Soldiers Accused Of Rape, Murder Were Under Extreme Stress

(August 8, 2006)--An Army private testified Tuesday in Baghdad that soldiers in his unit suffered extreme war stress.

Those soldiers included five accused in the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of members of her family.

Pfc. Justin Cross testified at a military hearing that will determine whether the five soldiers, one of whom is represented by a local attorney, will be court-martialed in the rape and killings.

Cross said frequent deadly attacks by insurgents sapped morale and raised combat stress in the unit.

The Army private says the living conditions "drive you nuts" and that "you feel like every step you might get blown up."

The girl's parents and sister were also slain in the attack.

Cross says soldiers often drank Iraqi whiskey and took painkillers to relieve the stress of not knowing whether the day would be their last.

Another witness testified Monday that such a drinking session preceded the rape and murders.

Meanwhile an investigator testified Monday that one of the five soldiers passed a polygraph test.

Investigator Michael Hood says Pfc. Jesse Spielman denied shooting or having sex with anyone in the house.

He says Spielman was given a lie-detector test and passed.

Killeen attorney Craig Carlson is one of the lawyers representing Spielman.

He says Spielman is innocent and claims that his client is “being used as a political pawn by the US government.”

“Jesse is unfairly being portrayed due to the actions of others. It's guilt by association. Even worse, Jesse is now being held responsible for actions of other individuals that the Army forced him to associate with,” Carlson said.

The Article 32 Hearing, the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury review, will determine whether the five soldiers, who were assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and serving with Fort Hood's 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, will face court-martial in the rape and deaths.

The hearing began Sunday in Baghdad, as an Iraqi army medic testified he was sick for weeks after finding the naked and burned body of the 14-year-old Iraqi girl.

Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spc. James P. Barker, Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard are charged with rape and murder and several other alleged offenses in connection with the alleged attack.

A fifth soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a direct participant.

The alleged ringleader of the attack, former Pfc. Steven Green, has since been discharged from the Army and is facing charges in federal court in North Carolina.

The incident in the town of Mahmoudiya last March is among the worst of a series of cases alleging brutality against Iraqis by Americans.

According to the FBI, the soldiers had been drinking after abandoning their checkpoint in the town and changed out of their uniforms before going to the girl's house nearby.

The three family members were shot to death and the girl's body was set on fire after the rape, allegedly to destroy evidence.

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