When President Obama said it was time to turn the page on Iraq, he should have also declared his intention to close the book on the lingering, festering injustices the U.S. government has perpetrated on 10 American veterans of the Iraq war still incarcerated in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.
As noted in this column, these Americans are the war's forgotten men, soldiers trapped by restrictive, legalistic rules of engagement on an ultra-fluid battlefield where the enemy knew no rules. For killing this enemy and, it must also be admitted, surviving to live another day, these soldiers were sentenced to terms ranging from 10 to 40 years. In other words, for the rest of their young lives.
Allen West, himself a retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of both Desert Storm and the war in Iraq, has not forgotten these men. West, the Republican candidate for Congress in Florida's 22nd District, is speaking this Labor Day Weekend at the first, and, it is hoped, last Leavenworth Ten Freedom Ride, a parade past the Leavenworth military prison to draw attention to the plight of the Ten, resulting in their freedom.
West could almost have been among them. Back in 2003 as a battalion commander north of Baghdad, West fired his pistol near the head of a uncooperative Iraqi under interrogation who was believed to be withholding information about an assassination plot and ambush of West and his troops. The man talked. West and his men encountered no more ambushes for the next two months until West was relieved of his command and charged with improper interrogation methods, charges that could have drawn a prison sentence.
"I know the method I used was not right, but I wanted to take care of my soldiers," West testified at his 2003 Article 32 hearing (similar to a preliminary grand jury hearing). When asked if he would alter his behavior under similar circumstances in the future, West replied: "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."
I believe he would. It's a great line, something to jump-start the heart of any war movie, but coming from Allen West, whom I have had the honor of knowing since 2007, first as a pen pal, when he was in Afghanistan training Afghan forces, it is also genuine. Little wonder Gen. Raymond Odierno, then commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division, declined to call for a court martial. West paid a fine and subsequently retired from the Army -- our loss. After resettling his family in Florida where he taught high school for a year, West embarked on that training hitch in Afghanistan mentioned above. He returned to Florida late in 2007 to make his first (competitive but unsuccessful) run for Congress in 2008. This election year, his prospects of unseating incumbent Rep. Ron Klein (Florida Democrat) are excellent, and Florida has the great opportunity of returning to national service a man America can be proud of. At this point, West is virtually unique among his military peers in his public commitment to seeing justice done -- in this case, clemency -- for the Leavenworth Ten soldiers and their families. When I spoke to him recently, West made that case quite dramatically, comparing the hundreds of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, known killers of American troops among them, on whom America has bestowed both clemency and freedom, with the implacable refusal of the U.S. government to treat the Leavenworth Ten even half as mercifully. Having forgiven our enemies, the United States has no such forgiveness for the men who served to fight them.
"Something is upside-down about this military legal system," says West, who believes this and other systemic military problems, from "the convoluted rules of engagement" to "Ivy League, think-tank" strategies, will be corrected if Americans send more representatives with battlefield experience to Washington. Of course, West is spending the first day of Labor Day weekend, the kick-off to the traditional sprint to Election Day, in Kansas, far from his southern Florida district, to speak at the Leavenworth rally. Why?
"It's important," he replied. "Going to Congress doesn't mean so much to me as doing something to help these young men."
Fortunately, Allen West can do both.