After a Feud and Two Deaths, Iraq War Soldiers’ Families Torn

The New York Times

June 16, 2008 – Capt. Phillip Esposito and Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez went to war together, two very different soldiers from the same New York National Guard unit. After five months in Iraq, a bombing sent both men back home, one in a coffin, the other in handcuffs, a suspect in his murder.

Captain Esposito, as straightforward as his M4 carbine, was an Eagle Scout and West Point graduate who built a civilian career as a computer specialist for a Wall Street investment bank. His service as a National Guard company commander, family members said, was a matter of honor and old-fashioned patriotism.

Sergeant Martinez came from a tougher background, documents and interviews show, and found camaraderie and discipline in military service. Transplanted from Puerto Rico as a teenager, he drifted through a series of part-time jobs after high school, taking community college classes in electronics. But he had a habit of playing by his own rules, some of his managers said, and lacked maturity. Rejected by the Army Reserve and Navy Reserve, he was fired by U.P.S. in 1999.

The National Guard eventually admitted him on a waiver after three failed attempts to pass the military’s standardized aptitude test. Working at the Watervliet Arsenal, near Albany, Sergeant Martinez strained to handle duties that called for more than basic clerical or mechanical work.

In January 2005, with the Iraq insurgency in violent bloom, the dutiful company commander and the struggling sergeant deployed with the 42nd Infantry Division to Kuwait and then to northern Iraq. At a forward operating base in Tikrit, under battlefield conditions in a hostile Sunni Arab region, a mutual distrust between Sergeant Martinez and Captain Esposito devolved into acrimony and, according to Army prosecutors, premeditated murder.

“I want him to die,” one soldier later testified he heard Sergeant Martinez say soon after their arrival in Iraq.

On June 7 of that year, Sergeant Martinez detonated a Claymore mine he had placed in the window of Captain Esposito’s quarters, Army prosecutors said, killing him and severely wounding a first lieutenant, Lou Allen, who died later in surgery. They said three hand grenades were also used in the attack.

In the coming months, Sergeant Martinez is expected to face court-martial in the deaths. He has consistently maintained his innocence. If convicted, he would be eligible for the death penalty.

Attacks on soldiers by another soldier usually of a lower rank, known in military slang as “fragging” because a fragmentation grenade was often the weapon of choice, were an alarming problem during the Vietnam War but have been extremely rare in Iraq. The 2005 attack is only the second such case the Army has prosecuted since the beginning of the Iraq war. By comparison, in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, the Army logged more than 300 attacks that killed 75 commissioned and noncommissioned officers, said Paul J. Springer, a history professor at West Point.

Experts attributed the dropoff to the professionalism and higher morale that came with the all-volunteer military instituted in 1973. “With fragging, you’re likely to find someone who never really fit into the military system, who probably felt like an outsider,” said Dr. David Walker, a psychiatrist who served in the Air Force.

Prosecutors have argued that in this case, the evidence points squarely at Sergeant Martinez.

They said that he was the only soldier with access to grenades and Claymore mines who had repeatedly threatened the captain; that after the attack, investigators discovered a grenade crate in the sergeant’s supply room bearing the same serial number as the one stamped on grenade parts found near the scene; that shortly before the attack, 10 grenades from Sergeant Martinez’s supply area disappeared; and that immediately after the attack, he was seen wearing a Kevlar vest and standing in the road a few yards from where the mine’s firing apparatus was found.

Army defense lawyers have argued that the evidence is circumstantial and does not come close to showing that their client, who remains in military custody in North Carolina, committed any crime. Many soldiers had access to grenades, they said, and serial numbers on grenade crates did not always match those on the grenades inside.

Moreover, they argued, Sergeant Martinez’s statements about the captain “were of a venting nature,” and neither of the officers who testified that they heard them thought they were serious enough to report.

“Their argument is far more persuasive than any of the evidence that was presented,” one of the sergeant’s military lawyers, Maj. E. John Gregory, said of prosecutors’ case in a Nov. 1, 2005, hearing. “They rely on inference and circumstance.”

The deaths of Captain Esposito, 30, and Lieutenant Allen, 34, have led to a painful reckoning among their families.

Their widows, now raising five children between them, question why Sergeant Martinez, now 40, an underachiever rejected by other military branches, was accepted, promoted and sent to war by the National Guard. Within the 42nd Division, a proud unit with a distinguished history, questions linger over whether an embittered soldier’s threats to kill his commander should have been taken seriously.

“I’m convinced this was 100 percent preventable,” said Captain Esposito’s wife, Siobhan Esposito. “This guy was a problem, and they knew he was a problem.”

Barbara Allen, Lieutenant Allen’s wife, said, “We’re never going to be free of this until the death penalty is carried out.”

Sergeant Martinez’s lawyers declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for the National Guard said he could not discuss an active case.

Friction From the Start

In a National Guard reliant on soldiers from divergent backgrounds, Captain Esposito and Sergeant Martinez never got along. The sergeant saw the captain as an arrogant taskmaster. To the captain, according to other soldiers in the unit, Sergeant Martinez was a knucklehead who lacked wartime discipline. Sergeant Martinez fumed none too quietly at what he saw as his young commander’s hubris, telling another sergeant months before the explosion: “I can’t wait for him to get his.”

“When I meet the commander for the first time, he express himself to be better than me and other people,” the sergeant wrote hours after the fatal explosion, in a sworn statement laced with grammatical and spelling errors. “He never have respect for the lower enlisted personel.”

There are no clear-cut rules about what, if anything, soldiers should do when another soldier makes threats against a superior. But though military culture tolerates grumbling, Sergeant Martinez’s expressions of anger and violence toward his captain should have caused other officers to act, said Dr. Springer, the history professor.

“That’s the sort of thing that Martinez should have been brought up on charges for,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between saying ‘I hate that guy’ and ‘I want to kill that guy,’ ” Dr. Springer added. “You can’t let that kind of thing go, because if you do, you’re encouraging a breakdown in discipline.”

By the time Phillip Esposito graduated with honors from Albertus Magnus High School, in Rockland County, in 1992, Alberto Martinez was a married father of two working as a part-time U.P.S. deliveryman around Albany.

After graduating in the top 10 percent of his class at West Point, Cadet Esposito became a first lieutenant and platoon leader in the Army’s 66th Armor, Fourth Infantry Division, at Fort Hood, Tex., where he earned numerous commendations, including one in 1999 for “dedication and professionalism.”

“He was one of the most meticulous people I ever met in my life,” Staff Sgt. Ashvin Thimmaiah said of Captain Esposito during a 2005 military hearing on the evidence in the murder case. Rules and standards were always uppermost in the captain’s mind. “He followed them to the letter,” Sergeant Thimmaiah said. “He enforced it to the letter as well.”

At his wife’s urging, Captain Esposito left active duty in 2000, joined the National Guard and began a civilian career as a technology manager for Salomon Smith Barney in Lower Manhattan.

An Exception to Join

Sergeant Martinez had been serving part-time as a Guardsman in 1999 when U.P.S. fired him, he said, for repeatedly failing to properly deliver packages. He collected state unemployment benefits for five months until the National Guard gave him a job verifying vehicle and weapons inventories at armories around the state.

Sergeant Martinez had needed special permission just to enter the military, after scoring in the 15th, 17th and 21st percentile in his attempts to pass its standardized aptitude battery between 1987 and 1990, according to records obtained by The New York Times. To pass, applicants must score above the 30th percentile. On Dec. 20, 1990, a Guard colonel granted him what is known as a Mental Category IV waiver, for recruits with low test scores who the service believes can be trained to be good soldiers.

Waivers have long been a touchy subject for a military that markets itself as being interested in only the most capable recruits. Since 2001, so-called mental and moral waivers, for enlistees with low test scores or scrapes with the law, have received increasing public and official scrutiny.

In the 1980s, roughly 10 percent of Army recruits required Category IV waivers. After the 1991 gulf war, the Pentagon restricted those recruits to less than 4 percent of new enlistees across all branches, David S. C. Chu, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said in a conference call with reporters last October. The New York National Guard grants roughly the same number of waivers as the Army over all.

In the late 1990s through 2002, Sergeant Martinez seemed to do well in the National Guard and was rated “among the best” soldiers by his superiors, who commended him for “exceptional military bearing” in 2000 and “absolute loyalty to the unit” in 2002, documents showed. At the same time, his U.P.S. managers repeatedly urged him to show improvement.

Outside work, he also struggled. On the morning of Dec. 18, 2002, fire swept through his home in Cohoes, which he bought eight years earlier. Fire officials decided the cause was electrical. But his insurer, Liberty Mutual, refused to pay, believing Sergeant Martinez had set the fire to collect on his policy.

By January 2003, fed up with months of late payments, the mortgage holder, Wells Fargo, moved to foreclose on the home.

In a brief interview, Sergeant Martinez’s wife, Tamara Martinez, described him as a good husband and attentive father of two teenagers. “He’s got a family that loves him,” she said. “Albert is a terrific guy,” she added, before politely ending the conversation.

By 2004, the war had begun its turn for the worse, and Guard units across the country were mobilized for active duty. That May, Captain Esposito was called up to Latham, N.Y., near Albany, and became the leader of the 42nd Division’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, a division-level supply and logistics company.

He was put in charge of a Guard company that was, by his standards, frustratingly informal and unfocused as it prepared to deploy to Iraq, soldiers said later in military court testimony.

Not everyone in the unit appreciated the captain’s hut-to style.

As the unit counted the days to deployment, Captain Esposito scheduled more and more meetings; Sergeant Martinez, the unit’s supply sergeant, seemed unable or unwilling to keep up with the myriad demands on him and grew increasingly bitter, soldiers said.

The unit relocated to Fort Drum, N.Y., late in 2004, after which the sergeant began threatening Captain Esposito to other soldiers, according to testimony. “I could kill him; I want him to die,” a major in the division testified hearing Sergeant Martinez say.

Increasing Acrimony

By the time the company was ready to deploy to Kuwait, the relationship between the captain and the sergeant had reached a low point.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Sgt. First Class Peggy Schumacher said of one heated argument between the two men. “I was appalled.”

Once in Tikrit, Sergeant Martinez, as supply sergeant, was doing the work normally handled by three or four people; the entire unit felt the pressure of operating in the heart of a Sunni insurgency. When the unit lost track of $30,000 worth of equipment, including night-vision goggles and radio encryption devices, the division command docked both Captain Esposito and Sergeant Martinez a month’s pay. Each man blamed the other for the blunder, said Luis J. Badillo, a lieutenant and the company’s executive officer at the time.

“My thought process at that time was to try to keep them as far apart and away from each other as possible,” said Mr. Badillo, now a New York State Police trooper.

By late May, Captain Esposito began openly belittling Sergeant Martinez, soldiers said, and forbade him from even entering the supply room without an escort from a superior officer. Sometime that month, Sergeant Martinez, worried about losing his job, made threats against Captain Esposito in a conversation with another captain in the unit.

“He said that he hated Esposito,” that captain, Carl Prober, testified in 2005. Sergeant Martinez, in a profanity-laced tirade, threatened to “frag” Captain Esposito, Captain Prober said.

In military court hearings examining the murder case, Captain Prober was not asked what, if any, action he took after hearing the threat.

Just days before the explosions, Lieutenant Allen, a friend of Captain Esposito’s from Milford, Pa., and a high school science teacher, joined the unit to organize a supply function that under Sergeant Martinez had become, according to Mr. Badillo, a “nightmare.”

On June 5 or 6, Captain Esposito began a search to replace Sergeant Martinez as supply sergeant. In one of the last orders he would give, he asked Sergeant Thimmaiah to draw up a list of candidates.

On the evening of June 7, Captain Esposito and Lieutenant Allen played the board game Risk with Sergeant Thimmaiah and were catching up afterward in the captain’s office.

Around 10 p.m., a thunderous blast shook the building. Three smaller explosions followed. Everyone assumed they were under an insurgent mortar attack. Then came a cry for help.

Entering the captain’s office, Captain Prober, a 19-year Army veteran, found Lieutenant Allen on the floor, conscious but gravely wounded. Captain Esposito was face down amid shattered furniture and glass, not breathing and “just destroyed,” Captain Prober said.

Combat triage quickly gave way to a murder investigation. Military investigators found fragments of the Claymore at the scene. In and around a manmade lake nearby, they discovered the metal handles from three American grenades and the Claymore’s detonation cord and firing device.

Moments after the explosions, Staff Sgt. David Wentzel, who had taken refuge in a small cement building nearby, saw Sergeant Martinez standing in the road near the captain’s quarters, visibly shaking, as if shell-shocked, according to Sergeant Wentzel’s testimony.

“After I had time to think about it, it was almost like he knew it was over,” he said. “He wasn’t running around trying to seek cover. He was standing there.”

This entry was posted in Gulf War Updates, Veterans for Common Sense News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.