Soldiers struggled to contain emotions on the witness stand Wednesday as they recounted the loss of a comrade for the jury deciding a sentence for a former teenage al-Qaida militant who pleaded guilty to war crimes for his role in the death.
The killing of Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer in 2002 remains traumatic for two members of his former special forces unit, who described him as a medic so skilled that fellow soldiers asked him to treat their children. They said Speer was so committed he went into a minefield to save two wounded Afghan children days before he was mortally wounded in a firefight at an al-Qaida compound.
"It was a devastating blow," said a special forces soldier identified only as Sgt. Maj. Y under military rules that shield the names of commandos. "For many of us it was the equivalent of losing a brother or sister."
The sergeant, a strapping man who looked like a Hollywood version of a hardened commando, had to pause repeatedly to regain his composure while he described his friend, who left behind a wife and two young children.
Another member of the special forces team, identified only as Capt. E., said the death hobbled their small, close-knit unit, one of the first inside Afghanistan at the start of the war following the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S.
"The loss was catastrophic. It was immediate and it was long lasting," he said.
It was a powerful message to a jury of seven military officers that can only issue a limited sentence to Omar Khadr under a plea bargain. The Canadian-born prisoner, who was 15 when he was captured, pleaded guilty Monday to five charges that include murder for throwing the grenade that killed Speer.
Khadr could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted at trial on even one of the charges. But under the rules of the war crimes tribunals, the jury cannot impose a sentence greater than the amount specified in the plea bargain.
The terms of the deal have not been released, even to the jurors, but it reportedly caps the sentence at eight years, one more in Guantanamo and the rest in Canada. The only suspense is whether the jurors will issue a sentence that is more lenient than the deal.
The case has been one of the most controversial at Guantanamo.
Khadr's defenders said he was a child soldier, pushed into militancy by a father who was a confidante of Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders. His lawyers said he should have been sent home from the U.S. base in Cuba long ago to be rehabilitated in his homeland.
Prosecutors said Khadr was a terrorist, who admitted planting 10 roadside bombs, and a war criminal because he was not a legitimate soldier when he threw the grenade during a four-hour battle at the al-Qaida compound in southeastern Afghanistan.
Speer, who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was struck in the head by shrapnel. He was evacuated to Germany for surgery along with another sergeant, Layne Morris, who was wounded in the eye from shrapnel from another grenade thrown during the battle.
Morris, now medically retired and living in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, wept on the stand as he recalled seeing Speer's wife, Tabitha, at the hospital in Germany while her husband was in critical condition. He shrugged off his own wounds, which blinded one eye. "My injuries are really insignificant," Morris said.
Speer's widow, who is expected to testify Thursday, sat red-eyed and occasionally crying in court as she listened to the testimony about her husband. His fellow soldiers said a clinic in Afghanistan had been named in his honor because of the two children he saved in the minefield.
"All of us have lost people in this conflict. We are living in hard times," Capt. E said. "It is said that any man can be replaced ... that does not apply here."
The testimony came on a day that was otherwise devoted to more testimony from a prosecution witness, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, who analyzed Khadr and concluded he still poses a threat.
Khadr's lawyers challenged that characterization, seeking to show that Welner ignored evidence showing the prisoner is not dangerous and that the psychiatrist relied in part on the work of a Danish researcher with anti-Muslim views. Welner said he disagreed with some of the positions of the researcher, Nicolai Sennels, and defended his conclusions.