BAGHDAD -- A US Army private yesterday said a fear of death gripped his unit, whose members stand accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl and killing her family in Iraq.
``You're just walking a death walk," Private First Class Justin Cross testified during a hearing to determine whether five fellow soldiers must stand trial in the March 12 attack near Mahmoudiya, an area known as the ``Triangle of Death" because of the large number of Iraqi Shi'ites who were waylaid and murdered along the roads there .
Specialist James P. Barker, Sergeant Paul E. Cortez, Private First Class Jesse V. Spielman, and Private First Class Bryan L. Howard are accused of raping and murdering the girl and killing her parents and 5-year-old sister.
Another soldier, Sergeant Anthony W. Yribe, is accused of failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have participated.
Testimony during the Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury, has painted a picture of a demoralized unit, drained emotionally after the deaths of comrades and exhausted after the frequent attacks in the mostly Sunni Arab area, a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other religious extremists.
``It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up," Cross said at the hearing. ``You just hit a point where you're like, `If I die today, I die.' "
Cross said that the unit was ``full of despair," and that he feared dying at his post.
``I couldn't sleep, mainly for fear we would be attacked," Cross said. He said the deaths of two soldiers at a checkpoint ``pretty much crushed the platoon."
To cope with the stress, he said, soldiers turned to whiskey -- a violation of US regulations in Iraq -- and painkillers.
Much of the testimony has centered on former Private First Class Steven D. Green, who was discharged, the Army said, because of a personality disorder.
Green was arrested in June shortly after the command learned US soldiers may have been involved in the attack.
He has pleaded not guilty to rape and murder charges and is being held in the United States.
Yesterday, Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Fenlason, the accused soldiers' platoon sergeant, said he was sent to the unit to restore discipline after several soldiers, including Green, began suffering emotionally after losing comrades.
``I recall a conversation with him [Green] regarding his lack of concern or caring for Iraqi life versus American soldiers' life," Fenlason said.
Another witness, Sergeant Daniel Carrick, said harsh conditions affected everyone, but especially Green.
``Green had hatred for a lot of people ," Carrick said.
Premeditated murder carries the death penalty under US military law, and the testimony could be an attempt to persuade the command to seek a lesser penalty if a court martial is ordered.
In Washington, lawyer Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said combat stress as a defense was a long shot ``unless it rose to the level of an insanity defense or negated some element of the crime."