pentagon. Army spokesman Col. Tom Collins would only say that the military court system is fair and everyone's entitled to file appeals.
In another case, Sgt. Michael Williams is one of four Fort Riley soldiers charged in 2005 with murdering Iraqis.
Williams was convicted for killing an unarmed civilian during a house-to-house search in Sadr City, then a hotbed of insurgent activity in the suburbs of Baghdad. His 20-year sentence was cut to 10 years, with the possibility of parole in 2011. He argued at his trial that he thought the man was lunging toward him when he shot him.
"It was really hairy. He was one of those sergeants, making split-second decisions, not sleeping for three days. He got caught up in it," said his father, Mike Williams of Memphis, Tenn. "He went back in the Army after 9/11 because he felt like he had unfinished business."
Vicki Behenna said most Americans have no clue about the pressures soldiers face in war, but hopes more will understand and help seek justice.
"You don't know how you would react," she said.