Adam's War: The Good Boy and the 'Kill Team'

By John Goetz and Marc Hujer

Six years after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, American soldiers are once again being held accountable for alleged war crimes in court. The "kill team" is accused of killing civiliansfor pure fun and of degrading their victims by takingtrophy photos.

Photo Gallery: 'Terrible Things Are Happening Here' Photos
U.S. Army / REUTERS

It was shortly before three o'clock in the afternoon in Cape Coral, Florida, when Christopher Winfield received a message from his son in Afghanistan. At first, it didn't even occur to him that 3 p.m. was an odd time to be getting a call from Afghanistan. He went into his office, sat himself down in front of his old Gateway computer and signed in to his Facebook account. The time in Afghanistan was shortly before midnight.

Winfield's son had told him that he should contact him discreetly via the social networking site, and not on the telephone, because no one in his camp would then be able to overhear their conversation.

Winfield wondered if he should be worried. Adam, at age 21 Christopher Winfield's oldest son, was the driver of a four-axel Stryker tank at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ramrod, one of the most isolated and dangerous American military bases in Afghanistan. Adam's father was happy to hear from his son and to know he was alive. For the past three weeks, Winfield later said, he hadn't heard anything.

Outside, the afternoon sun was shining. It was Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010, Valentine's Day. That morning, the Winfields had marked the day with a low-key celebration. Christopher Winfield had bought his wife a silver ring from Tiffany's. At 3:18 p.m., when he began to read the Facebook chat messages, he answered immediately.

Adam: "Threats are coming my way."

Christopher: "What threats?"

Adam: "There are people in my platoon that can get away with 'murder.' They planned and went through with it. ... Pretty much the whole platoon knows about it. It's OK with all of them pretty much, except me. I want to do something about it, the only problem is I don't feel safe here telling anyone."

For several minutes, his father didn't answer.

Adam: "Did you not understand what I just told you what people did in my platoon?"

Christopher: "Murder."

When, 10 months later, Adam Winfield found himself in front of a military court for a hearing, these sentences were a key part of the case. These could have been the key pieces of evidence in a drama that apparently turned young soldiers into monsters. In any case, this conversation with his father seems to suggest that Adam was pulled into a vortex against his will -- one that eventually led to alleged war crimes.

Adam will shortly stand before the court as one of 12 young men that the war in Afghanistan apparently transformed them into a gang of murderers. They called themselves a "kill team." The case has made headlines in the United States and around the world, because the men are accused of having killed Afghan civilians just for the hell of it -- for fun. It is an unbelievable crime, and a scandal that ranks with Abu Ghraib.

A Casual Disdain for the Lives of Afghans

The perpetrators at Abu Ghraib also captured their deeds in pictures. The kill team photographed their victims as if the soldiers were really on a kind of trophy hunt in Afghanistan -- as if their gruesome souvenirs were supposed to prove later what kind of hotshots they had been in the country.

These pictures may even be slightly more disgusting than the ones from Abu Ghraib. Those photos demonstrated a casual disdain for the dignity of the captive Iraqis. The FOB Ramrod kill team's photos, on the other hand, show a casual disdain for the lives of ordinary Afghans.

Every sentence that Adam Winfield wrote to his father on that Valentine's Day will be scrutinized and interpreted by the court. Geoff Morrell, the Defense Department's spokesman, said the role of Adam Winfield in the affair will also have to be considered, because this Facebook conversation throws a new light on the case. "That's disheartening to hear if that is indeed the case," says Morell. "If someone is trying to reach out, trying to notify us, trying to head off a potential problem, that's something we need to pay attention to and heed that warning."

For Adam Winfield, the young soldier, the war in Afghanistan was initially a good war, one that he never doubted. The necessity of the Afghanistan war is something the Republicans and Democrats have agreed upon for years, just as America and its European allies have done.

Adam Winfield arrived in Afghanistan in July 2009, when US President Barack Obama was entertaining the idea of a massive troop surge. For Obama, too, the war in Afghanistan was "the necessary war," unlike the war in Iraq that his predecessor George W. Bush had launched, against the protests of half the world.

'There Are No Good Men Left Here'

Christopher Winfield stared again at the chat window. He could hardly comprehend what his son had written there. It took a while for him to receive Adam's messages, because his son's Internet connection in Afghanistan was poor. Again and again, the message appeared that his son was offline. The father asked about the young victim.

Christopher: "They just walked up and killed him?"

Adam: "Yes. They made it look like the guy threw a grenade at them and mowed him down."

Christopher: "You are not in a position to say anything to anybody. You don't know who to trust."

Adam: "I have to make up my mind. Should I do the right thing and put myself in danger, or should I just shut up and deal with it? The army really let me down out here. When I thought I would come here to do any good, maybe make some change in this country, I find out it is all a lie. There are no good men left here."

Christopher: "Tell them that you'll keep quiet. You must make these assholes think everything is ok. Just make them believe it is water past the bridge."

Christopher had never known his son to talk things up or invent stories. Adam had always been a quiet, tight-lipped boy, and so when he turned to his father with such words, it was clearly serious. His father knew this was no game.

Christopher Winfield promised his son he would organize help, discreetly and in confidence. He would try to get the authorities involved. "Watch your back. Don't trust anyone," he told his son. Then Adam was offline again.

His father decided to make some phone calls. He called the Army inspector general's office first, and then the Army's investigative agency and then Florida Senator Bill Nelson. He spoke to every answering machine he got. Finally, he dialed the number of Fort Lewis, the home base of his son's brigade -- and someone picked up.

For 12 minutes, he spoke to the duty sergeant, James Beck. Christopher Winfield told Beck that an innocent civilian in Afghanistan had been killed and that other murders might also have been committed. He also said that someone needed to stop the killing. The sergeant took his number down, but said there was nothing he could do. It was 4:18 p.m. when Adam's father hung up.

He waited as hours passed. Days. Weeks. He heard nothing from Sergeant Beck.

The crime Adam Winfield told his father about was one month old at that point. Investigators would later discover that the kill team had struck on Jan. 15, 2010 for the first time.

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US Army Responds
On the date of the original publication of this feature, March 21, the United States Department of Defense issued the following Army statement in response:

"Today DER SPIEGEL published photographs depicting actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army. We apologize for the distress these photos cause."


Map: Location of FOB Ramrod Zoom
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Map: Location of FOB Ramrod


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