Copyright 2004 THE BLADE
WASHINGTON - In a case that has reached the top levels of the Pentagon, military investigators will begin interviewing former soldiers of an elite platoon accused of slaughtering scores of unarmed civilians in the Vietnam War.
The Army will begin meeting with witnesses as part an ongoing review under the direction of acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee, who was asked to look into the matter by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Army agents will meet with former paratroopers who said they watched the executions of villagers by Tiger Force in 1967 in the longest series of atrocities by a U.S. fighting unit in the conflict.
The move represents the first effort by the military to talk to soldiers since a Blade series in October revealed the platoon's brutal sweep through 40 villages where civilians were tortured and killed.
The newspaper found that field commanders knew of the soldiers' actions, and in some cases, encouraged the violence.
Though the Army spent 4 1/2 years investigating the special force starting in 1971 - substantiating 20 war crimes against 18 soldiers - the case never reached a military court and no one was charged.
Investigators are expected to take statements from former Army journalist Dennis Stout and ex-Tiger Force medic Rion Causey, both witnesses to the atrocities, to find out what happened during the platoon's patrols through the highly contested Central Highlands between May and November, 1967.
Both men said they were surprised when they were contacted last week by an Army investigator.
“I've waited years to talk to them,” said Mr. Stout, 58, a former reporter for a military newspaper. “I saw people killed who didn't deserve to die. It was wrong. I've lived with this for more than 30 years.”
The interviews are “part of the review and assessment of the original investigation,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Curry, who declined to elaborate.
Officials would not say whether the Army would seek charges against former soldiers and officers.
As part of the new inquiry, the Army has appointed an investigator to look into why the original Army inquiry was dropped in 1975 with no charges filed.
Agents are expected to report their findings by March, according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), whose office has been trying to spur a congressional investigation.
Mr. Kucinich said last week he was pleased the Army was going to talk to witnesses.
He said for three decades, the case has “been dismissed by the Army,” and that it was time to carry out “a thorough and expedient investigation of this matter.”
Military experts say the move by the Army to take testimony in the case is one of the few times the Army has reached back into history to look at war crimes committed by a U.S. fighting unit.
In 1999, Pentagon officials began interviewing witnesses to a U.S. military assault on South Korean civilians during the Korean War in 1950 after the Associated Press wrote stories about the massacre. Two years later, U.S. officials said an undetermined number of civilians were wrongfully killed.
Since The Blade's series in October, the revelations about Tiger Force “have been hard for the Army to ignore,” said William Eckhardt, a war-crime expert and former military prosecutor during the Vietnam War.
“You need to know what happened, and maybe more importantly, to make sure it doesn't happen again.”
A special fighting unit created to spy on enemy soldiers in Vietnam, Tiger Force spun dangerously out of control for seven months, according to the newspaper's series, which was based on thousands of records and interviews with dozens of former platoon members and Vietnamese villagers.
Grenades were dropped in earthen bunkers where women and children were hiding and unarmed farmers were executed in their fields. Prisoners were beaten and shot - their ears and scalps severed for keepsakes.
Mr. Stout, then a reporter for the Screaming Eagle newspaper, said he was barred from writing about the atrocities, but he said he reported the attacks to his commanders. No investigations were conducted, he said.
The other witness, Mr. Causey, 56, who served as a medic with Tiger Force in 1967, said he's prepared to talk about the platoon's attacks on villagers.
“What I can clearly say is that we went into that valley and we killed every male over 16 years old - without question,” he said. “I only saw one [enemy] gun the whole time. It wasn't about killing enemy soldiers. This was about killing villagers. It went on and on. By the end, I had just had it. I was just sick of it.”
He and Mr. Stout will be interviewed by Major Randal Doyle in late February, according to the two witnesses. Major Doyle declined to comment, referring questions to the Pentagon.
Though the Army began reviewing records of the Tiger Force case after The Blade's series, “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” was published, the inquiry has reached a second stage.
Army officials have refused to say how many witnesses will be interviewed, or when the inquiry will end.
A spokesman for Mr. Kucinich's office said the findings will be presented to Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, the commander of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, in early March.
General Ryder will then make a recommendation to Secretary Brownlee on the next course of action. The Army could order a new investigation or simply close the case, said the spokesman.
Mr. Kucinich said he wants to know why the original Tiger Force investigation was dropped in 1975.
The left-liberal, long-shot contender for the Democratic presidential nomination wrote to Secretary Rumsfeld in November, requesting a meeting to talk about the case.
Mr. Rumsfeld, who was defense secretary under President Gerald Ford when the original investigation was dropped, responded to Congressman Kucinich in a letter on Dec. 22, saying he referred the case to Secretary Brownlee.
Mr. Rumsfeld has repeatedly said he does not recall the original Tiger Force investigation - the longest war-crime case of the Vietnam War. More than 100 case agents were sent to 63 cities and military bases around the world to gather evidence.
Mr. Kucinich said he wants questions surrounding the case to be resolved. “I eagerly await to be briefed on the results,'' he said. “For over 30 years, this matter has been dismissed by the Army.”
As the ranking Democrat on the House's national security subcommittee, he said he'll continue to press for a congressional inquiry.
For the past 30 years, Mr. Stout said he has been waiting to talk to the Army about the atrocities he witnessed as a young soldier.
“All these years, I was left thinking I was alone in trying to get these things exposed,” said the Phoenix contractor, now 58. “But I was wrong. Now, I don't feel like I'm all alone. I feel such a sense of relief that this is finally being brought out in the open.''