Murder at Thar Thar

Editor's Note: The account of the Thar Thar Canal incident below was compiled from interviews and testimony given at the courts-martial of Pvt. Corey Clagett, Sgt. Raymond Girouard and Pvt. William Hunsaker.

The voice crackling on the radio demanded to know why three Iraqi captives were alive. Minutes later, the three lay dying on the ground and a light machine gun vibrated in Army Pvt. Corey Clagett's hands.

He had dropped from a helicopter and stumbled onto the searing desert floor near the dry bed of Thar Thar Canal, his ammo belt spilling as he hit the ground. He was on his first mission with his second combat platoon after getting kicked out of his first.

He was told to shoot to kill.

It was May 9, 2006. Clagett was 21. He'd grown up scrapping in Moncks Corner, "a wild child," in the words of a relative. He was a smart aleck who liked being the center of attention. He tinkered with cars. He would take things apart just to put them back together.

He was a mess of contradictions in a third-generation military family, the child of a broken marriage. He stuck up for his mother and was beaten with her when the men she dated or lived with beat her. He sent his Army paychecks home to her rather than to the wife he left behind. His mother wore a gold necklace engraved with a ring of hearts he gave her.

"He's a little full of himself, but he has this gentleness to him. I can't see him going out and hurting someone unless it was self- defense," Ericka Tucker, a family friend, said after Clagett was charged in the killing.

"He grew up in turmoil, physically abused, mentally abused, emotionally scarred," said an attorney who defended him.

Clagett considered himself a good soldier who followed orders. He pleaded guilty in January 2007 to the murders of two of the Iraqi captives in a plea bargain to avoid a possible life sentence.

Today, Clagett is in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., serving an 18-year sentence.

What happened to Corey Clagett?

Blistering hot

Thar Thar is a lake region northwest of Baghdad toward Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, and in 2006 a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency. In February of that year, the golden-dome mosque in the nearby city of Samarra was blown up, igniting rioting and killings.

The area is home to the Muthanna Chemical Complex, where Saddam's Baath Party manufactured chemical and biological weapons.

In May 2006, two informants told the Army there were 20 known insurgents on a small island in a canal there. Clagett's squad was ordered in. The attack was part of a larger assault, Operation Iron Triangle, involving more than 400 U.S. troops over about 50 square miles. Troops went house to house for two days and captured more than 200 suspected insurgents, the Army Times reported. It is unclear how many prisoners were taken during the island attack. But at least four Iraqis were killed.

"We're going to hit the ground shooting and kill all the al-Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents," Lt. Justin Wehrheim testified in the trials. "We were to positively identify and kill any military-age male on the island."

But in Iraq's countryside, telling an insurgent from a farmer wasn't easy. Nearly everyone had a gun or two at home to protect his family. Americans were not necessarily considered the good guys.

Squad members testified that they were told to expect a "hot" landing with enemy fire. They went in at dawn on May 9, with the desert heat already blistering.

Fighting back

Clagett never really knew his father. He was raised by his granddad, Kenneth Miller, who took custody of him for a time when he was young. His father was in the Army, serving at the Panama Canal.

"(His father) was never at the house unless he was on vacation for a week, and then he'd get his wife pregnant again and he would leave," Miller testified at Clagett's sentencing hearing.

Clagett's mother, Melanie Dianiska, had three children in diapers by the time she was 18. When the boys were older, Joseph, the younger son, used to say, "I have no dad." Corey stuck up for Joseph at school, pushing off the bullies. He'd say they didn't need a dad.

Clagett struggled in school. He fought back if somebody said the wrong thing about him or his family. He was moved to an alternative school, a trade school, and at 16 began a work program in heating and air conditioning.

He married the same day as his older brother Jamie. They joined the Army and went to boot camp together. The family tells the story of how, when Jamie fell behind on a 30-mile hike with badly blistered feet, Corey picked him up and carried him until the sergeants stopped him.

Three months after Corey joined the Army, he was sent to Iraq. Eight months later, the order came to attack Thar Thar. Just that week, he had been reassigned to Sgt. Raymond Girouard's squad.

Clagett felt he had something to prove.

Notching a kill

Clagett picked up his dropped ammo belt off the burning sand and ran from the helicopter toward a farmhouse along the dry bed of Thar Thar Canal, chasing other squad members who already had opened fire.

"We all bail off the chopper, and as we are coming off, Sergeant Girouard, he's the first in the lead and he lays down suppressive fire," Pvt. William Hunsaker testified during Girouard's trial. "As we are running by the house we are firing rounds through the window and at the house itself."

In eight months, Clagett had not notched a kill, and in the 3rd Brigade, that counted against you. The commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 187th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division was Col. Michael Steele. He was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor in 1993 for captaining 120 Army Rangers who were pinned down for 15 hours after their helicopters were shot down during a raid in Mogadishu, Somalia — the raid portrayed in the movie, "Black Hawk Down."

His force had a reputation.

"It's been alleged that Colonel Steele gave commemorative knives and coins in exchange for kills of Iraqis," Clagett's attorney told the military judge during the court-martial. The attorney was trying to get a copy of a reprimand given to Steele for his actions regarding Operation Iron Triangle, the attack during which the Thar Thar Canal raid took place.

In August 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that investigators were trying to determine if Steele created a "kill count" expectation among troops, essentially a running competition to kill Iraqis.

Cpl. Brandon Helton testified that commanders told soldiers to rack up enemy kills. A message board at the headquarters had a phrase on the bottom that read, "Let the bodies hit the floor." Kill scores were posted on company boards.

One soldier testified that after kills, Girouard told his troops, "That's another terrorist down. Good job."

None of this is all that egregious or unusual among combat troops; it's kill or be killed, and an aggressive mind-set can make the difference between life and death. But in a speech before the raid, Steele ordered his troops to kill all military-age males, according to testimony in the trial. Clagett's prosecutor described it as "a little hoo-hah speech." His defense described it as the rules of engagement — orders given the soldiers.

Steele invoked a military privilege given commanding officers not to be required to testify at the four squad members' courts-martial.

After the raid, Brig. Gen. Thomas Maffey said that Steele told soldiers it wasn't necessary to distinguish noncombatants during the mission, The New York Times reported. The Times, attributing the information to Army sources, said Steele was reprimanded; the reprimand never was made public.

But the mind-set was there.

'An initiation'

Clagett was in a tough spot. He had moved to Girouard's squad with Girouard's help because he couldn't get along with a new sergeant assigned to his old squad.

Prosecutors called the move a rehab assignment. Clagett testified in Girouard's trial that he felt he needed to do something to impress the squad.

Then he hit the desert sand and dropped his ammo.

Meanwhile, Girouard raced toward the first house, leading the squad and firing as he ran. A man appeared in the window, and the gunfire cut him down. The squad went through the door with rifles raised and found two women holding up their hands in surrender while three men cowered behind them. The man shot in the window turned out to be an unarmed older man. He was dead.

Clagett, meanwhile, moved on top of a berm to keep watch and shouted, "I've got another house." Girouard yelled at him to give the direction and distance according to training, then took some of the squad over to that house. The rest of them handcuffed the three men with "zip ties," plastic handcuffs that can be pulled apart if enough force is used. They took them outside and laid them on their bellies in the sand.

In the house, they found kitchenware, two AK-47 rifles, a pistol and ammunition.

When the rest of the squad reached the second house, a man came out holding a baby in front of him. Angered by his cowardice, the squad roughed him up. Girouard told them to take him back inside, away from the combat photographer.

Returning to the first house, Girouard heard the radio transmission from 1st Sgt. Eric Geressy: "Why do we have three (expletive) that should be dead?"

At the house, Girouard called a meeting, according to testimony of his squad members. He huddled them up and told them Hunsaker and Clagett were going to shoot the prisoners. Hunsaker testified that Girouard said, "First sergeant is pretty pissed that these guys ain't dead and he wants to know how come they're not dead. Make it look good." Girouard testified that Hunsaker wanted to kill the prisoners.

One of the soldiers, Sgt. Leonel Lemus, shook his head no and walked to the door, where he and Girouard stared each other down, Lemus said. During his trial, Girouard denied ordering the killing. Lemus wavered under cross-examination whether the order was to kill or just to rough them up. The others testified that the order was to kill.

"The way Sgt. G ran his squad, I thought it was basically like an initiation, if I wanted to be in 3rd squad," Clagett testified. Girouard cut Hunsaker with a knife to make it look like Hunsaker was attacked by the prisoners, according to testimony. Girouard asked who wanted to get cut, and Clagett said, "Not me."

Girouard then left to meet up with another sergeant. Clagett said Hunsaker told him, "I want to kill these (expletive) because they're terrorists."

"I pulled the blindfold up on one guy, down on the other," Clagett testified at his trial, and Hunsaker took the blindfold off the third man. "Hunsaker told them to run. I told them 'Yalla,' to get them to run faster. They didn't run faster, so I raised my weapon. Hunsaker raised his. He shot, then I shot."

Hunsaker testified that he was upset with Clagett because he sprayed fire, slinging the machine gun back and forth, rather than trying to shoot as accurately as possible. Clagett said he had his eyes closed.

"As soon as they fell, I took off my K-pot (helmet) and dropped my weapon," Clagett testified.

Apart at the seams

Clagett was about to wrestle with the devil.

Lemus testified at the later trial that when the shooting stopped, Hunsaker said, "Oh, s---."

Girouard, the squad leader, came running back to the house. He sucker-punched Clagett to make it look like the private had been attacked by the men, Clagett testified, just like he had cut Hunsaker earlier. Lemus ran up and asked Girouard what happened. "But he (Girouard) couldn't answer. He just looked at the bodies and had this frozen look on his face," Lemus testified.

Spc. Juston Graber rushed up to the shot Iraqis. One was vomiting blood and struggling to breathe. Graber later testified that Girouard told him to "put him out of his misery." He had to fire twice at point-blank range to hit the man's head.

By May 11, Army criminal investigators were on base asking questions. Two weeks later, the squad was filling out sworn statements on the incident, saying the Iraqis were terrorists trying to escape. And Clagett was coming apart.

He had boasted around the camp, soldiers testified, telling people he had gotten punched, spun in a circle and just sprayed bullets. The word was going around that Hunsaker had used the bodies for target practice throwing "stars," a piercing weapon. Sgt. Brian Hensley testified that Clagett told him he had gotten his first kill and "the beebs" (Iraqis) could do "the Harlem shake." Clagett demonstrated the dance by slinging his machine gun, waving his arms and shaking his hips like a man quivering as he fell, Hensley said.

But a few other soldiers said Clagett told them what happened and was visibly disturbed. Lemus testified that the story was going around base: "Yeah, you know, 3rd squad went in and executed everybody and these guys were like Johnny Rambo out there." Lemus said one of them was having nightmares and couldn't stop talking about it.

Girouard brought the squad together again and told them "to be loyal and not to go bragging or spreading rumors," Lemus testified. "If he found out who told anything about it he would find that person after he got out of jail and kill him."

'Did as I was told'

The Thar Thar incident was one in a series of allegations that came to light that year of U.S. soldiers raping and killing Iraqis. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal, the accusations lit an already smoldering outrage among Americans, as well as Iraqis.

The heat was on, and the investigators were turning up the burner. Wehrheim, the lieutenant, told Girouard to tell the squad to get their stories straight, Girouard testified.

Investigators pressed the squad, hauling them in one by one for 12-hour "overnights" of interrogation when the soldiers returned from a rotation of three days on combat patrol and three days guarding outposts. They threatened Lemus, saying he could be charged with manslaughter in the death of the old man in the window.

On June 15, they broke Spc. Bradley Mason, a 19-year-old. As a result, Graber admitted to the "mercy" killing. The others were brought in and arrested.

Clagett was put in solitary confinement. He, Girouard and Hunsaker continued to insist the Iraqis broke free and were shot trying to escape. At trial, Clagett's attorney said Clagett was having problems sleeping, nightmares, crying spells and trouble eating.

"He has had to live in a cage. He has had to live in segregation. He has had to live in 24-hour lockup. He has had to live with people spitting in his food and accusing him of being a criminal and calling him an animal and a criminal," the attorney said.

Hunsaker broke next and pleaded guilty in an agreement to testify against the other men. "I got tired of lying to everybody," he said, "and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in prison for, in my eyes, three dead terrorists."

With Hunsaker's testimony against him, Clagett almost certainly would be found guilty, his attorney told him. He could face life in prison. Clagett pleaded guilty in January 2008. At Clagett's sentencing, he read a poem he had written. In part it said:

Only God knows my heart and the hatred of men,

I can try to explain it, but I can't start or begin.

To the families of Iraq I pray to end this war,

I only did as I was told to complete my tour.


Clagett's cell at Fort Leavenworth is taller than it is wide. It contains a cot, table, sink and toilet. The military "barracks" is the only maximum-security prison in the Department of Defense.

A bid for clemency failed. His appeal failed.

In a letter, Clagett described his life as tedium, doing the same thing over and over and eating the same food over and over. He said his morale is low. He will be eligible for parole consideration in 2 1/2 years.