The breakdown in unit trust was key in facilitating events leading up to and following the infamous Mahmudiyah killings in Iraq, Pfc. Justin Watt told a group of noncommissioned officers during a professional development forum at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition.
Watt, the key whistleblower in the case, recounted his personal experiences and how they apply to the Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III’s AUSA forum on unit trust Oct. 22.
“The sergeant major doesn’t want to hide from things that we failed at,” said Watt who further praised Chandler for examining this incident and trying to make incidents like this less likely in the future.
The killings involved the gang-rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the killing of her and her family in 2006 by five soldiers from the 502nd Infantry division in a village in the “Triangle of Death” – the heart of the Sunni insurgency at the time.
Upon discovering the true perpetrators of the crime, Watt went out of the chain of command to report the incident. In response, Watt began receiving deaths from those soldiers accused of the crime.
“It’s easy to look at it all in a Power Point, like it’s an academic subject,” Watt said. “At the end of the day … the business we’re in is a life and death business.”
Watt echoed Chandler’s emphasis on turning the concepts from this NCO forum into action and explained how the lack of peer-to-peer trust and discipline was instrumental in fostering the conditions for the brutal incident.
“We were in an environment where trust wasn’t tested,” Watt said. “In garrison we didn’t see it…but there wasn’t that institutional trust.”
Watt explained that after his platoon experienced heavy casualties, including a number of key leaders, “it turned into a tribe.”
Therefore, Watt said, it is important that soldiers should be able to rely and trust everyone in their unit, not just a few key figures.
“We cannot gamble as an institution that someone’s going to be superman,” he said. “Everyone’s just got to be 100 percent on top of it at all times.”
Adding, “It’s so important to convey to you what the costs could be.”
Watt almost didn’t make it out of Iraq alive, he said. Not only did he face danger from the insurgents but from his own men as well after suspicions fell on him that he was the anonymous whistleblower.
“It was just my word against two NCOs and a whole bunch of people who were more senior than me,” Watt said. “I got terrified. I was so alone.”
Luckily for Watt, he was able to contact then-Sgt. John Diem, now an Infantry noncommissioned officer, in the area who notified the chain of command to get him out of the area for his own protection.
“That’s the only reason I’m alive today,” Watt said. “The platoon leader, countless squad leaders could’ve said something, but nobody did – except for [Diem]. So that’s what trust means to me.”