Sniper team tells of
pressure from above
Members of a U.S.
Army unit in Iraq accused in murder trials say they felt pushed to
notch more 'kills.'
By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 5, 2007
BAGHDAD — Here they were, hardened combat soldiers, grounded
on a military base far from the palm groves, canals and marshes
where they once prowled.
But at least for a moment this week, they were still the Painted
Demons, the elite sniper unit that struck fear in the so-called
triangle of death south of Baghdad. That couldn't be taken away: not
by breaking them up, as the Army had done, and not even by the
murder trials of three of their members at Camp Victory.
They surrounded Sgt. Evan Vela, whose preliminary hearing on murder
charges began Sunday morning. Vela, a stocky 23-year-old,
bear-hugged them, smiling and laughing. He looked nothing like the
man who had broken down on the witness stand days before, at the
trial of a fellow sniper. Then, he had spoken in barely audible
tones about firing two bullets at point-blank range into an Iraqi
detainee's head, allegedly on the orders of Staff Sgt. Michael A.
Hensley, the leader of the Painted Demons.
Interviews and court transcripts portray a 13-man sniper unit that
felt under pressure to produce a high body count, a Vietnam-era
measure that the Pentagon officially has disavowed in this war. They
describe a sniper unit whose margins of right and wrong were
blurred: by Hensley, if you believe Army prosecutors; by the Army,
if you believe the accused.
The main line of defense for Vela and Hensley is a shocking one: In
their zeal to get more "kills" out of snipers, officers of the 1st
Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, allegedly pushed a program of
leaving weaponry as "bait," and allowing snipers to kill anyone who
came to pick the items up. That, defense attorneys say, led to loose
rules of engagement that the Army now says amounted to murder.
The Pentagon has rebutted the allegations about "baiting," and is
treating the three prosecutions as isolated cases of rogue soldiers.
"I don't know how far up the chain this baiting program goes right
now. I know the government is trying to dummy this down to the
lowest level possible," said Vela's attorney, James Culp.
"Our government is asking our soldiers and Marines to make morally
bruising decisions under the most horrific conditions imaginable,"
Culp added. "When the government doesn't like the results, they
isolate and vilify the soldier while hiding behind security
clearances, classifications and unreasonable expectations."
When Hensley joined the Army scouts in March, his reputation
preceded him: He had been a sniper in Afghanistan. He won an Army
sniper competition in 2002.
He is 6-foot-3, muscular, and arrived with a shaven head and tattoos
of dragons and other symbols. Soldiers explained that you either
loved or hated Hensley. There was no in-between. In his soldiers'
words, "the guy was 100% Army." No one else came close. If his men
carried 100 pounds on their back, he'd carry 200. That was Sgt.
"You know, we'd be in a canal and you'd just look at him trudging
through this awful terrain, and you're just like, 'God. The dude is
nuts. What's wrong with that guy?' " Spc. Joshua Michaud said at the
initial hearing for Hensley in July.
The 'Painted Demons'
The Iraqi police
started to call the snipers the "Painted Demons" because of the way
Hensley used camouflage makeup to draw tiger stripes down his face.
"He's the kind of guy that they make movies about. You know, he's
the guy who -- he's just really good at his job, there's no way
around it," Michaud added.
But the men acknowledged in their testimony that they saw a dark
side to Hensley. Just after Christmas, his former roommate at Ft.
Richardson, Alaska, died in a bomb blast south of Baghdad. Then a
few months later, his fiancee committed suicide. If he grieved, he
didn't show it. He told his men he would deal with it when they all
left Iraq. Right now, he said, he wanted to keep them alive.
There was a moral question hovering over the sniper team before
Hensley arrived, members said. If they had been authorized to bait
an area with bomb-making materials and other props, then lie in wait
to kill anyone who fell for the trap, couldn't they also lay the
props down after they killed someone?
Sgt. 1st Class Steve Kipling, Hensley's predecessor, had broached
the question, Sgt. Anthony Murphy recalled. "He said, 'Should we, or
what do you think? Should we make the body look -- basically, should
we make it look more 'guilty'? "
The answer in the U.S. military's code of conduct is unequivocal:
But commanders seemed unhappy with the snipers' performance, and
there was pressure to produce results, members said.
"They were upset with scouts and snipers up until about [the] March
time frame," Murphy said in court testimony in July. "It just kind
of felt like, 'What are you guys doing wrong out there? What's
The directions to the snipers in the swamps seemed to be that it was
OK to interpret rules of engagement liberally, particularly about
using deadly force when under threat, soldiers said.
"We needed to find a way so that we could get the bad guys the right
way and still maintain the right military things to do," Michaud
said. "But if we push this a little bit more, you know: 'Hey, did
you feel threatened?' Bottom line: 'Yeah, I felt threatened.' Then
Under Hensley, the
sniper unit's kill rate increased. Only one sniper kill had been
recorded in the 5 1/2 months before his arrival. On Hensley's first
mission, the section shot five Iraqis dead. Soldiers attributed the
success to his training and drills. He also enjoyed a close
relationship with the sergeant major, one of the top enlisted
officers in the battalion, soldiers said. Defense attorneys allege
that the baiting practice came from the sergeant major and the
battalion commander, if not from higher authorities.
But the rising kill rate brought greater scrutiny. After two
specialists in the sniper unit were caught sleeping on watch, they
alerted Army officials to what they suspected was the baiting
The sniper unit was investigated for three incidents. Hensley is
accused of shooting an unarmed man April 14 and of ordering Spc.
Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. on April 27 to kill a man who was cutting
grass with a scythe. Both Hensley and Vela face charges in the May
11 shooting of the Iraqi man who had stumbled upon their sniper
Murder charges against Sandoval were dropped last week. He was
convicted of poor conduct, for planting detonation cord on the body
of the man with the scythe.
The members of the unit -- and they still consider themselves a unit
-- are angry over what has happened to them. They blame those
outside their ranks. Sgt. Richard Hand, who was on the May 11
mission in which Vela said he shot the Iraqi, lashed out at the
prosecutors and the Army command during his testimony in July. He
criticized officers for not understanding life on the sniper teams,
which survive by their wits in the Iraqi countryside.
"If you've never been outside the wire, you really have no basis --
you don't have a basis to judge what I do or what I don't do. You've
never been in a life-or-death situation, where you've had to count
on the guy to your left and right," Hand said.
"People who stay back here, in my opinion, are not mentally in the
game. They've never been out there."