By Joe Mozingo
A KILLING IN THE DESERT
A U.S. soldier who lost two of his men questions a suspected insurgent about the attack. Afterward, a slain, naked Iraqi -- and the truth about what befell him -- are left behind in a dark culvert.
First Of Two Parts
September 12, 2009
In the open desert outside Baiji, Iraq, a naked man with a thick black beard crouched in the dust of a railroad culvert at twilight. Hours before, he had been mumbling and praying in Arabic. Now he spoke few words. Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna stood over him in the grainy darkness, his Glock pistol racked and pointed down at him.
"If you don't talk, I will kill you," Behenna said.
The night was warm and ragged from the dust storm that had turned the afternoon an eerie ocher. Only one light could be seen, far off, along the road.
Behenna's squad leader had walked off to relieve himself in the bushes. An Iraqi interpreter listened just outside the culvert. "You'd better talk," he told the captive in Arabic. "I mean, why do you put yourself in this situation? He is going to kill you."
"I don't know anything," the man kept saying. "I am innocent."
Behenna was a 24-year-old first lieutenant from Oklahoma, the soft-spoken son of a retired state police investigator and a federal prosecutor who helped convict Timothy McVeigh. He liked to read history and philosophy, learned Arabic in his spare time and seemed to relish the Iraqi culture.
No one who knew him could have imagined that he would be here, at this moment, or how it would upend his life and rack his family's tidy world.
The voices went back and forth. There was a muzzle flash, with the sharp crack of the Glock, and then another.
The squad sergeant ran back with his rifle raised and saw the naked body pumping blood onto the broken concrete.
They picked up the man's clothes. The sergeant took an incendiary grenade from his flak vest, placed it near the man's head and pulled the pin. The three started trudging back, through sand and sharp rocks, to the four armored trucks where the rest of the platoon waited.
Behenna said nothing. He had been brooding alone for weeks.
What had delivered him to this point? Vengeance? Delirium? Survival? Protecting his soldiers?
Was it all of that?
Behenna's path to Iraq had the familiar thrust of a young man seeking purpose. He was the oldest of three brothers in a family that lived in a two-story brick home on a cul-de-sac in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. His father, Scott, was a tall, broad-shouldered special agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. His mother, Vicki, was an assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in white-collar crime.
It was a warm, Lutheran household. The family ate dinner together every night. Vicki encouraged the boys to explore, read, meet all types of people.
Michael was an inward boy. He didn't charge into situations; he studied them first. But he was open and lighthearted with people he knew, and collected a wide and eclectic group of friends.
He learned Spanish so he could speak to the Mexican parents of a onetime girlfriend. He traced his roots back seven generations to Cornwall, England, and became fascinated with Native American culture.
A dark episode marred his adolescence though, and would affect him for years. When he was 13, his mother spent long spells in Denver working on the Oklahoma City bombing case, and the boys' grandparents watched them after school. One day, Michael told his dad the unthinkable: He was being molested by Vicki's dad.
Scott confronted his father-in-law and banished him from the house forever. Vicki was devastated.
They didn't press charges. Michael didn't want anyone to know what happened.
They got him into counseling, but he became even more withdrawn, and seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. He kept the abuse bottled up, refusing to talk about it. He occasionally became defiant with people in authority -- teachers, coaches. He resented his mother for keeping in touch with her parents.
Yet he eventually seemed to get past the trauma. He did well in school, dated, played football and basketball. He was a natural athlete, square-jawed and lean. When he went on to the University of Central Oklahoma and joined the ROTC Army officer program, his parents started to see the "old Michael" resurface and a new resolve emerge.
The images of people leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11 haunted him. He wanted to fight terrorists, and he wanted to go to Iraq no matter how ugly the situation looked. His parents had to talk him out of enlisting immediately as a private.
"He wanted to start at the bottom and work his way up," says his girlfriend, Shannon Wahl, a friend since the second grade. "He wanted to earn his respect. He didn't want to just get it for nothing."
Vicki shuddered at the thought of him over there. She agonized over failing to protect him as a child, and couldn't bear to see him harmed again. But she encouraged him. He seemed confident for the first time in years.
He stayed in school and graduated in 2006. He enrolled in officer basic training, then infantry officer training and Ranger School. Vicki fought back tears every time he graduated to the next level. She prayed that the war would end before he had to go fight.
In the fall of 2007, Behenna deployed with the 101st Airborne out of Ft. Campbell, Ky. The 101st had played legendary roles in historic battles -- D-day, the Battle of the Bulge, and Hamburger Hill.
Behenna would lead a small infantry platoon of 18 men. They would patrol and conduct counterinsurgency missions in a 65-square-mile area west of the Tigris River in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad.
The 5th Platoon of Delta Company was new, hastily put together from whatever soldiers other companies were willing to give up. Most of the guys, like their rookie lieutenant, had never seen battle.
They were a jumble of personalities: Chris Bradford, 23, a devil-may-care cowboy and adrenaline junkie from a small town south of Redding; Michael Ortiz, 20, who had found a refuge in the military from gang life in South Los Angeles; Adam Kohlhaas, 26, a weightlifter who could bench press 300 pounds and pined to play a greater role in his young daughter's life in Missouri; and Steven Christofferson, 20, a little rooster of a kid, 5 foot 4, raised by a doting single mom in Wisconsin. He became the platoon clown -- feeling like one of the boys for the first time in his life.
Behenna didn't want to set himself above the enlisted men. He ate with them, played basketball and cards, joked around. They threw him into a dumpster as an initiation. He lifted weights with Kohlhaas every day, and he became a mentor to Christofferson, giving him an Arabic phrase book that the younger man would carry all the time.
They focused on three towns along the main road, Mezra, Hajaj and Butoma, and a series of villages and farms scattered throughout the desert to the west. Insurgent cells worked the entire area, but not with the consistent ferocity seen in places like Samarra, to the south.
The platoon rolled out in teams of three or four MRAPs, mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks. The terrain was bleak, flat, dirty. The towns smelled of burning trash. Packs of skeletal dogs rummaged through piles of refuse amid crumbling walls. It was a strange blur of modern and ancient -- a place where women in burkas rode donkeys to the Tigris to get water, passing homes with satellite dishes on the roofs.
Behenna tried to develop good ties with the people, who were, if not openly hostile, wary of the Americans. He spent hours with the sheik, smoking hookah pipes, drinking tea. He had cookouts with the interpreters at camp, chatted with people in the streets, got his soldiers to eat Iraqi food.
Some of the men didn't share his empathy with the Iraqis.
"He would talk to random civilians, anyone," says Spc. Cody Atkinson, 23. "He was the type of guy that liked Iraqis. That was the only annoying thing about him. He was always about saving the country."
On April 21, 2008, the platoon picked up two detainees in a desert village and were headed back on a gravel road through an inert flatland of dirt and scree.
Everyone had his own narrow vantage of the moment.
The platoon sergeant, Perry Meeks, was in the last MRAP, chatting about what he was going to eat for lunch.
He came to consciousness in the dirt without his helmet. His clothes were drenched with diesel. He couldn't find his rifle. He couldn't seem to hear. He couldn't move. He screamed for someone to pull him away before the diesel caught fire.
In the first MRAP, 40 yards up the road, the concussion of the blast almost knocked the wind out of the driver, Ortiz.
He looked back and saw a sucking mushroom head of dust and smoke. Immense pieces of machinery -- axles, drive shaft, steel rims -- rained down on the desert floor. The 18-ton truck landed on its top, 75 feet from the detonation point, crushing the gun turret. The driver of the demolished truck, Josh Busch, 18, was running around in confusion. "What the . . . happened? What the . . . happened?"
Ortiz jumped out to help. Behenna was already on the ground giving orders, taking notes on who was wounded to radio in the medevac helicopters.
The reality came in awful doses. The medic, Jason Sigmon, was trying to stay conscious as blood streamed down his face. An Iraqi militiaman had his guts torn open. The men were trying to revive Kohlhaas. Meeks drifted in and out. The friendly interpreter they called Rebar had his calves blown off. He sucked on a fentanyl "lollipop" for the pain, as he died. Christofferson, the clown, was already gone. He was the gunner, cut in half at the waist.
Behenna and Ortiz hunkered over Kohlhaas, trying to get a pulse.
Two Apache helicopters drummed in to secure the area, then more trucks, the medevac helicopter and the cleanup team.
The soldiers loaded the wounded into the helicopter. They solemnly zipped Christofferson into a body bag. Behenna retrieved the Arabic phrase book, lying nearby on the dirt, splattered with diesel.
That night the names of those killed came over the radio. Kohlhaas, the weightlifter with a daughter back home, didn't make it. The men gathered their two brothers' possessions to send home.
The next day Scott Behenna answered the phone in Edmond.
"How's it going?" Michael asked, flatly.
This was his usual reserved greeting, an indication that he wanted his mom or dad to talk for a while. Scott had just returned from three months at the FBI Academy, where he was training to be an intelligence analyst after retiring from the state police. He talked about life in Quantico, Va., for about 10 minutes before he realized that Michael hadn't said a word.
"So how are you doing?" his father asked.
There was a long pause.
"Michael, tell me what's going on."
"They killed my guys," Michael eventually said, barely audible.
Scott asked him what happened. Michael's voice buckled.
Finally he got it out that Kohlhaas and Christofferson were dead.
Scott kept him on the phone for an hour, trying to pull the story out of him.
On base, while the other soldiers commiserated, Michael didn't talk. He looked like he didn't sleep. His eyes were bloodshot, his face drawn. He broke down once, during a group counseling session.
The others got to the point that they could tell funny stories about their fallen buddies, but Behenna never did.
"He was on a mission to find out who was responsible," says Bradford, the cowboy.
Soon the platoon was back on patrol. On May 5, the men rolled up to a house in Butoma, looking for a man named Ali Mansur Mohamed. Only Behenna knew anything about Mansur. He had heard his name mentioned several times as an insurgent working with the Sunni Arab group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and he had just seen an Army intelligence report that implicated him in the roadside bombing that killed his men.
They kicked in the door and found the stout, thick-bearded man, and a sergeant wrestled him to the ground. They also found an RPK light machine gun, bags of ammunition and a passport with Syrian visa stamps.
They took Mansur back to the base for questioning by intelligence officers.
Less than two weeks later, orders came down to release Mansur. There was not enough evidence to keep him. Behenna pushed for another interrogation. But the order was final.
On May 16, he got Mansur and another detainee from their cells, and took them to the platoon's living area. A dust storm had to wane before they could leave. With his interpreter, "Harry," Behenna took Mansur into a quiet corner between the trailers and questioned him about the April 21 attack.
Mansur was blindfolded and his hands zip-tied. He didn't answer.
"I'm going to talk to you later on today," Behenna said. "If I don't get that information today, you will die today."
When he got authorization to leave, the platoon loaded the two detainees, did some routine patrolling and stopped at a checkpoint in Mezra. A few of the soldiers noticed that they had freed only one of the Iraqis. They still had Mansur.
Dusk fell blood-red through the dust, and Behenna announced that they would take a direct route through the desert to get back to camp. He stopped along the berm of some defunct railroad tracks, saying he wanted to check the culverts for weapons caches. They had taken fire from there before. He pulled Mansur out of the back of one of the trucks.
Spc. Atkinson had been sitting with the detainee all afternoon. He asked what was going on. Behenna told him to stay put.
Atkinson peered out the window with his night-vision goggles as Behenna, a squad leader, an interpreter and the detainee walked off in the gloaming. Atkinson couldn't see much. After 10 minutes or so, he made out a faint glow for about 30 seconds. He was surprised to see only three figures coming back. "They went over there and . . . killed that dude?" he thought. "OK, that's weird. Who was that guy?"
The next morning, villagers found the partially burned body and two bullet casings.
Behenna was removed from his command a few weeks later in June. On July 31, 2008, he was charged with premeditated murder.
Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times