A senior U.S. military official has told the New York Times that a soldier believed to have methodically killed 16 Afghan civilians Sunday is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The newspaper reports that the soldier, who has yet to be identified, was part of what is called a "village stablization operation":
"In those operations, teams of Green Berets, supported by other soldiers, try to develop close ties with village elders, organize local police units and track down Taliban leaders. The official said the sergeant was not a Green Beret himself."
The newspaper reports that another military official said the sergeant is 38 and married with two children. He is a veteran who has served three tours of duty in Iraq, and he was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in December.
According to several reports, witnesses say the soldier—who had walked more than a mile from his base to the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province—knocked on doors, then broke into homes to kill the Afghan civilians. According to the New York Times:
"The man gathered 11 bodies, including those of 4 girls younger than 6, and set fire to them, villagers said."
The newspaper went on to say that one of its reporters saw the bodies, which had totaled 16, and "saw burns on some of the children's legs and heads:
"'All the family members were killed, the dead put in a room, and blankets were put over the corpses and they were burned,' said Anar Gula, an elderly neighbor who rushed to the house after the soldier had left. 'We put out the fire.'"
The killings sparked protests throughout Afghanistan, where tensions are already running high due to civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. military personnel.
This isn't the first time JBLM has been connected to Afghan civilian killings. Last year, five soldiers were convicted by the Army of conducting thrill killings of Afghan civilians in 2010.
Tensions are running especially high in the country over the burning of the Koran by American soldiers, as well as a video depicting U.S. Marines urinating on dead militants.
Today, Secretery of Defense Leon Panetta issued a statement condemning the most recent killings:
“Today I spoke to President Karzai to offer my deepest condolences and profound regret for the tragic incident in Kandahar province that resulted in the loss of life and injuries to innocent Afghan civilians, including women and children.
“A full investigation is already underway. A suspect is in custody, and I gave President Karzai my assurances that we will bring those responsible to justice. We will spare no effort in getting the facts as quickly as possible, and we will hold any perpetrator who is responsible for this violence fully accountable under the law.
“I condemn such violence and am shocked and saddened that a U.S. service member is alleged to be involved, clearly acting outside his chain of command. I told President Karzai that the American people share the outrage felt by President Karzai and his fellow citizens. This tragic incident does not reflect the commitment of the U.S. military to protect the Afghan people and help build a strong and stable Afghanistan.
“As we mourn today with the Afghan people, we are steadfast in our resolve to work hand in hand with our Afghan partners to accomplish the missions and goals on which we have been working together for so long. This terrible incident does not reflect our shared values or the progress we have made together. As I told President Karzai, I am fully committed to ensuring that our cooperation continues. It is essential to forging a more peaceful future for the citizens of both our nations.”
Patch will have more on this developing story.