By John Goetz and Marc Hujer
When Adam Winfield came to Afghanistan, a dream had come true for him. He felt like he was on a great mission. He was a specialist in the 5th Stryker Brigade, which had the motto "Seek and Destroy." His dad had already served with the Marines and his uncle had been in the Navy. Both felt, however, that military service was not really right for Adam.
"He was shy, intellectual and soft," says his mother, Emma Winfield. She recalled that as a boy he would look through books, and check "in three and four encyclopedias at the same time" if he found a word he did not know. As a boy he sang in the church choir. Later he went to Bolivia with a church youth group, and when he saw the poverty there, he said: "Dad, I will never again complain about anything ever again."
His mom said: "He could only imagine two things in life -- to be a missionary or a soldier." When he chose the military, he was only 17 years old, too young to enroll of his own accord. But he pressured his parents until they agreed. "He wanted to prove himself that he could be a man," his father now says.
In Afghanistan, his unit suffered great losses. Since July 2009, when Winfield joined, his brigade had lost 36 soldiers, 33 during combat or due to landmines. In military jargon, such incidents are referred to using the term "sigact" -- "significant activity of a hostile nature." The death rate among Strykers was so high that the Pentagon was concerned.
Adam heard conversations about comrades who had been torn to pieces. He had heard that sometimes only single pieces of the body could be found -- hands, arms, heads, fingers -- barely enough to identify the dead, not enough for a dignified funeral.
"I think every boy thinks when he goes to war that he can handle things," says Dana Holmes, the mother of Adam's colleague Andrew Holmes. "But when you start seeing your friends die, it can't help but affect you."
All of a sudden, Afghanistan was far more dangerous than Adam Winfield had imagined it would be.
Ramrod is located in the cultural center of the country. It is here in Kandahar where the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad is kept, at one of the most sacred locations in the country. It is also a stronghold of the Taliban.
'They Are Fighting against Ghosts'
Adam Winfield rarely saw the enemy. He and his comrades only saw the Talibans' helpers through their night-vision devices when the enemy was burying landmines -- they hid during the day. For days, the Americans did nothing but carry out senseless patrols. The soldiers became frustrated and bored.
The enemy, says Adam's father, is invisible until somebody gets blown up. "They are fighting against ghosts."
Then the Americans changed their strategy. Instead of just chasing after and killing the enemy, their new aim was to win over the trust of the local population. General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan at the time, issued a new war doctrine dubbed COIN (for counterinsurgency). Under COIN, the troops' primary aim became to protect the civilian population, deliver aid packages, talk with locals and live with them in the villages. The COIN approach worked in Iraq, but could it be transferred to Afghanistan -- a country without the kind of civil society structures in place in Iraq, a backward land full of poor peasants and countless tribal leaders?
For the soldiers of the 5th Stryker Brigade, the new COIN strategy was a non-starter, says Audrey Morlock, Jeremy's mother. The Army didn't provide her son with training for this strategy, she says. "For three years, my boy was only trained (to do) one thing -- kill, kill, kill." The Winfields also have the impression that the requirements for the soldiers which came with the new COIN strategy overburdened them. "How were they supposed to protect the population?" asks his mother Emma.
In Afghanistan, her son lacked the kind of camaraderie he had hoped to experience in the Army. He didn't make a single friend or meet any like-minded people -- nobody, it seemed, shared his passion for books. Adam is a voracious reader, devouring anything he can get his hands on. He even read a book about tanks, the classic "Jane's Tank Recognition Guide." But who would have cared about a thing like that at Ramrod?
Suddenly everything started to appear hostile, dirty and pitiful to Adam. He felt lonely among 3,500 comrades. Everything sickened him, including his neighbors and the snoring. The place smelled of excrement and urine, he told his parents. The quarters were far less comfortable than he had hoped for. Then the new staff sergeant arrived: Calvin Gibbs.
Gibbs was sent to Ramrod in November 2009 after his predecessor lost both legs in a landmine explosion. An athletic giant of a man from Billings, Montana, Gibbs has short blond hair, blue eyes, towers over people at 6 foot 4 inches (1.95 meters) and weighs 220 pounds (100 kilos), exactly twice as much as Winfield. A "physically intimidating type" says Winfield's father. Winfield himself calls Gibbs a "Rambo," somebody who kills without fear.
From the very first day that Gibbs set foot in the camp, Winfield's mood and that of the entire unit changed fundamentally. Suddenly, a different, harsher tone permeated Ramrod. Gibbs had experience in combat. In 2004, he completed a mission in Iraq and, afterwards, another in Afghanistan.
During this, his second mission in the Hindu Kush, Gibbs was transferred from Kandahar to Ramrod. From the get-go, he instituted a reign of terror. When he spoke, a flood of obscenities poured out. And he could be merciless to his subordinates. In Gibbs' mind, war is war. He did not make any subtle distinctions between a "good" war and a "bad" one. Nor did he want to have to take any responsibility for looking after the Afghan people. "He despises all Afghans," Morlock would later state during the investigation.
A 'Fight for Survival'
Initially Gibbs managed to bring a greater sense of calm to the team, even decreasing the number of injuries. Right from the start, though, it was clear he didn't like Winfield. One day, after Winfield forgot to lock up the Stryker, Gibbs forced him to do push-ups as a punishment. He loved to humiliate Winfield in front of the other soldiers. Winfield's lawyer Eric Montalvo claims that Gibbs forced his client into a "fight for survival."
Gibbs comes from a humble working-class family. His father worked as the janitor at a Mormon church. For Gibbs, school was a punishment, something for nerds. He was expelled from junior high school in Billings at 15. As soon as he was able to, he enlisted in the military. He would have liked to join the Marines, but, as a junior high drop-out, he wasn't educated enough. That only made him despise those little nerds and all their books even more -- guys like Winfield.
Gibbs made it clear that he considered Winfield a wimp. He gave him the nickname "Winnie the Jew," a reference to the children's book character Winnie the Pooh. (Winfield is Christian, but his mother comes from a Jewish family.)
Specialist Winfield was a failure in Gibbs' eyes. Not only because of his love of books, but because he felt Winfield had what is called "buck fever" in military jargon. He suffered from the fear that many young soldiers have when they are in a situation where they have to kill for the first time. "He had anxiety attacks because he didn't know whether he would be able to kill even if the enemy would attack him," his father explains. "He didn't know how he would react."
Buck fever is generally a taboo issue for the infantry. It is seldom openly discussed, because those who can't kill are considered to be just half-soldiers. But Gibbs didn't shy away from the subject: He accused his subordinates of cowardice and enjoyed humiliating them. Gibbs explained to Private Ashton Moore that he was looking for the kind of soldier "who could kill anybody without the slightest bit of regret." Because Gibbs didn't trust Winfield to be able to do that, he always made the specialist stay behind in the Stryker.
Killing didn't seem to trouble Gibbs at all. "He liked to kill," Winfield would later say of his superior. The investigation files state that a soldier once asked Gibbs why he cut off fingers of enemies who had been killed, and the staff sergeant responded: "Because it is fun to scare people with them." One could, for example, put a finger in an aid package for the Afghans, he said.
Gibbs also took pleasure in slaying animals. "Once we got the clearance to kill dogs, whether they were a threat to us or not," Gibbs would take any opportunity to kill them, Morlock revealed to investigators. Trooper Alexander Christy said that Gibbs' predilection even endangered the unit's security. "Once, Gibbs shot two dogs, and the villagers complained," Christy said. "They explained that from then on they would not help us." To demonstrate their displeasure, they had burned an aid package, he said. "Gibbs felt pure hatred for the Afghans, and constantly called them savages," Morlock said.
Nothing scared Gibbs. His soldiers all believed he was a sadist, "the reincarnation of evil," as Winfield said later. Gibbs had six tattoos on his left calf. He explained that each tattoo stood for a person he had killed: three blue ones for three dead Afghans, and three red ones for three Iraqis.
Gibbs was able to impress the younger members of his unit with his tough appearance and exaggerated stories. Soon he would become the leader of a unit that called itself the "kill team."
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