This week's column:
It's that time again, and I don't just mean Christmastime.
We're now entering the final phase of an outgoing administration. And during this phase, George W. Bush, mere mortal but still president, has the practically supernatural ability to grant pardons. This endows him with the power of life over death, of clemency over conviction. For one month more, President Bush will be able to right wrongs, show mercy and restore faith. For one month more, he will have the opportunity to pardon Sgt. Evan Vela, now serving 10 years in a military prison for what a court martial called "murder" but what I, along with many, many Americans, call war.
I first heard about Sgt. Vela last spring in an e-mail from his father, Curtis Carnahan. "I do not know if you have followed my son's case," he wrote, "but some people have drawn similarities between the Luttrell situation and Evan's."
Carnahan was referring to Marcus Luttrell, whose best-seller "Lone Survivor" tells of four Navy SEALS, Luttrell among them, whose secret mission in Afghanistan was compromised when two unarmed goatherds discovered the Americans hiding in Taliban territory. Fearful of precisely the kind of legal action that would later ensnare Evan Vela and his comrades, the SEALs, as Luttrell tells it, decided not to kill the Afghans, even to preserve their own lives, let along the success of their mission. So the SEALs released the Afghans and abandoned their mission.
It was the tragically wrong decision. Soon, the SEALs were under attack from a large force of Taliban. In the ensuing battle not only were three of the four SEALs gruesomely killed -- with only Luttrell living on as the "lone survivor" -- but so were 16 additional U.S. special forces who perished in a rescue attempt.
While the Taliban are the clear agents of death in this terrible case, it is our own acid ideology of political and cultural self-sacrifice that is actually responsible. The stunning fact is, the SEAL team faced not one but two enemies that day in Afghanistan: their jihadist opponents in the mountains and their politically correct fellow-citizens in the courtroom. They chose to fight the one enemy they thought they could defeat.
In very similar battleground circumstances, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley, Evan Vela's squad leader, made a different decision. Of course, Hensley thought he could whip both enemies at once.
A complex saga, the events of that day come down to several salient facts. Operating in Al Qaeda-infested territory south of Baghdad, Hensley and his men were discovered in their "hide" by an unarmed Iraqi man, whom they captured. As the man failed to stop moving and making noise, Hensley was very properly concerned that the Iraqi would reveal the Americans' position to nearby insurgents. It seems that he was also very properly concerned that even this overtly hostile action that he deemed dangerous to his men and mission would not impress his superiors as sufficient cause to kill the Iraqi. In other words, Hensley seemed to sense, as I believe, that where our PC-uber-alles military brass are concerned, the lives of American troops are not as important as their own extremely twisted sense of morality: that it is morally better to risk their troops' lives than to risk marring what they perversely conceive of as their own inner purity.
And there was something else, although I doubt Hensley could have been aware of it. This incident took place in May 2007, just as "the surge" was kicking in and just as Sunni insurgents were "awakening." The resulting trial over the incident, conducted in Iraq rather than in the United States as in the case of all other such trials, would ultimately resemble a platter seeking a sacrificial lamb to serve up to "former" insurgents and Iraqi officials alike. As things turned out, Vela became that lamb.
In any case, Hensley concocted a politically correct, brass-pleasing cover story over the course of several phone calls to the command post -- something about the approach of an insurgent armed with an AK-47. He then ordered Evan Vela to kill the man. It was Vela's first "kill."
Long story short: The court martial nightmare our deceased SEALs in Afghanistan feared more than death in battle came true for Hensley and two other members of the squad. Hensley ultimately served 135 days of confinement and the other soldier connected to the case, Jorge Sandoval, served five months in prison. Only Evan Vela, the young Ranger-trained sniper who carried out his superior's battlefield order, was convicted of "murder." Vela, a 25-year-old husband and father of two small children, is now spending his first of 10 Christmases in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth.
This is a grotesque miscarriage of military justice. It is not the only such travesty to come out of Iraq, but I don't know of another case more deserving of a presidential pardon. Fortunately, two Republican lawmakers from Idaho agree. U.S. Senator George Crapo and U.S. Representative Mike Simpson have recently written letters to the president urging him to pardon Evan Vela.
Our 43rd President frequently expresses gratitude to our troops for their willingness to fight for America's freedom as well as the freedom of foreign, even hostile peoples. I can think of no better way to enshrine that gratitude with a presidential pardon to restore the freedom of one of those very troops -- Sgt. Evan Vela.