This week's column:
This Memorial Day Weekend, Americans remember not only our fallen soldiers, but also soldiers currently fighting in hostile lands under atrocious conditions. But there's another duty upon us as Americans with a debt of gratitude to our armed forces.
We must recognize the travesties of U.S. military justice that have tried, convicted, jailed and repeatedly denied clemency to all too many brave Americans, the same brave Americans who have fought our wars only to be unfairly charged with "murder" in the war zone.
Readers of this column will recall the crushing conviction of Sgt. Evan Vela, a young Ranger-trained sniper and father of two from Idaho, for executing his superior's order to kill an Iraqi man who, at the time, had been compromising his squad's hiding place in pre-"surge" Iraq. Ten years in Fort Leavenworth, ordered not-so-blind justice. (There is evidence that Evan's harsh sentence was a blatant political sop to Iraq's government.) One reason behind my intense dislike for George W. Bush -- my own personal Bush Derangement Syndrome -- is the former president's callousness toward such Americans as Sgt. Vela, who served their commander in chief well in these difficult times. As the Bush administration drew to an end in January 2009, talk of a presidential pardon for Vela leaked to the media, no doubt elating the Vela family, but, cruelly, nothing came of it.
It never does. And Evan Vela has all too many brothers-in-arms at Fort Leavenworth prison. There serve Vela (10 years), Michael Behenna (20 years), Corey Claggett (18 years), William Hunsaker (18 years), John Hatley (40 years), Larry Hutchins (11 years), Michael Leahy (20 years), Joseph Mayo (20 years), Michael Williams (25 years). Google their names, read their cases and, before recoiling in PC shudders deeper into the hammock, try to imagine the particular hell of war as they and others like them experienced it on our behalf.
If this exercise dampens the barbecue-season kickoff, good. Maybe it will help Americans see the urgent need for clemency in these cases. And particularly given the mind-boggling fact that the United States has released and granted clemency in Iraq to tens of thousands of insurgents, including some of the most dangerous fighters our soldiers were sent to fight in the first place.
Now, the British newspaper The Guardian has reported that Iraq's military is blaming the sharp rise in violence this year on American-released detainees. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Obeidi al-Saedi claims as many as 80 percent of former detainees have joined or rejoined militant groups, adding that 86 former inmates of U.S prisons have been rearrested since March 10 alone.
"We ask them, did they finish their time in prison rehabilitated psychologically and they say, 'No, it was the perfect environment to reorganize al-Qaida,'" the Iraqi general said.
Obviously, our men in Fort Leavenworth prison pose no such risks. But they continue to rot behind bars, with neither former President Bush nor President Obama troubled by the injustice of it all, even as clemency spreads across the map to Taliban Afghanistan.
Last week, the New York Times reported that American commanders are informally releasing Taliban fighters on their own recognizance after they "promise" not to fight jihad in the path of Allah again - or PC words to that effect. "This letter right here is a sworn pledge from all of your elders that they're vouching for you and that you will never support the Taliban or fight for the Taliban ever again," one commander told a 23-year-old Taliban seized after Marines found a bomb trigger, ammunition and opium buried on his property.
But no such clemency for our own.
McClatchy Newspapers recently reported that since January of this year, 200 alleged Taliban insurgents had been more released from Bagram prison, including 11 this month. After actually being dressed down by one of these newly freed prisoners, Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, No. 2 man at U.S. Central Command in Florida, "delivered a contrite speech as Afghan leaders and former prisoners munched on fresh fruit and chocolate cake."
"If we detained you unfairly, I am sorry," Allen told the men. "I hope this is a great day for you to return to your families."
Those are the words the general should say to his own men, now prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.