The Last Patrol
In 2019, President Trump pardoned Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 20-year sentence for ordering the murder of two Afghan civilians. To Lorance’s defenders, the act was long overdue. To members of his platoon, it was a gross miscarriage of justice.
September 27, 2020
In 2019, President Trump pardoned Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 20-year sentence for ordering the murder of two Afghan civilians.
To Lorance’s defenders, the act was long overdue. To members of his platoon, it was a gross miscarriage of justice.
The Last Patrol
I wrote to former Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance in early March, four months after he was pardoned by President Donald Trump and released from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. He had served six years of a 20-year sentence after being convicted of ordering the murders of two Afghan civilians near a small forward operating base outside Kandahar, one of the most violent and kinetic regions of the country.
Lorance, according to news accounts, was an inexperienced lieutenant who’d just taken over the platoon of an admired commander wounded in an IED attack. He had apparently wanted to impress his combat-hardened troops. They reported him hours after the shooting.
His case seemed different from those of Major Matthew Golsteyn and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, the two other service members accused of war crimes in whose cases the president had also intervened on November 15, 2019. For one thing, Lorance hadn’t committed the murders himself; he had ordered others to shoot. For another, unlike Gallagher and Golsteyn, he had acted, his lawyers claimed, because his platoon faced an imminent threat of attack.
The media still seemed to be litigating his court-martial seven years later, I wrote in my email. Fox News welcomed him home as a war hero. The New York Times editorial pages decried him as a war criminal. I knew that United American Patriots (UAP), the organization that had campaigned for his release, was arguing that Lorance’s rights had been violated at his trial — specifically, that the government had withheld evidence proving that the people he’d ordered his men to shoot were Taliban bomb-makers, not civilians. I hoped to find out where he stood with his own conscience. I asked if he’d be amenable to a phone conversation.
He wrote me back less than an hour later: “Hey brother” — the salutation he would use in almost all of his emails — “I have been advised not to speak with any media with liberal slants…. I only do interviews with conservative media [because] they don’t try to attack President Trump via my tragedy.”
We kept up our correspondence. He told me he’d recently moved to Florida because “it is paradise” and that he was applying to law school, because he wanted to help other unjustly accused people. After a while, I asked if he would reconsider speaking with me. He replied with one sentence: “Let me think about this and pray about this.”
Seven weeks later, on a May morning, he appeared on the screen of my laptop. He was wearing a blue blazer and an American flag pin, as he had done for his homecoming interview on Fox & Friends. He was courteous but impassive at first, the image of a professional soldier. He answered my questions in a soft drawl, without nervousness or inhibition. He’d been released from a maximum-security prison less than six months earlier, and now Florida was on coronavirus lockdown. Sitting in his barely furnished apartment, he seemed glad for an opportunity to socialize. Gradually, he relaxed into the conversation. He laughed a lot, often when he was speaking most revealingly: He’d never want his own child to join the military. You start to love your fellow service members more than you do your own family. He thought about suicide at Fort Leavenworth.
There was a catchphrase he used when he talked about moments that had baffled, astonished, or wounded him: “What the hell?” he would say. In the long story he told me, there were many such moments.
The senior commander of U.S. forces in Kandahar Province, Colonel Brian Mennes, told his men to imagine themselves as beat cops. Walk the streets, talk to the locals, find out what’s up. “Have you seen any strangers around here lately? Has anybody told you to stay clear of a particular area?” This was how you fought an insurgency while also protecting civilians from harm — by getting to know people, showing them you were on the same side, helping them when you could. This was how you found IEDs.
From late May 2012 to early July, IEDs were almost the whole war, as the 40-odd members of First Platoon, C Troop, of the 4-73rd Cavalry of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division knew it. On their daily patrol into the tiny village of Sarenzai, they crept in single file behind the soldier carrying a beeping, warbling Minehound. To cover the 200 meters between the base and Sarenzai could take as long as an hour. If the platoon had to stop — because something broke, or the battery in a piece of equipment died, or the men came under attack — they’d sprinkle baby powder on the dusty ground to mark the farthest point they’d swept.
In 2012, as in 2020, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan seemed confused, exorbitantly expensive, and unfruitful. It had failed to achieve its goal of building a self-sustaining local government and military. But it’s not the job of infantry soldiers to question their mission. During the spring and summer of 2012, the men of First Platoon fought with valor in one of the war’s fiercest battle zones. They also fought with restraint, because those were their orders: to win the “hearts and minds” of the inhabitants of a remote village by defending them without causing them harm.
First Platoon had begun its deployment in February in Maiwand District in southern Kandahar Province. Under the command of First Lieutenant Dominic Latino, it pushed into Taliban territory that U.S. forces hadn’t touched in a decade. In one operation, a patrol engaged a nest of Taliban snipers. Three times Latino called in air support to bomb the Taliban position. Three times new snipers appeared and replaced the dead ones. Three times Latino led his men across the battlefield to verify that the dead were combatants and not civilians. Twice, they came under such heavy fire that they had to turn back. The operation went on for eight hours without a single American casualty, until all of the Taliban reinforcements had been killed.
From February until early June, First Platoon killed at least 20 insurgents without losing a single man, or injuring a civilian. On May 20, it moved to a new, even more treacherous area of operations: the Arghandab Valley of southeastern Afghanistan, the ancestral home of the Taliban and the most fertile region of the country. Farmers grew grapes to sell fresh or dried; others harvested poppies.
Just as the jungle favored the enemy in Vietnam, the labyrinthine agricultural terrain of the Arghandab favors the Taliban. It restricts maneuverability and obscures sightlines. Afghans build walls encroaching on every road in order to claim their land holdings. In the grape fields, they pile berms of earth into parallel rows taller than a man’s head to form trellises for the vines.
Every day, sometimes twice a day, a patrol marched between Strong Point Payenzai, the platoon’s base, and Sarenzai, which consisted of a dozen buildings in several compounds and 30 residents. To reach Sarenzai, the men filed through the irrigation rows of four grape fields, which were fenced in with concertina wire and were, at least in theory, less vulnerable to IED emplacement. The grape rows ran parallel across each field, like lines of text on a page. But at a certain point, the men, led by a minesweeper, would begin to climb over the 7-foot berms to reach the village.
Each time, they would clear the way of IEDs, and the next morning’s patrol would find more. The land was littered with IEDs, some of them a decade old or more. Over time, the wires corroded — or didn’t. One member of the platoon was legendary for stepping on live detonators connected to defunct bombs. Each pop! made for what one soldier recalls as “a butt-clenching moment.”
Colonel Mennes presented these missions as exercises in diplomacy and public relations, but some men described them more darkly as “presence patrols.” They were a show of force, a statement about who controlled the territory.
The roads could be traversed only by mine-resistant trucks. Foot patrols typically took the most arduous route, because the insurgents booby-trapped the areas of natural movement (“lines of drift” in military parlance), like a hole in a mud-brick wall or a bridge between irrigation canals. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, Lieutenant Latino and his commander would plan out patrols days in advance: We’ll jump this wall; we’ll blow a hole in that; we’ll pause here.
Virtually every time it left the Strong Point, First Platoon took fire. The strategy of the Taliban was simple: Using small arms, they would attempt to maneuver the platoon into triggering buried IEDs, then open fire with machine guns.
For the first month, the Strong Point didn’t even have tents or cots. To cool off in the 100-degree heat, the men would turn on the bulldozer the civil engineers had left behind and duck into its air-conditioned cabin. Amid this extreme stress and discomfort, Lieutenant Latino dispatched with some traditional military practices. To conserve water, which was scarce, he didn’t require the men to shave. He allowed them to call him by his first name. It was so hot, the Minehound batteries sometimes overheated and died. First Platoon was doing two eight-hour patrols every day, plus three eight-hour shifts of guard duty. There wasn’t enough manpower to get it all done, plus allow for sleep and downtime.
On June 6, the platoon suffered its first casualty. Private First Class Samuel Walley stepped on an IED and suffered the loss of his left arm below the elbow and his right leg below the knee, as well as serious soft-tissue damage to his left leg. On June 13, another IED blew off Private First Class Mark Kerner’s buttocks. The same explosion inflicted shrapnel wounds on Lieutenant Latino’s abdomen, limbs, eyes, and face. Latino was medevaced to Germany. On June 23, Specialist Matthew Hanes, a minesweeper, was shot through the neck and paralyzed below the waist.
In late June, the platoon was pulled back from Strong Point Payenzai to the Tactical Operations Center at Ghariban, about 3 kilometers away. The chain of command had approved giving the men a three-day hiatus for rest, counseling if they wanted it, and a “hot wash” — a review of procedures. There were also showers and freshly prepared food.
The men had been wondering who would succeed Lieutenant Latino, and at Ghariban, they learned it would be First Lieutenant Clint Lorance. They had heard Lorance was “squared away” — exemplary in both character and ability — even if some were aware that Captain Patrick Swanson, who supervised both First and Second Platoons, had pushed to promote a different lieutenant.
Lorance had the kind of bearing garrison commanders love: Blond and blue-eyed, he looked, as one soldier in the platoon said, “like Captain America.” He seemed affable and motivated. The men noticed that he didn’t have a Ranger tab, which was unusual for a lieutenant. That meant someone had a lot of confidence in him.
The Strong Point was laid out in a triangle. Occupying about half the area of a football field, it had formidable walls constructed from the same building material the Afghans had been using for centuries: earth, packed by the ton into stackable wire-and-fabric modules called Hescos. Within the walls there were three air-conditioned semicircular Alaska tents, two for troops and one for the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant, and the communications technology. At each of the triangle’s three points, a watchtower rose 15 feet. A manned gun truck guarded the Strong Point’s entrance.
On one side of the Strong Point was the village of Payenzai, and on the other, the village of Sarenzai — part of First Platoon’s “beat.” From the moment the men left the base, the Taliban were watching. Although the insurgents had ceded Sarenzai to the Americans, they took firing positions a few hundred meters away, on the far side of the village. It was from there that they had shot Matt Hanes.
On the morning of Monday, July 2, the soldiers of First Platoon woke up at 0500 to begin hydrating. The temperature hit 100 degrees an hour later. Lieutenant Lorance was preparing for an 0700 step-off. It was his second full day in command.
What follows is his version of the events that took place that day.
Lorance met with the commander of the Afghan National Army patrol that was also participating in this mission. Under a new program, the Afghans now walked at the head of every patrol. The Afghan commander announced that his men would be following new Rules of Engagement: To defend against suicide bombers, they would be shooting oncoming motorcycles on sight. Lorance shared this information with his team, whose own Rules of Engagement — which stipulated soldiers could not open fire unless someone attacked them first or threatened to — remained unchanged.
Two helicopters were circling overhead. Drawing on his connections at headquarters, Lorance had called them in to provide reconnaissance. He wanted maximum protection for his men. He had slept only 45 minutes to an hour each of the previous two nights. He was drinking a lot of coffee. So when a group of locals from the village delayed him at the entry control point with a complaint, he was curt with them.
When the patrol, 17 American and seven Afghan soldiers, left the Strong Point, Lorance noted that it was 0655, five minutes ahead of schedule. The mission, which Lorance had shared with the platoon the night before, was to clear every building in the village and identify the people inside. Were insurgents sheltering in Sarenzai, as he suspected? Private First Class James Skelton carried a portable electronic device called a SEEK that would help answer this question. The SEEK was used to collect photographs, fingerprints, and iris scans from Afghans and was connected to a database of biometric evidence left behind on exploded IEDs. If a match linked an Afghan with bomb-making materials, the SEEK would “pop hot.”
Crossing the road into the first of four grape fields, the platoon entered a separate ecosystem. Muddy, lush, and dark, the rows were irrigated by mountain rivers redirected through a millennia-old network of underground tunnels. The berms on which the vines rested could shrink a soldier’s vision to a narrow rectangle, as if he were inside a World War I trench.
Twelve minutes into the patrol, Private Skelton climbed atop a berm and peered through his binoculars. “Bike!” he called out to Lorance standing below. A motorcycle carrying three riders was heading toward them at a high rate of speed down Route Chilliwack, a road so densely packed with IEDs that no one but insurgents ever used it. The motorcycle was about 160 meters away.
Lorance had written in his notebook that Skelton was a former police officer. As a former military policeman himself, he liked that. So when Skelton asked permission to shoot — that was the key thing: He did ask permission — Lorance trusted there was good reason to. “Yes,” he ordered Skelton. “Engage the motorcycle.” Skelton shot two rounds. Both missed.
At around the same time — maybe before, maybe after; eight years later, it’s difficult to remember exactly — Lorance heard the Afghan soldiers firing. They had eyes on the situation, unlike him, and if they were shooting, they must know something he didn’t. Although there had never been a motorcycle-bomb attack on U.S. forces in this area of operations, he knew that there had been two in recent weeks, including one near Kandahar Airfield that had killed 23 and wounded 25.
All Lorance could see was mud and grapes, but in the mental picture he was forming, the motorcycle had rounded a sharp bend and was speeding toward the Afghan soldiers as they exited the grape rows onto the road. He tried multiple radio channels but couldn’t get through to anyone. The communications technology depended on line of sight.
His men were in danger, and he had to make a split-second decision. He was finally able to make contact with one of the gun trucks that was providing overwatch. He ordered it to deliver precision shots. From the gun truck, Private David Shilo, an experienced marksman, discharged a burst of 7.62 millimeter rounds from the mounted machine gun. “This was effective,” Lorance would later write in his log.
Arriving on the dirt road that led into the village, the patrol discovered two of the three Afghan men lying beside a ditch. They were dead. Their companion had run away. Near them, the motorcycle leaned on its kickstand.
It wasn’t at all the scene Lorance had imagined. “If I would have been up there,” he told me, “and would have known that they were stopped and off their motorcycle, I would never in a million years have said, ‘Fire at them.’ I would want to go talk to them and get intel out of them. I’d be like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I would want to know everything about them.”
A woman and two children stood near the bodies, weeping.
Holy shit, Lorance thought. Did we just kill good people?
The way to find out was to do a Battle Damage Assessment. Skelton was the intelligence specialist who carried the SEEK. But Lorance wanted Skelton to follow him into the village to carry out the mission and get the biometric enrollments. The engagement with the motorcycle had been necessary and unfortunate, but it wasn’t important. He ordered two of his men to conduct the Battle Damage Assessment while he proceeded into the village. They had the necessary training, even if they didn’t have the SEEK. They knelt by the bodies.
Captain Swanson, who had been alerted to the situation, was radioing Lorance from headquarters. What was happening? he asked. Were the dead men combatants or civilians? Had Lorance done the Battle Damage Assessment?
No, Lieutenant Lorance replied, they hadn’t been able to do the Battle Damage Assessment. The villagers had taken away the bodies.
As he spoke, he knew he had just made a critical mistake. He should have said that his men would get to the Battle Damage Assessment eventually, that they didn’t have time to do that shit right now. Because when you speak over the radio, “you might as well be putting your hand on the Bible,” as one member of the platoon told me.
In the years to come, Lorance’s decision not to use the SEEK device for the Battle Damage Assessment would prove to be crucial and polarizing. It would contribute both to his imprisonment and his pardon.
The weeping woman was screaming now. Lorance told himself that her tears didn’t necessarily mean he’d done anything wrong. The men whose bodies she was crying over could be insurgents. That shocked him — the idea that the Taliban had families, too. It had never occurred to him before.
He wanted to examine the motorcycle, to see if it was packed with explosives, but it was gone. His men had allowed a teenage boy to wheel it away.
Lieutenant Lorance directed the Afghan soldiers to continue the mission, and they began bringing people out of their homes.
At 0830, the platoon’s second gun truck reported that another motorcycle was approaching it. The soldiers in the truck ordered its rider to stop, and he complied. They detained him; his hands later tested positive for residue from the homemade explosives often used in IEDs.
At 1000, Lorance got word of another firefight involving members of the patrol’s weapons squad, which had been providing security from a rooftop outside Sarenzai. It had killed one man and wounded another, whom the patrol detained.
The vibe had turned ominous and jagged. It felt as though the entire village was turning against the patrol. There was no telling where a Taliban attack could come from. “We got to go!” Lorance’s men told him.
“Let ’em come!” Lorance said, but he let his men hurry him off.
That evening, he and several soldiers drove the two detainees to Ghariban for processing. He had just begun writing his report on the day’s patrol when Captain Swanson appeared and led him to the weightlifting tent so they could speak privately.
Swanson said he had received a report of a possible civilian casualty. He had concerns about Lorance’s reporting of the engagement that morning, and he was suspending him temporarily. He told him to wait in the sleeping tent while it was sorted out.
Having worked at brigade headquarters, where he had known of incidents like this, Lorance was shocked. How could anybody say he had done the wrong thing? He had been protecting his men. Ordering them to shoot was the hardest decision he had ever made. He didn’t know if his lack of sleep had affected his decision-making; he hoped not.
As he walked to the tent with Swanson, he passed by the entrance to the dining facility. There, he glimpsed members of the patrol sitting at tables, bent over sheets of paper. He realized they must be writing statements. They must have reported him.
His parents, Lorance told me, are “like religious extremists in the Middle East.” He was raised in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the most literalist and severe of the Pentecostal denominations. Women aren’t allowed to wear makeup, pierce their ears, or cut their hair. Boys and men wear long sleeves and long pants. Once, Lorance came home in a pair of shorts he’d bought at Goodwill, and his grandfather, the person he admired most in the world, wept at the sight of him. Televisions were forbidden.
This was in rural Oklahoma and Texas. Lorance grew up as the third of four children. His mother took in occasional work as a seamstress, and his father was a welder who traveled to jobs in and out of state. Today, Lorance wonders if his father’s life on the road might have been a way of escaping a wife who was chaotically energetic and colorful but nearly impossible to please, perhaps as a consequence of her own frustrated hopes for herself. She had gotten pregnant at 17.
At friends’ houses, Lorance would secretly watch TV. His favorite show was The Pretender, about a man who instantly masters the tools of any profession, remaking his identity from episode to episode. When Lorance was 12, the family began to come undone. His father and brother left. His stepsister joined her biological father. Lorance and his sister and mother would move, more times than he can remember, from one tiny town to another. For a while, they continued to make the ten-hour round trip back to their church every Sunday.
His mother remarried, to her high school sweetheart, and Lorance, now her confidant and protector, says he called the police when he suspected his stepfather had hit her. Eventually, she reconciled with Lorance’s father. But when the family decided to move again, Lorance stayed behind with his aunt. He was 16, with his own pickup truck, and for once he wanted to finish the year at the same school where he’d begun it.
Up to that point, his mother had been the only constant adult in his life. He loved her, but he had resolved to be her opposite. “Reality seems to be in a state of flux around her,” he says, and he was determined to be “more grounded, more precise, and not to exaggerate.” Once, he remembers, he interrupted her while she was telling his uncle a story. “That’s not the truth,” he said — and she slapped him. “Impulsiveness is something I’ve struggled with my whole life because of my mom,” he says.
He had been a watchful, quiet kid. He listened to his sisters discover boys and his brother discover girls, knowing from an early age he was gay himself — an “abomination” in the eyes of the church and also a threat to his own safety. “In rural Texas,” he says, “you might get hanged from a tree for that.” He had a gay cousin whom his mother talked about as if he were “some kind of demon.” His only other reference point was Will & Grace, but he disliked the show because he couldn’t see himself in its “flamboyant” characters. Always big for his age, he was never bullied, and he changed schools so often that nobody got to know him well enough to suspect anything. He taught himself not to walk or talk “feminine.” But other kids weren’t the enemy. His own parents were. Had they discovered that he was gay, they would have thrown him out. He lived, he says, in a state of panic, hating who he was, pretending to be someone else, praying every night to God to make him different.
On December 13, 2002, his 18th birthday, he enlisted at an Army recruiting station in Greenville, Texas. It might have seemed like an odd choice: Why pursue a career that would force him to hide his sexuality or else be discharged or — in a culture as homophobic as the military — possibly assaulted? “Because I am not somebody who runs from a fight,” he told me. Being a gay soldier was less scary to him than being the gay son of Pentecostal parents, he says, and the latter had prepared him for the former. What he wanted was to be accepted into perhaps the most hypermasculine society in America. “To compartmentalize such a big part of yourself is incredibly difficult and requires an incredible amount of energy,” he says. But the secrecy and fear “propelled” him. “That would be the thesis statement of my life: If I can’t be perfect in that way, I’ll be perfect in every other way.”
He served as a noncommissioned officer in South Korea, where he had his first date with another man (Outback Steakhouse, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, bungee jumping), then Alaska and Iraq. As he tells it, he pushed his men to achieve sometimes lofty goals, and they often did. He had to avoid fraternizing with them, though, particularly at bars; he feared giving himself away. He covertly visited gay clubs but found that other patrons sometimes thought he was straight. He had buried himself so deep that his own people couldn’t find him.
Returning from Iraq in 2007, he was selected for an ROTC program that paid his tuition at the University of North Texas and allowed him to graduate with an officer’s commission. He was the first person in his family to advance beyond high school. He was now in a long-term relationship, but his stress level was through the roof. Did he really want to serve a full 20 years and be paranoid everywhere he and his boyfriend went? Then, in 2010, to Lorance’s amazement, President Barack Obama announced he would end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Lorance loved the Army, and he was thriving there, and now he could stay.
Following leadership and air-assault training at Fort Benning, he proceeded to Ranger School, the Army’s most physically intense training program. A Ranger tab, the badge signifying completion of the course, is considered a prerequisite for career advancement. Lorance had competed in numerous Ironman-style competitions in the Army, but several days into the program, he woke up in a hospital, having collapsed from heat exhaustion during a five-hour orienteering course. Ranger School is about teamwork; Lorance, though, disliked delegating authority to people he believed to be less capable. During the training, he barely slept or ate. Trying to silence the interior voice that told him he was weak, he ignored another one that warned him he had reached his limits.
In March 2012, he shipped to Forward Operating Base Pasab in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He found himself in a furiously competitive environment populated by ambitious young lieutenants, all of them vying to be made platoon leader. That was how the Army worked — the constant pressure to get promoted, because it was always training your replacement. A deployment lasted nine months, with no guarantee a platoon would become available.
He worked as a liaison officer in the 4-73rd Cavalry of the 82nd Airborne. His job was to brief the brigade commander on operations and to audit radio chatter — listening in on situations in flux and anticipating the need for resources like air assets. Although two people were supposed to do this job, Lorance ended up working both the day and night shifts, sleeping the four hours in between. He was taking on too much, but he was regarded by commanders and peers as extremely capable. He was recommended for a Bronze Star.
He fantasized about taking out the number-two Taliban target in the region, and he also fantasized about dying in combat. His brother had wept when Lorance told him he was gay. (“I would have protected you,” his brother said, as if Lorance couldn’t have done that himself.) His mother told him, “I did not raise a girl. I raised a boy.” To his parents, his being gay canceled out all his other accomplishments. He thought falling in battle might redeem him in their eyes.
Some of his co-workers would later tell Army investigators that Lorance was a jovial presence at Pasab. Others remarked that he struck them as immature and occasionally inappropriate, often with women. He would blow kisses. He once stood up in the middle of a meeting to announce that a female officer “smelled good.” A lieutenant later told investigators that Lorance had no filter and would say whatever came into his mind.
For Memorial Day, Lorance’s boyfriend in the States posted a supportive message on the brigade’s Facebook page. Lorance was furious about this indiscretion — it was, he says, “unforgivable” — and broke up with the boyfriend immediately. Not long afterward, he says, he was auditing a combat situation when he noticed a lieutenant colonel standing awkwardly by his desk. “How are those hemorrhoids?” the man asked. More instances of harassment followed, he says: a lieutenant colonel who told his subordinates, “Are you going to let the gay guy outdo you?”; a colonel, an officer with no reason ever to address a lieutenant directly, who called him “La-La Lorance.” Did everyone on the base know he was gay? Would other soldiers have his back on the battlefield? Lorance had been terrified since his childhood of exactly this. (“None of us had any idea Clint was gay,” says Swanson, “but it’s totally plausible that he was experiencing these things.“)
In mid-June, the battalion commander approached Lorance at his desk and made an odd remark: “You need to get some new boots.” Lorance said, “Yes, sir,” and nodded vaguely. Then he understood. Even if he didn’t have a Ranger tab, even if everyone knew he was gay, his bosses were giving him his own platoon. He was being rewarded for his hard work.
Captain Swanson, now Lorance’s immediate supervisor, took charge of his training. Over the next several days, as they reviewed the plan and the battlespace around Strong Point Payenzai, Lorance says that Swanson confided to him that the platoon had become undisciplined. Lieutenant Latino had been too permissive. The men weren’t shaving; the NCOs — noncommissioned officers, essentially the day-to-day managers of the platoon — weren’t leading. That was why First Platoon had suffered so many casualties in such a short time. Lorance understood. They were hurting, and he had to come in strong and be the leader they needed. (Swanson denies making these statements, and others also say they are inaccurate. No one from Pasab, Ghariban, or First Platoon has corroborated Lorance’s characterization of the platoon and its leadership.)
The war was now in its 11th year. In Washington, D.C., as confidential documents later published by The Washington Post revealed, its planners were realizing that they could no longer articulate the mission or identify the enemy. From his desk at brigade headquarters, Lorance was convinced that the hearts-and-minds strategy Colonel Mennes promoted wasn’t working, just as it hadn’t worked in Vietnam. He scrawled a note on the dry-erase board near his desk about the First Platoon minesweeper who days earlier had been shot in the neck. Deny enemy sanctuary, he wrote, and get payback for Hanes.
On July 30, 2013, Lorance’s court-martial was convened at the Fort Bragg Courtroom Facility in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with Colonel Kirsten Brunson presiding.
Trial counsel — the government’s prosecutor — was Captain Kirk W. Otto, soon to be an associate professor at the Army’s legal teaching center and a co-author of its textbook on the laws of armed conflict. Clean-cut, with dirty-blond hair, he had a poster-boy demeanor not unlike Lorance’s.
“I know how to report so no one asks questions.” That, Otto said, was what Lorance had told his men as they stood over the bodies of the Afghans they had just killed. But the story of Lieutenant Lorance didn’t begin with the shootings on July 2. It began, Otto said, on June 30, the day he arrived at the Strong Point. Over less than 72 hours, Lorance had committed an escalating series of crimes, each one demonstrating reckless disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians. These crimes had culminated in two murders.
Lorance was defended by Guy Womack, a Houston-based ex-Marine who specialized in military cases. He had the crew cut, square jaw, and easy self-assurance of a big-time football coach. “This is not a murder case,” Womack responded in his own opening statement. “It’s a combat case.” To understand Lorance’s actions, he said, the members of the jury needed to understand the volatile nature of the region. Officers had to make decisions in fast-moving situations. It was extraordinarily difficult to distinguish friend from foe. At Pasab, Lieutenant Lorance had learned that “every time we see a motorcycle, something bad happens.” Based on his training and instincts, he had concluded that the Afghans speeding toward the patrol were Taliban — and no evidence existed to prove otherwise.
Two soldiers from the platoon described the first episode in Otto’s narrative. On June 30, they said, minutes after Lorance’s arrival at the Strong Point, a farmer and his toddler son had presented themselves there. The farmer had asked permission to move a stretch of concertina wire that intruded on his grape rows. No, Lorance said through an interpreter. If the farmer so much as tried, he’d have someone kill him. Lorance said he’d reconsider if the farmer brought him IEDs or pertinent information. While the farmer insisted that he had nothing to offer, Lorance continued: If an American soldier was blown up by a bomb in the farmer’s field, he would kill the man’s whole family. He pointed at the farmer’s son: “I’m going to kill him in front of you.”
A marksman recalled the events of the next day, Sunday, July 1. He was awakened in his tent and ordered to proceed to Tower 2, where Lorance, peering through his binoculars, directed him to shoot at several objects, including a motorcycle. Then Lorance ordered him to place bullets inches away from people in the village of Payenzai, who were going about their lives about 150 meters away.
The marksman remembered a man walking along a wall, who kept frantically changing directions when he shot at him. He remembered some villagers in a field; they were close enough that he could see, without the optics on his rifle, that they were children. “They’re kids,” he protested, and Lorance, without another word, moved on to a different target. This went on for one to two hours. The marksman had never before engaged in this kind of harassing fire nor seen anyone else do it. Lorance said its purpose was to make the Afghans “wonder why we were shooting at them so they would attend the shura,” a community meeting he had scheduled for the following Friday.
When Lorance came down from the tower, he strode into Staff Sergeant Dan Williams’s tent and exclaimed, “It’s funny watching those fuckers dance!” Concerned, Williams woke up the platoon sergeant, who had a loud argument with Lorance. When it was over, Lorance ordered Williams to report to Ghariban that the Strong Point had received potshots from the village; that’s why he’d ordered the marksman to open fire from the tower.
Williams said no, he wouldn’t make a false report, but he tried to appease Lorance. “You can’t do things like that,” he told him. “You’re changing the way we do things. You need to find more of your groove with us before having us do things that are questionable.”
Lorance replied that he “was in love with” the platoon, had loved them since his time at Pasab, and that he didn’t want to see any more of them get hurt.
Otto paused the narrative for a moment. He asked Williams, “Did he say anything about the Afghans?”
Williams replied: “He said … he fucking hated them.”
From the stand, the platoon sergeant acknowledged that he should have reported Lorance’s misconduct to the commander of the platoon at Ghariban. But he decided to “give him a second chance,” he said. For protecting and not reporting Lorance, he would be formally reprimanded, a black mark on his career.
At the Strong Point, Lorance adhered to his typical work ethic. When the NCOs invited him to play cards, he said no. He “seemed to never sleep,” one later told investigators. He scheduled meetings randomly throughout the day and night. Men said he behaved in a “manic” fashion, experienced “mood swings,” and “would get angry very quickly.” When a drone camera failed, apparently because of a mechanical issue, Lorance threatened to demote the soldier who operated it (which he wasn’t empowered to do). When his radio repeatedly failed to work, he berated the radio technician, who pointed out that Lorance kept using the wrong channel. (“He wouldn’t listen to any of us,” the technician later said.) He wouldn’t delegate responsibility for minor tasks. Although the bomb-sniffing dog had its own handler, Lorance carried it over the berms in the grape rows, having learned, he said, that fatigue affects the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.
On the night before the shootings, Lorance described the coming patrol to his men as “shock and awe.” They were going to “pull people out of their houses and line them up against the wall, Nazi-style,” he declared. When the soldiers said that this wasn’t how they operated, he told them, “This is what I want done and this is how we are going to do it.… We want them to fear us.” He had not cleared these tactics with Swanson.
Private Skelton took the stand to talk about the final patrol of Lorance’s military career. Skelton was the court-martial’s single most important witness, for both sides. A former North Carolina police officer, he was in his late 20s, well over 6 feet tall, “farm-boy strong,” as Swanson put it, and so overweight that some commanders considered him an eyesore. But he was smart and tenacious — the sort of soldier whose doggedness inspires onlookers to use the word “beast” as a verb.
To understand why Skelton’s testimony mattered so much, it’s necessary to understand the Rules of Engagement, or ROE, in force at the time.
The ROE grew out of the idea that getting it wrong in Afghanistan — specifically, killing civilians under any circumstance — was morally abhorrent and did irreparable damage to the goal of winning hearts and minds. But in an insurgency, the enemy dresses like a civilian, moves among civilians, and uses civilians as cover. How was a soldier supposed to determine whom he was allowed to shoot?
The standing ROE for U.S. forces stated that you could open fire only if one of two conditions was met: hostile act, meaning someone was using a weapon against you, or hostile intent, an often subjective standard meaning you were imminently threatened with serious bodily harm or death. If this seemed like a high threshold, the ROE also empowered a soldier to defend himself instantly, and without seeking approval from anyone, whenever he perceived a danger to his “life, limb, or eyesight.”
The ROE caused controversy because they required soldiers to exercise a high level of restraint and assume a sometimes discomfiting level of risk. But the Army operates according to the rules of discipline and order. Whether or not a soldier likes the ROE — and many find them frustrating — he is obligated to follow them. “We must give our troopers the confidence to take all necessary actions when it matters most while understanding the strategic consequences of civilian casualties,” General David Petraeus wrote in his tactical directive of August 2010.
The ROE were posted at the Strong Point and reviewed at least daily. But on the morning of July 2, for perhaps the first time in their careers, the soldiers in Lorance’s patrol did not have a common understanding of the ROE. At the pre-patrol brief, Lorance had made an announcement that provoked confusion. It is likely we will never know what he said because witnesses gave conflicting accounts.
Six soldiers testified that he said the ROE had changed and that two-wheeled motorcycles were now considered hostile and could be shot at on sight. The soldiers thought this didn’t make sense. Motorcycles were ubiquitous in the region, because the roads were too narrow for cars. Every family in the village had a motorcycle. You would see people jump on one, ride over to a pump at a canal, turn it on, then ride over to another one. You might as well be shooting bicycles on sight in the Dutch countryside. But two other platoon members, including the senior NCO, recalled that Lorance had told them it was the Afghan Army, not First Platoon, who’d be following these new ROE.
One of the six American soldiers who believed there were new Rules of Engagement that allowed him to shoot motorcycles on sight was James Skelton.
Skelton began his testimony by describing the scene at the entry point. As the patrol was getting ready to step off, four middle-aged men from Payenzai appeared. Skelton recognized them; he had biometrically enrolled them on past patrols. They stood off to the side as they spoke with Lorance through the platoon’s interpreter. They were angry about being shot at the evening before.
Lorance told the men that if they had a problem they wanted to discuss, they should come to his shura in four days. But it was evident that the men wanted to talk now. They wouldn’t go away. Lorance began yelling, Skelton testified. Lorance told the men he would have them shot if they didn’t leave in five seconds. He pulled back the charging handle on his M4, chambered a round — a gesture requiring no translation — and began counting down: five, four, three, two.... The panicking interpreter finally persuaded the men to leave.
As the patrol departed the Strong Point, Skelton was eighth in the line of Americans, 2 to 3 meters ahead of Lorance. The men of First Platoon followed their Afghan counterparts across the road, into and out of a 6-foot-deep ditch. Then they were in the grape rows.
Skelton’s role on patrols, as he testified, was “mostly to keep situational awareness for the platoon leader.” He climbed one of the berms rising on each side and saw a motorcycle with three riders approaching.
Skelton, the former cop, thought the motorcycle was going fast, 30 to 40 miles per hour. (Other witnesses estimated the speed to be half that.) Mindful of what he believed to be the new Rules of Engagement, Skelton feared a possible drive-by shooting or vehicle-borne IED.
“I called it out to Lieutenant Lorance,” Skelton testified, “and he told me to engage.”
Skelton fired twice and missed — he could see both rounds strike the wall just behind the men — before the motorcycle passed out of sight behind a dirt mound and uprooted tree. According to the Army investigation, the motorcycle was 161 meters away from Skelton at the moment he fired. Although they’d gone wide of their targets, the two rounds represented an escalation. If the motorcycle kept going now, it could be regarded as a hostile threat.
Skelton saw the passengers reappear on the other side of the mound, but now they were on foot, walking toward the Afghan soldiers at the head of the formation. Their hands were visible; they carried no weapons. The Afghan soldiers waved them back, telling them to stay away from the patrol, and the men quickly returned to their motorcycle.
Lorance did not ask Skelton what he was observing. Skelton could hear him speaking into the radio. Lorance still had no line of sight, but he had managed to establish communications with a gun truck. It was about 75 meters from the parked motorcycle, with a clear view. Skelton heard him order the truck to open fire.
The prosecutor wanted to know if Lorance had asked the soldiers in the gun truck what the Afghan men were doing. Skelton said no.
“He just told them to engage?”
The gunner fired several rounds. Moments later, the patrol found two Afghan men dead on the side of the road. One was lying on his back, his arms flung out, his feet nearly beneath the motorcycle. The impact of the bullets had caused him to lose one of his black sandals; it leaned against the motorcycle’s back wheel. He appeared to be in his 50s or 60s. Blood was pooling beneath his right arm. The other man, who appeared to be in his 30s, was 3 or 4 feet away, slumped on his left side, pitched headfirst into a ditch.
The third man, who fled to the village when the shooting had started, returned now. Three other men, a woman, and some children accompanied him, carrying large sheets to cover the bodies. The woman was weeping and crying out.
The soldiers didn’t permit the Afghans to take the bodies away. Protocol after a fatal engagement was to do a Battle Damage Assessment first to determine who’s been killed. A Battle Damage Assessment was “our way of checking our work,” as Swanson would later testify.
“I advised Lieutenant Lorance that I conduct BDA,” Skelton told the prosecutor. “He told me that I wasn’t going to go down there. He said I wouldn’t like what I would see.”
These words, in the courtroom, were damning. Skelton was saying that Lorance knew that the dead men must be civilians.
Without the biometric instrument Skelton was carrying, the Battle Damage Assessment was quick and rudimentary, essentially a matter of emptying the pockets of the two Afghans.
Now Swanson was on the radio, asking for details of what had happened. Had the Battle Damage Assessment been done? Had the men been biometrically enrolled? Had their hands been tested for explosives residue?
The radio operator began stammering an answer. Lorance “got kind of mad at me,” he testified, “because I wasn’t wording the transmission the way he wanted to. He told me that he knows how to word things the right way because he used to work [at Pasab], that no one would ask any questions.”
Lorance grabbed the hand mic and told Swanson that they hadn’t been able to reach the bodies because the villagers had gotten to them first. That was a common enough occurrence, and the explanation satisfied Swanson.
At 0830, one of the soldiers in the second gun truck, the one stationed on the most distant corner of the grape field, radioed Lorance: A motorcycle had emerged from a crowd of ten or 20 angry, grieving people who were massing in his area. It was approaching him. Its rider was a military-age male. Without requesting any additional details, Lorance ordered the soldier to open fire. But the soldier disobeyed and told the rider to halt. The rider complied. “Fine, fucking whatever,” Lorance said, according to testimony. When the rider’s hands tested positive for explosives residue, he was detained.
At around this time, Lorance lost radio communication for at least an hour with the other elements of the patrol. He didn’t find out until later that the weapons squad, from its position on a rooftop outside the village, had engaged two Afghan men 381 meters away in a grape field. For several minutes, the soldiers watched the men use hand-held radios known as ICOMs, which likely identified them as Taliban. The soldiers didn’t know at the time, but at Ghariban, a sergeant was listening in on the ICOMs. The Afghans were saying “they could see the Americans on the roof and wanted to do something to them.” On the orders of the weapons squad leader, the soldiers opened fire, killing one of the men and wounding the other, who would later be detained with gunshot wounds in his arm.
Skelton spent more time on the stand than any other witness, the prosecutor and the defense lawyer cross-examining and redirecting and re-cross-examining him. The court-martial hinged on this fundamental question: Why had he opened fire on the motorcycle?
Under persistent questioning from Womack, Skelton acknowledged he had done so “based on the ROE change and my quick-threat analysis.”
But Otto pressed him further: “Would you have shot if there was no ROE change?”
“No,” Skelton replied.
“There was not a reason to shoot at that moment in time that presented a clear, definitive hostile intent and hostile act.”
“Did you feel directly threatened by the motorcycle?”
“When you fired at that motorcycle, were you firing because Lorance told you to or because of an imminent threat to friendly forces?”
“Because I was told to engage it.”
“If you had not been told, would you have fired on that motorcycle?”
“No,” Skelton said.
At the far end of the village, several women and children approached the patrol, pleading to be allowed to retrieve the bodies. One woman was sobbing hysterically. “Shut the fuck up, or I’ll shoot you, too!” Lorance shouted. As the members of the patrol filed out of Sarenzai, they passed by the two dead Afghan men lying on the side of the road. Their pockets were still turned inside out from the Battle Damage Assessment.
Upon his return to the base, Lorance yelled, “Woo-hoo! That’s fucking awesome!” He noticed that the men didn’t share his excitement, according to their testimony. After dropping off his kit in the back of the tent, he came back. “OK, you guys are obviously pissed off,” he said. “Give it to me. Tell me what we did wrong.”
When they told him they “couldn’t really be doing that kind of shit,” Lorance said, “You’re right. Next time we’ll stick to our ROE.” He reiterated that he knew how to report the engagement so no one would get in trouble. He told Skelton not to mention the dead bodies or the Battle Damage Assessment in his reports.
Private David Shilo had returned to his tent and was sitting on his cot alone, in the dark. He was the soldier who had fired the shots that killed the two men on the motorcycle. From inside the gun truck, he had seen the motorcycle approach at a speed he estimated at 15 to 20 miles per hour. He had observed no weapons or ICOM radios nor any attacking movement. As he watched, the men stopped the motorcycle and dismounted. For two to three minutes, he testified, they looked around, trying to figure out why they’d been shot at. They seemed perplexed.
Shilo had been given what he understood to be a lawful order to shoot. The first round jammed, so he re-cocked his machine gun before firing again. He shot the first man, who got back up, staggered, and fell. The other man went to the first man’s side, and Shilo shot him, too. But when Lorance ordered him to put a bullet into the gas tank of the motorcycle to disable it, Shilo, an experienced marksman, refused. A boy had run up to the motorcycle and was wheeling it away. “I wasn’t going to shoot a 12-year-old boy, sir,” he told Womack.
That night, Lorance and several other soldiers, including Skelton, drove to Ghariban to deliver the two detainees for processing — the man who’d tested positive for explosives residue and the one who’d been shot in the arm — and take part in the nightly 9 p.m. briefing. Skelton sought out Swanson and told him he believed a possible civilian casualty had occurred. How did he know? He handed Swanson the personal effects that had been collected from the pockets of the dead men: one taskera, or government-issued ID card; one tightly rolled-up piece of paper; several ink pens; a small pair of scissors; a small veneered gourd-like object; a small flashlight; a safety razor; and three cucumbers.
In his closing statement, Otto reminded the jury that Lorance had joined the platoon late in the deployment. He had only eight to ten weeks to earn a Combat Infantryman Badge, which signified he’d been under attack and was all but required for a promotion. “He was in an area that was hostile,” Otto said. “And maybe in time those things would have come. Lieutenant Lorance did not wait.” He had given orders that reflected his own state of mind, not the state of the battlefield. “If this [shooting] was justified … why did he cover it up?” Lorance’s actions had harmed the good order and discipline of the platoon, Otto argued. They had discredited and endangered the mission. Several men had testified that after the shootings, the village turned against the Americans, allowing the Taliban to recapture the area and erasing First Platoon’s military and diplomatic advancements.
Womack began his closing statement by invoking the 1983 Beirut truck-bomb attack that killed more than 240 service members. Harmless-looking vehicles can do catastrophic damage, he said. The motorcycle had emerged from an area known to be hostile. Skelton had correctly identified it as a threat, without knowing that men with ICOM radios were lurking just outside the village. The men on the motorcycle were not innocent civilians but spotters signaling troop positions to them. Skelton hadn’t known that, either. These incidents were not isolated but part of a coordinated action to attack the patrol. Skelton had responded the way a good soldier should, and Lieutenant Lorance had responded the way a good commander should.
Lorance was a model officer, so dedicated and talented that he had barely slept since arriving at the Strong Point — this, despite being given “no direction, no leadership” from his commanders. Unlike Lieutenant Latino, who had let the men call him by his first name, Lorance was a disciplinarian, “a ballbuster,” and some of the troops didn’t like that. You can’t make friends with the Afghan people, Womack said, not even with the police officers and the Afghan National Army. Not with an enemy that uses IEDs and suicide attacks against you. “It’s hard to be an ethical warrior when you’re pitted against an enemy with no ethic,” he said. Lorance may have crossed some lines, but surely he had not committed murder.
The jury considered four charges with numerous subspecifications: murder and attempted murder (for the shootings of “males of apparent Afghan descent”), making a false official statement (for falsely announcing new Rules of Engagement), communicating a threat (for the concertina-wire and counting-down episodes), willful discharge of a firearm (for the harassing fire), soliciting another to commit an offense (for ordering the NCO to report falsely the Strong Point had taken fire), and obstructing justice (for falsely stating the patrol couldn’t conduct the Battle Damage Assessment because the villagers had removed the bodies).
A supermajority — seven out of ten jurors — was required for conviction. At 1354 on August 1, the jury began its deliberations. The members returned with their verdicts just over two hours later. They convicted Lorance on every charge but one. He had not changed the Rules of Engagement, they found, but he had violated them and committed second-degree murder and attempted murder.
For the sentencing portion of the court-martial, Womack called several character witnesses, who, unlike the soldiers in the platoon, had known Lorance for a long time. One was Captain Zachary Pierce, who had approved the charges against Lorance. Before coming to Pasab, Lorance had worked closely with Pierce. “He’s unparalleled in his adherence to standards and the right way of doing things,” Pierce told the jury. “As a person, he’s one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve met, particularly in the Army.… I don’t think I’ve ever and could never envision any kind of malice or ill-intent in Clint’s heart.”
Lorance had not testified during the court-martial. Womack says he didn’t want the jury to hear his client admitting to lesser violations — the threats and the harassing fire — of which he was clearly guilty. Lorance told me he chose not to take the stand because he didn’t want to “defame or demean” his men. But now, with his parents looking on from the gallery, he stood. It was the only time he spoke in open court: “Sir, ma’am, gentlemen,” he said, “I take full responsibility for the actions of my men on 2 July 2012. Thank you.”
The prosecution asked for a 20-year sentence and Lieutenant Lorance’s dismissal from the Army. “Should we define his life by [these] offenses?” Womack pleaded in a final appeal. At the outset of the court-martial, he had made a strategic gamble, arguing that the murder charge exclude lesser offenses, like voluntary manslaughter. He was convinced that jurors couldn’t possibly find Lorance guilty of murder and that with no other alternative, they would have to acquit him. “If I were to try the case over again,” Womack told me, “that’s the only thing I might do differently, knowing how this one turned out.”
A sentence of more than ten years required votes from eight members. After four hours, the jury emerged from deliberations and pronounced its sentence: forfeiture of all pay and allowances, dismissal from the Army, and confinement for 20 years at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
At 5 a.m., cells open automatically at Leavenworth, the Army’s only maximum-security prison. Lockdown is at 10 p.m. on workday nights and 11 p.m. on weekends. Prisoners are required to be in their cells twice daily, before lunch and dinner, for a 30-minute head count. The average sentence is 19 years.
Lorance had worked so hard to make himself exemplary, yet this is where he had ended up, with pedophiles, drug dealers, and war criminals. During that first year at Leavenworth, he accepted the verdict that he had murdered innocent civilians. He had embraced the systematic, logical processes of the Army when it rewarded him with medals and promotions. Now he had to embrace the conclusion that those same processes had led to: He was a monster — an abomination. He taped a photograph of the two dead Afghan men to the mirror in his cell. He thought about killing himself. To cope, he began spending every available minute in the weight room. He resolved to treat his sentence as just another military mission, with parole as its objective.
The mail he got lifted him up. Current and former service members wrote to say that his conviction was unfair — that they had done much worse. (Some of the stories were so incriminating that Lorance feared for the writers: “Don’t put this on paper!”) Many of his correspondents were New York City police officers, he says. They told him to hang in there, that they, too, knew what it was like to be second-guessed.
The first national story raising questions about his conviction aired on Sean Hannity’s radio show in March 2014, seven months after he began serving his sentence. From prison, Lorance was about to become a poster boy for the failures of what Fox News called “Obama’s Rules of Engagement.” Over the next five years, Fox News — in particular, the hosts and their guests on Hannity and Fox & Friends — would discuss Lorance’s case in nearly 100 video segments, news articles, and opinion pieces. They would argue that “politically correct Rules of Engagement” cosseted the enemy and endangered American service members, who couldn’t fire their weapons for fear of being court-martialed. Clint Lorance was a victim, not a murderer. “He protects his troops … and then he gets 20 years in jail,” Hannity would declare to the more than 10 million listeners of his radio show. “Who would ever want to serve under conditions like that? You cannot win.”
A nonprofit called United American Patriots helped construct some of this messaging and kept Fox personalities apprised of developments in the case. Lorance’s mother had found UAP on the internet in early or mid-2014. Established in 2005, the organization functions something like a police union but for service members accused of crimes. As UAP’s chief executive officer, an ex-Marine named David “Bull” Gurfein, tells it, the military justice system is susceptible to undue political influence and, in cases that are complex and ambiguous, quick to scapegoat the men and women who volunteer to go into harm’s way on our behalf.
UAP agreed to pay for Lorance’s appeals lawyer — John Maher, who had served in Afghanistan twice, first as a soldier, then as a legal aide on General Stanley A. McChrystal’s staff. Maher began visiting Leavenworth from his office in Chicago and devising what he called a “multiplatform” plan to defend Lorance. It would encompass not just legal appeals but a media campaign, lobbying Congress, and petitioning the president for clemency.
Lorance liked Maher; he still had a soldier’s regimented bearing and treated him with respect. Maher was helping him see the case and himself differently: He wasn’t a murderer, but he’d been made to look like one. He had been caught up in something bigger that he hadn’t understood at the time. The shootings had happened just four months after an Army sergeant had murdered 16 men, women, and children in the so-called Kandahar Massacre. In response, Maher told him, the U.S. military started aggressively prosecuting cases in which civilians had been killed. “The second it became political,” Lorance says, “my future was no longer mine.”
Maher, his colleagues, and Lorance would gather in the legal office at Leavenworth. At one meeting in February 2015, Maher ticked off a long list of agenda items, then said, “Oh, by the way….” He slid a file folder across the table. Lorance opened the folder and began paging through a document. Maher said that the information in it should have been provided to Lorance’s lawyers at the court-martial. He believed the prosecution had committed a Brady violation — it had deprived Lorance of a fair trial — by withholding evidence that exonerated him. Because that’s what this file revealed. The dead men weren’t civilians, Maher said. They were Taliban bomb-makers.
Fox News had been the first to air Lorance’s story, but Maher wanted people to see that the case wasn’t about conservatives or liberals. It was about the constitutional rights of an American service member. Yet he struggled to find sympathetic reporters at other outlets. As the only voices in the national media defending Lorance, Hannity and his Fox News colleagues brought visibility to the case for a pardon, but they also undermined it by framing the argument as an attack on President Obama for being weak on military affairs.
In January 2015, former Republican Congressman Allen West shared with his million-plus Facebook followers a petition on WhiteHouse.gov urging President Obama to pardon Lorance. A former Army lieutenant colonel, West himself had been relieved of his command for abusing a detainee in Iraq. Hannity promoted the petition on his website, United American Patriots emailed it to its members, and Fox & Friends devoted a segment to it. Within a month, 124,966 people had signed it.
UAP began lobbying its deep network of ex-military aides and elected officials on Capitol Hill, a group that would eventually include more than 20 congressmen, among them prominent Republicans like Garret Graves, Duncan Hunter, Steve King, Mark Meadows, and Steve Scalise. Hunter, an ex-Marine who’d served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was the group’s most visible spokesperson, making numerous appearances on Fox. “Even if these guys were bad guys, or were not bad guys, I don’t care,” he said on Fox & Friends. “You have American personnel in combat, taking fire, people getting killed. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Maher sought clemency for Lorance in both 2015 and 2016. “President Obama was granting clemency in numbers that previous presidents had never done,” Maher told me. “Who could be more deserving of the favorable magnificent power of clemency than someone who’s not guilty?” Obama, who issued more than 800 commutations and pardons in his last month in office, took no action on Lorance’s petition.
Hannity interviewed President Trump at the White House six days after his inauguration. Lorance had been stunned but thrilled by Trump’s election. As a candidate, Trump had declared, “The problem is we have … all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight. We can’t waterboard, but they can chop off heads. I think we’ve got to make some changes, some adjustments.” Although he had avoided service himself, Trump seemed to share Lorance’s view that the Rules of Engagement under President Obama favored the enemy.
Hannity raised the issue of presidential pardons. “Did you hear the story of Clint Lorance … got 30 years?” Hannity said, adding ten years to Lorance’s sentence. “He was doing his job, protecting his team in Afghanistan.”
“We’re looking at a few of them,” Trump told him.
For Lorance, these words were electrifying. The president knows who I am! Hunter announced he would renew his efforts on Lorance’s behalf. West circulated a new petition for a pardon and a fundraising plea on behalf of United American Patriots. Maher continued to press his legal appeal. Like the public campaign, it revolved around the evidence he had brought to Lorance at Leavenworth. In September 2015, Maher petitioned the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals to grant Lorance a new trial.
The court took two years before it issued a unanimous opinion denying the petition. The judges wrote that the testimony of Lorance’s men indicated the motorcycle and its riders “posed no discernible harm.” They ruled that the government had not withheld evidence about the identities of the men. A prosecutor wasn’t required to “search into the abyss of the intelligence community for the potential existence of unspecified information.” Above all, the judges wrote, Lorance didn’t know about the men’s alleged Taliban connections at the time of the shootings. Even if the evidence had been presented at the court-martial, “there is no reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different…. The evidence presented by the government on the murders and attempted murder was overwhelming.”
Maher petitioned the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the military’s highest judiciary body, but it refused to hear Lorance’s case. As Lorance’s legal options narrowed, the public campaign took on increasing importance. In 2018, a former Navy JAG officer named Don Brown joined Maher’s team. The author of more than a dozen pro-military works of fiction and nonfiction, Brown was enlisted to write a book about Lorance’s case as quickly as possible. Brown wrote Travesty of Justice in five months. Hannity hosted him in early April 2019, three days after the book’s publication. “The prosecution portrayed the motorcycle riders as if they were on a Sunday stroll in the park,” Hannity said. “We now can prove beyond any doubt that that’s not true.”
For the first time since his post-inaugural interview with Hannity, the president started to take action. In May, The New York Times reported that the White House had asked the Office of the Pardon Attorney to forward the paperwork required to pardon three soldiers. To prepare these documents typically takes months but, the paper reported, the president wanted them in two weeks because he was planning to grant the pardons on Memorial Day.
It emerged that Pete Hegseth, a co-host of Fox & Friends, had been privately lobbying the president for months to pardon several servicemen accused of war crimes, including Lorance. A former platoon leader in Iraq, Hegseth had been a candidate for the Senate in Minnesota as well as the executive director of a veterans advocacy group backed by the influential conservatives Charles and David Koch. The president held Hegseth in high regard and had reportedly considered making him his press secretary or secretary of Veterans Affairs. “The guy that drove this train is Pete Hegseth,” Brown told me. “Pete is the guy who best had the president’s ear.” (Hegseth declined to comment for this story.)
Lorance packed up his cell and waited hopefully. But the president sometimes makes statements not to announce his intentions but to test public response to them. In this case, there was forceful pushback. General Charles C. Krulak warned that granting “indiscriminate pardons … relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield.” The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, tweeted a similar message, adding that he saw no “evidence of innocence or injustice.”
Memorial Day passed without word from the president. Lorance says, “I knew he had all these congressmen and all these senators asking him for the same thing. I knew that he would get to it.”
In September, Leavenworth, a Steven Soderbergh–produced documentary about Lorance’s case, premiered at the Tribeca TV Festival. Although the defense team was instrumental in getting Leavenworth made, the documentary, unlike Travesty of Justice, didn’t so much argue that Lorance was innocent as that he hadn’t been given a fair trial. Brown appeared on Fox & Friends to promote the film, which aired on Starz, and Hegseth showed the trailer. “You try to get inside the mind of the decision-maker, right,” Maher told me, “and the decision-maker likes stardom and television and things like that. You never know what little bit is going to put the scale in your favor.”
On October 31, Brown says, Hegseth called him to say that the president had requested a one-pager with bullet points on the biometric evidence and prosecutorial misconduct. Hegseth got in touch again three days later. This time, the president was requesting background on the mission itself.
What information did the president have as he considered pardoning Lorance, and who had provided it to him? Multiple senators and congressmen, briefed by United American Patriots, had lobbied him. Various Fox News personalities and guests had courted him over the airwaves (“I mean, that’s why we’re doing this on Fox,” Duncan Hunter said on Fox & Friends. “We know he watches this”). The story these elected officials and the network’s commentators presented was increasingly remote from the facts described in the court-martial.
Hannity, Hunter, and Hegseth had all described an earlier motorcycle attack against the platoon that shaped Lorance’s understanding of the battle environment. Such an attack never happened.
Hunter had said that an IED delivered by a motorcycle had injured Lorance’s predecessor, Lieutenant Latino, and that the riders Lorance’s men shot were “20-year-old guys,” neither of which was true.
Most crucially, Fox News commentators claimed the Afghan men had been shot and killed on a speeding motorcycle after refusing to halt at a checkpoint — not after stopping voluntarily, dismounting, and approaching the Afghan soldiers on foot with their hands in plain view. (Hannity and Hunter did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
There was an additional element in the campaign: a PowerPoint presentation, produced by United American Patriots, that was screened for the president and members of Congress.
A distillation of Brown’s book and Fox’s coverage of the case, the slide deck introduces a recurring visual element: a silhouette of three motorcycle riders wielding a rifle and two rocket-propelled grenades. On the fourth page, the names of the men are superimposed over the image, which is captioned “NOT CIVILIANS.” A smaller caption notes that “fingerprints and DNA from US Army databases revealed” that the riders were “insurgents.” At no time during the investigation or court-martial of Lorance had anyone ever alleged that the men on the motorcycle were armed. On the contrary, soldiers had testified they saw no weapons.
In defense of the slide deck, the UAP’s Gurfein says, “There is no proof that they did not have weapons. You can make assumptions either way. Were they armed with AK-47s? I don’t know. Did they have improvised explosive devices in the motorcycle? Don’t know. When the patrol came across the bodies, the motorcycle wasn’t even there. There was no way of telling one way or the other. Why are we going to go with the assumption that they were unarmed civilians when we know these were not unarmed civilians?”
The court-martial never identified the men on the motorcycle. Captain Otto had crossed out the names of all three on the charge sheet, which meant that the jury convicted Lorance without knowing who they were. Did it matter? Maher says yes — that he had evidence the men were insurgents, which would be mitigating or even exonerating, and that this evidence should have been presented at the court-martial. The military appeals courts disagreed, and most military-law experts side with their rulings: Only hostile act or hostile intent, not identity, justified the use of force in Afghanistan. Lorance didn’t know who the men were, or even see them, when he gave the order to fire. The Rules of Engagement did not allow for shooting first and asking questions later.
Five days after the incident, a resident of Sarenzai named Abdul Ahad told Army investigators that the two men who had been killed were his father, Haji Mohammed Aslam, and brother, Ghamai Abdul Haq. He said that the third man, who’d fled the scene and survived, was his uncle, Haji Karimullah. Members of First Platoon told me they had recognized Aslam with horror. He was the village elder, and many of them had interacted with him.
At Maher’s request, a civilian contractor in Afghanistan performed a search in unclassified government databases of the names Ahad had provided. The results were what Maher had hoped for. According to the contractor, Haq was connected by biometric evidence to an IED attack two months before the shootings, and Karimullah to another attack one month after the shootings. The two attacks had killed six American soldiers, Maher says.
The system also flagged Abdul Ahad himself. After walking into a Coalition Forces observation post carrying two bombs and a detonator, he had been held at a top-secret national-security prison near Bagram Air Base for almost two years before being released in December 2010.
At each level of the appeals process, Maher asked the government for additional information and was rebuffed. In September 2019, after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, he received a document, which contained photographs, fingerprints, iris scans, and other information about the men.
But there’s a problem with the document. It doesn’t support Maher’s case. The names in the dossier do not match the names Ahad gave the Army’s investigators. Afghan names are extremely difficult to transliterate, and these correspond only partially. Instead of giving information about Haji Karimullah, for example, the dossier provides information about a man named Karimullah Abdul Karim. This would be roughly equivalent to saying that F. Murray Abraham and Abraham Lincoln are the same names.
The man Maher says was Haq was arrested and biometrically enrolled in April 2014 — two years after the Haq riding the motorcycle was killed.
The man Maher says is Karimullah turns out to be an Afghan police officer who left a fingerprint on a piece of tape attached to a recovered IED pressure plate. “It is likely that [he] contaminated the evidence as part of his duties,” the dossier concludes. The Karimullah who survived the shootings was a farmer, according to the Army’s investigation.
What about all the discussion on Fox News, in Brown’s book, and in the presentations shared with Congress and the president about biometric evidence? The UAP slide deck featured a quote from General David Petraeus about biometrics that was highlighted in yellow: “This data is virtually irrefutable.”
That is true, if you are matching a fingerprint to a fingerprint, a DNA sample to a DNA sample, or an iris scan to an iris scan. It is not true if you are matching some combination of names, phone numbers, and family associations, as Maher says his civilian contractor did. Neither the defense team nor the Army investigators ever had access to the bodies of the two dead men. There was no biometric information for them, and that was because Lorance had not permitted Skelton to perform the Battle Damage Assessment using the SEEK device.
This still leaves Abdul Ahad. Maher’s document describes him as a prolific bomb-maker who travels with two bodyguards. Not only that: It says his father is not Haji Mohammed Aslam, the Sarenzai village elder, but rather a man called Haji Lala — possibly the same Haji Lala who is a notorious Taliban warlord. In the photo of Ahad in the dossier, he is stocky and sharp-nosed. However, when the Leavenworth filmmakers visited Sarenzai and interviewed the Abdul Ahad who had spoken with investigators, the man they found was slight and had a round nose — not the same man as the bomb-maker in the intelligence dossier.
Abdul Ahad is a common name in Afghanistan. In seeking information on each of the men, the defense team seems to have picked the people with the closest-matching names and the most incriminating case histories.
Was it possible that some or all of the men on the motorcycle had ties to the Taliban? Of course. “Throw a rock in Afghanistan, and you’re going to hit somebody that’s got Taliban connections,” a soldier from First Platoon told me. But were any of them who the defense said they were? “The defense never has to prove anything,” Maher told me. “The defense has to create reasonable doubt.” That’s true, says Professor Joshua Kastenberg of the University of New Mexico and a former Air Force judge, but the defense “cannot sow reasonable doubt through wholly irrelevant or misleading evidence.”
For the better part of five years, Sean Hannity and others had been proclaiming over the airwaves, to millions of viewers and listeners — among them the president of the United States — that biometric evidence existed proving that the men on the motorcycle were Taliban bomb-makers. In April 2019, Hannity said the proof was “beyond any doubt.” Could Maher, the lawyer leading the campaign to secure a presidential pardon for Clint Lorance, say the same thing?
“No,” he says. “I can’t.”
At 7 p.m., within hours of forwarding Don Brown’s memo to the president, Pete Hegseth tweeted: “BIG NEWS: Today I CONFIRMED that Presidential action is IMMINENT….”
Taken by surprise, Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s office began scrambling to gather information for the president, CNN reported. Esper and other senior military officials “want to get to Trump before he makes a decision and ensure he understands the gravity [of the crimes involved],” the report said. Administration officials said that Esper would recommend against granting clemency.
On the evening of Sunday, November 10, Lorance’s family, along with Maher and Gurfein, arrived in Leavenworth, Kansas, moved into hotel rooms paid for by UAP, and waited. “One day the president was going to pardon him. The next day he wasn’t,” Gurfein says. By Friday, Lorance’s mother and father had given up and were driving home to Texas when their cellphone rang. It was Congressman Graves aboard Air Force One en route to a rally in Louisiana. “Mrs. Lorance, the president says to go to Kansas,” he told her.
At about 1545, a sergeant rapped on the door of Lorance’s cell. Minutes later, Lorance was sitting in a legal office at Leavenworth, picking nervously at some barbecue that the sergeant had brought him and looking at the phone on the table in front of him. By now, he believed he was going to be pardoned and that someone important was going to give him the news. The secretary of the Army? The secretary of defense?
The phone beeped, and a woman with a New York accent said, “Hold for the president.”
Lorance has told this story many times. Even so, as he recounts it to me, he can’t help breaking into giddy laughter.
According to Lorance, the president said: “Lieutenant, good to talk to you. We’ve been fighting for you for a long time. I’m sorry it took so long. In ten minutes, we’re going to sign a pardon with a full expungement of your record. It’ll be like it never happened.” Lorance says the president told him, “It was wrong that they sent you to prison in the first place.” Then he began reading the names of the people who had been trying to get him to grant this pardon. He told Lorance, “You need to write this down.” There were close to 30 people. Most of them were from Fox News. (Later, Lorance would learn the president hadn’t expunged his record. Maher is now in district court seeking to have the court-martial judgments vacated.)
Lorance left the prison in the dress uniform of the 82nd Airborne. After that, a blur: A white SUV that drove Lorance to the hotel where his family was waiting with pizza and where he recorded a video message thanking UAP’s 500,000 donors for their support. A speech the next day before 350 supporters in his family’s hometown in Texas. The day after that, a flight to New York and his first post-release interview, on Fox & Friends.
“The president is watching,” Hegseth said to him in the studio that morning. “What do you want to say to him?”
Lorance was not in uniform. As a civilian — he had not been reinstated in the Army and would not be — he could take political sides now. Addressing the camera, he said: “I wish you had a better team around you. You need more people watching your back.” He talked about the military hierarchy that had charged him, sent him to prison, and denied his appeals. “Anybody that’s got to be confirmed by the Senate for a promotion — they’re no longer a soldier. They’re a politician … and they certainly lose a lot of respect from their subordinates when they do what they do, which was throw me under the bus.”
Hegseth read him a recent tweet from Joe Biden saying that the president’s pardons of war criminals betrayed the rule of law. “With all due respect to the former vice president, that seems to be a partisan answer,” Lorance said.
On the day he pardoned Lorance, President Trump intervened in the cases of two other service members accused of war crimes who had also been championed by United American Patriots. Major Matthew Golsteyn had admitted on Fox News in 2016 to killing an unarmed Afghan detainee, burying his body, and then digging it up to incinerate it. He was awaiting court-martial; in an unprecedented act, the president pardoned him preemptively. Chief Edward Gallagher was accused of stabbing a teenage prisoner to death and shooting at so many civilians that his men had tampered with his rifle scope to stop him. Despite the testimony of seven of his SEAL team members, prosecutors were able to obtain a conviction only on the grounds that he had violated good order and discipline. After the trial, the Navy demoted Gallagher and expelled him from his SEAL unit — decisions the president overruled.
If praise of the president’s action was swift, so was criticism, not just from expected sources like the ACLU but also from the military. Retired Admiral James Stavridis tweeted that the president “should not override the Secretary of Defense, service chiefs, and Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Retired Army General Mark Hertling tweeted that “the President’s action … is despicable and disgusting.” For Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School and former judge advocate in the Air Force, the interventions struck at core principles of the military. “Saying that everyone should be able to get away with violating their rules of engagement, making their own decisions, and extolling pure barbarity and violence helps destroy the moral foundation of our armed forces,” she said. “It is a propaganda gift to ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
President Trump has expressed his frustration with the constitutional constraints on his authority many times. But there are no constraints on the pardon power. “Article II” — the section of the Constitution outlining presidential powers — “allows me to do whatever I want,” the president told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. Rather than seek the advice of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the president has listened to recommendations from friends and celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Sylvester Stallone. He has issued pardons or commutations to businessmen who committed securities fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering and to Republican officials convicted of conspiracy, perjury, and tax fraud. Trump commuted the sentence of his friend and associate Roger Stone, who had been convicted of seven felony crimes, including obstructing justice and witness tampering, in connection with the congressional investigation into ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
Days after intervening in the military cases, the president told reporters, “These are not weak people. These are tough people.… Somebody has their back, and it’s called the president of the United States.” He seemed to be promoting a corrosive idea: that the principles of discipline, sacrifice, and honor that are meant to guide soldiers are null and void — that the exercise of strength by the state must not be restrained or even second-guessed. In widely publicized remarks, the president has made it evident that he has the backs of only those service members who “win”: In his mind, John McCain is a “loser” because he was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in North Vietnam, and 1,800 Marines who died in the World War I battle at Belleau Wood, one of the most venerated battles in U.S. history, are “suckers.”
In pardoning Clint Lorance, the president hadn’t just overridden the verdict of a military jury. He had also invalidated the decision the men of First Platoon had made to report him. I hoped to find out what the pardon meant to three of them, who were among the only American witnesses to Lorance’s actions.
The first person I reached out to was former Specialist Todd Fitzgerald, who had been on the patrol and testified at the court-martial. When Fitzgerald talks about the events of July 2, 2012, his breathing gets ragged. He was near Lorance and Skelton and saw the episode unfold. After Skelton shot and missed the Afghans on the motorcycle, Lorance repeatedly ordered members of the platoon to open fire, Fitzgerald says. Nobody would. He remembers walking past the dead bodies, the sobbing women and children. He speaks slowly, his voice thick: “I have a very heavy heart over having been involved with something so heinous.”
He lives with his parents outside Austin, Texas. For the past few months he’s been out of work, recovering from back injuries sustained in a car accident. He doesn’t always know how he’s doing, but the family dogs are his barometer. They bark throughout the day at deer in the backyard. If Fitzgerald finds himself yelling at the dogs, it’s not a good day.
For a long time, he obsessively tracked the coverage of the murders. He’d go on Facebook or Allen West’s website and start bombing the comments: “You guys are wrong. I was there.” He’d send them news stories. But the administrator of West’s page would delete his posts, he says, with vague references to someone who’d been “derailing the conversation.” He knows that other men from the platoon had similar experiences: Two talked on the phone to a Hannity producer, but Fox, he believes, didn’t want to have anybody on who was going to destroy its narrative.
Mark Kerner was Fitzgerald’s best friend in the platoon. One day on patrol, Fitzgerald was fourth in the order of march, with Kerner right behind him, when he heard the unmistakable pop of an IED’s blasting-cap trigger. When Fitzgerald whirled around, he and Kerner locked eyes. Four men had just passed over that same piece of earth, and what he remembers is Kerner’s expression: the realization that he’d drawn the short straw. Kerner had just enough time to say “What the —” After that it was just smoke and dust and a ringing in Fitzgerald’s ears.
Yet that doesn’t affect him anywhere near as much as what happened with Lorance and everything since. Before Lorance, they were doing better than they’d expected to. They hadn’t had a single man die. What happened to Hanes and Walley and Kerner and Latino sucked, he says, but they were still alive. Everyone was going to go home and see them again. They just had to finish up the last two months.
After Lorance, it was: Were they even going to survive the last two months? The repercussions of the murders were severe and immediate. The villagers wouldn’t deal with the Americans anymore. They wouldn’t give them any information about who was moving near their village, through it, around it. The Taliban began appearing between the village and the base, which they’d never done before. They would fire off an RPG and disappear. They’d ambush trucks in broad daylight.
Testifying at the court-martial was the only means Fitzgerald had of exerting control over the situation. Since Lorance’s pardon, he has struggled to wrap his mind around how wrong people can get things. He has a lot of anger that these people — Sean Hannity, Duncan Hunter, Allen West — would hail a war criminal as a hero. Because if Lorance was the hero, what did that make the soldiers in First Platoon? Were they the enemy?
At the court-martial, Staff Sergeant Dan Williams had testified that he watched the engagement from the Strong Point, through a mounted camera used for overwatch and surveillance. He’d spotted the motorcycle and couldn’t reach Lorance to let him know it wasn’t a threat. For a moment, the signal came in clearly, and he heard someone say “Roger.” Then the machine gun opened fire.
“I have a pretty strong sense of honor,” Williams texted me before we spoke, “and the shootings were a significant moral injury.” In journal articles I’d been reading, VA researchers define moral injury as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Chief among these acts, they wrote, is the killing of civilians.
People suffering from moral injury experience guilt, shame, and self-condemnation. Like people who have PTSD, they may struggle with substance abuse, anger, and thoughts of suicide. The difference is that PTSD is inflicted from the outside. In moral injury, the person participates in his trauma, is effectively an agent of it, because he has violated his own values.
In February 2012, on his last parachute drop before deploying with First Platoon, Williams collapsed in pain moments after landing. The doctor said he had fractured his L-4 and L-5 vertebrae and told him to go home, but Williams pleaded with him. The doctor prescribed Toradol and Flexeril, and Williams shouldered his 60-pound rucksack and headed off to Afghanistan. He says he served his entire nine-month deployment with a broken back.
Williams had been such a well-regarded battle NCO, he says, that officers fraternized with him. His nine months in Afghanistan changed him. When he came home in September 2012, he was “a total shit bag.” On his first morning home, he bought a Camaro, then spent $10,000 customizing it. If he was driving fast and stupid, he figured, nobody would know it was a suicide.
He remained in the Army for three more years. He roomed with another staff sergeant from the platoon, and at the end of every workday, he says, they’d look at each other: Is tonight the night? Williams had permanent nerve damage to his spine, and he had been diagnosed as an alcohol dependent, meaning that his body had gotten so habituated to alcohol it couldn’t survive without it. By the time he went to rehab in 2014, he says, he was drinking pure grain alcohol, nearly 200 proof.
“What hit home,” he told me, “was the betrayal.” The officers he had been friends with turned their backs on him. He knew what they were thinking: You’re a snitch. He had the impression that some had kept situations like this quiet in the past. “That killed me, because I did the right fucking thing,” he says. “I told the truth, and then the conservative media comes in and paints this dude Lorance as a hero. Why is it easier to believe 30 guys are lying about one guy instead of one guy lying about 30?”
All of the men in First Platoon had survived the war. But at home, they started dying — five of them, all in their 20s. Mark Kerner, who had been blown up by an IED in front of Todd Fitzgerald, was diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer. He died in March 2015. Williams says he couldn’t attend the funeral because he was in rehab again.
Matthew Hanes, the minesweeper who’d been shot in the neck, died of an aneurysm in August 2015. At the funeral, Williams saw Jarred Ruhl, a platoon member he had mentored. “I spent so much time trying to keep him in the Army,” Williams told me. “But he was dealing with shit he didn’t know how to deal with, and he ended up getting kicked out.” At the funeral, Ruhl told Williams, “Dude, I’m on the edge.” He wouldn’t accept help. On Easter weekend 2016, Williams learned that Ruhl had died. “They don’t say he killed himself, but Jarred knew his temper made him do stupid shit. He started a fight because he wanted to get his ass kicked, and he brought a gun to it, and he ended up dying.”
That weekend, Williams was driving the Camaro down I-75 from Tennessee to Georgia to visit his 2-year-old daughter. He was alone, and his thoughts spun into the worst places. With the Afghans, maybe there was more I could have done to stop Lorance. If I’d reported the harassing fire on the night of July 1, maybe Lorance is gone the next day. And maybe Ruhl is still alive. But no, I thought I could handle Lorance. People got hurt because I failed them. I shouldn’t be in charge of anything. I’m fucking done.
Near mile marker 300 in Bartow County, Georgia, he reached for his gun in the passenger seat. He was out of his mind, he says. He was traveling at high speed, and that — “I shit you not” — is the only time he ever forgot to put his gun in the car, on the day he would have used it. Instead of being grateful, he spent the rest of the drive thinking, Jesus Christ, I can’t even do that right.
In April 2018, Nick Carson was killed in a car crash, leaving behind a young child, the scenario Williams had once planned for himself.
On October 22, 2019, James Twist, a close friend of Williams from the platoon, posted some thoughts on his blog. In the seconds after the IED explosion that had wounded Sam Walley, Williams and Twist jumped into the blast crater to help him. The trauma of that day bonded the three men, Williams says, but also distanced them. The nature of PTSD is about not having those difficult conversations. Back home, Williams followed Twist’s Facebook page with pride and even envy. Twist had done well after Afghanistan: a wife and three beautiful little kids, a job as a state trooper in Michigan. But Williams, who would go on to work for the PTSD Foundation of America, says he should have known better. Twelve-step meetings had taught him not to judge people by their outsides.
In the blog post, Twist wrote about suffering silently with PTSD. The war, and a mission he had believed in, had taken the best part of himself — his capacity to feel. He was not experiencing the joy in family life that he knew he should. He described how hard it was, long after the platoon had left Afghanistan, to receive phone calls telling him that the soldiers he had served with, whose lives he had defended, had died. It was because of the investigation into Lorance that the Army had split up the platoon, he wrote. In effect, he described belonging to two families and failing to uphold his duty to either one. Twist urged any readers who might be struggling with PTSD symptoms to contact the VA. He provided the phone number for the Veterans Crisis Hotline.
Three days after publishing the blog post, Twist took his own life. Less than three weeks later, the president granted the pardon. “There’s a large part of me,” Williams says, “that wishes we hadn’t reported Lorance.”
I wondered if Captain Swanson felt the same way. The Lorance incident had cost him his career. He was a graduate of West Point, where three previous generations of his family were educated. He lived there as a boy while his father taught on the faculty, often joining the cadets for meals in the cafeteria. He remembers that the cadets would be called to attention periodically, and everyone would stop eating. An officer would announce that a graduate had died in combat. At an early age, Swanson understood that death — the risk of it, the power to inflict it — was an ineluctable part of the vocation he had chosen.
Swanson was a promising young officer when he arrived at Ghariban. He subscribed fully — and still does — to Colonel Mennes’s hearts-and-minds strategy. “It felt like the right thing to do,” he told me, even if it meant a higher degree of risk. “The Rules of Engagement were germane to the type of victory we wanted. Did we suffer for it? Yes. Not to create false equivalencies, but storming a Normandy beach is an impossible task, too, when there are fortified machine-gun positions.” But the crux of all this, for him, is that there are certain duty-bound obligations. If there was an impossible task in Afghanistan, it was “walking around a minefield multiple times a day, every day, for 90 days. The odds are just against you.” There was immense pressure to patrol, to maintain control of territory that U.S. forces had taken from the Taliban.
By June 2012, Swanson’s reputation in the brigade had begun to decline, he says, because of recent lapses for which he, as company commander, bore responsibility. A First Platoon squad leader forgot to bring along a rigid litter on the day that Matthew Hanes was shot, making his evacuation unnecessarily risky and difficult. A Second Platoon patrol left behind a piece of equipment and had to undertake a dangerous mission to retrieve it; during the same extended mission, a soldier was stranded alone on the battlefield for more than an hour. Above all, there were the casualties First Platoon had suffered that month — four men in 17 days.
It was Swanson who proposed that the platoon be recalled to Ghariban for three days. Lorance’s supporters have made much of this move — arguing that the platoon was exhausted, desperate, demoralized, had stopped patrolling altogether, and needed psychiatric help. None of that is true, says Swanson. The soldiers were combat-ready.
I asked him why he brought the platoon back to Ghariban. He had been driving as we spoke, and he said he needed to pull his car over so he could answer me clearly.
He said that the chain of command approved the decision. He said he wanted the troops to get a break, to clear their heads. He wanted to review procedures. Then his words became labored, and his voice shook. He wanted the platoon to be safer when it returned, do better, and that’s what was required. “As for the fact that psychological counseling was offered to the men, were we really going to stigmatize that?”
Swanson had pushed for an officer named Matt Coulthard to succeed Lieutenant Latino. As head of the intelligence-gathering cell at Ghariban, Coulthard had combat experience, he knew the area, and he knew the members of First Platoon. “He was the obvious choice,” Swanson told me. When Lorance got the promotion instead, Swanson didn’t worry about the welfare of the platoon — he understood Lorance was “doing a good job” at Pasab — but he wondered why his advice had been dismissed. Had his bosses stopped trusting him because he’d fallen short in his job? Why Lorance? he asks himself today, fearing that the answer is Because Swanson.
Four days after the shootings, Swanson got his annual Officer Evaluation Report. He’d owed five years out of West Point, and he’d stayed seven. He’d gotten his dream-come-true job; he was doing the most important work of his life. He’d had ideas about what he might do next — some elite opportunities. But after that evaluation, he knew he was finished, would never rise any higher. The only thing that saved him from being fired, he thinks, is that he’d taken a stand against Lorance’s promotion.
He pretty much had his heart ripped out, he says, when he resigned from active duty in 2013. He lost his friends, his career, the world that had formed him from boyhood. He drank too much after he left the Army, and for a while, that was his new world, and he got lost in it. He sought help: “You name it — the VA, medicine, therapy.”
If you come home sad from war, he sometimes thinks to himself, what’s it likely to be about? Maybe your friend dying or having his leg blown off. Maybe your wife cheating on you and leaving you for another man. At some point during a deployment, every soldier will find himself imagining those scenarios. Maybe living them in his imagination will prepare him in case he has to live them in real life. “But being implicated in criminal misconduct by a platoon leader?” he says. “And then being slandered in the media and the public? No one prepares for that, for the dishonor of that.
“People say, ‘Oh, Lorance is a war criminal.’ What the fuck do they know?” he asks. “What is a war criminal, anyway? It’s not like he summarily executed these people. He did something awful, but if you don’t realize that much, much worse shit has happened, and that plenty of people have gotten away scot-free, you’re an idiot.” In Swanson’s mind, it isn’t necessarily clear-cut that Lorance should spend 20 years in jail.
Swanson earned his M.B.A. and is an executive at a global industrial-equipment manufacturer based in Denver. He sees Lorance on TV and on Twitter, and it’s crushing to watch someone soil what he — all of the guys — tried so hard to deliver on: a certain promise of duty. “Lorance is misappropriating the goodwill those guys earned. The shootings should be a footnote in the history not just of the conflict but of the platoon. The men did shit that was so much more important. If it’s so easy to bullshit us about Clint Lorance — which it has been for entirely too long — then what the fuck? Where is the righteousness? Is this illustrative of the national mind that put First Platoon in Afghanistan in the first place? No wonder we’ve been fighting this war for 20 fucking years.”
Swanson’s resignation went into effect on July 31, 2013, the same day he appeared at the court-martial. Testifying against Lorance was his last official act in uniform. “I think he knows he made a mistake,” Swanson says. “I think he gave an order to shoot absent positive identification. I think it’s as simple as that.” In the best case, he believes, Lorance recklessly gave an order to use lethal force. He has never answered for that, Swanson says. He’s never explained, not in a way that makes sense, why he gave the order to fire.
The most detailed account Lorance has ever given of the events of July 2 is the log he prepared days after his suspension. In key aspects, it presents a different story from the one he would later tell. He begins by describing his plan to use helicopters and gun trucks to channel every motorcycle in the vicinity toward his platoon for “non-lethal interdiction.”
At 0703 that morning, eight minutes into the patrol, he writes, a helicopter reported seeing three motorcycles carrying seven or eight riders outside the village. At 0704, according to his log, Lorance ordered the pilot to drop red smoke, a common tactic used to make groups disperse.
At 0707, the Afghan soldiers in the grape rows reported seeing a motorcycle approaching the head of the formation. Its riders were wearing dark clothing. “These fit the description given by [the pilot] exactly,” Lorance writes. The Afghan soldiers were poised to open fire, he says, but he stopped them because they were armed mostly with rocket-propelled grenades, and he was concerned about civilian casualties.
“I took a few minutes to analyze the atmospherics of the village,” he writes. He describes a scene straight out of a Western. “All was quiet, unlike the day before…. There were no children running in the streets. The [motorcycle riders] were the only ones around, and they were clearly out of place.”
That’s when he ordered the gun truck to open fire. “If innocent civilians were killed, this is most regrettable and was not intentional,” he writes. The ingenuousness of his next thought is striking. “It is very difficult to determine who is good and who is bad on the battlefield. If you are not on the ground, it is almost impossible for you to understand this.”
The log raises significant questions. Lorance has always maintained that he made his decision in a split second, without ever having a view of the riders or the road. Here, over a period of “minutes,” he sees everything. According to testimony at the court-martial, the helicopters arrived on the scene after the Afghan riders were shot, because Lorance had asked them to find the third man, who had fled. Contrary to the log, the pilots never reported any potential threat involving the motorcycle to Lorance. The most remarkable detail of the log is that it never mentions Private Skelton, who, by everyone else’s account, first spotted the motorcycle and whose assessment of it as a potential threat would later be the foundation of Lorance’s legal defense.
Before I raised these questions about the shootings, I wanted to ask him about his behavior during the previous two days with the Afghans who had visited the Strong Point and whom he had been convicted of threatening. Colonel Mennes had asked soldiers to be beat cops, diplomats, and peacekeepers. Lorance seemed to be conducting the war according to different rules, I said.
“Yeah, it would sound like that,” he said. “But countless people who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have told me, ‘You have to be tough on them or they don’t understand you.’ Being tough on the enemy is not against the rules. Afghans — they don’t understand ‘no.’ They understand ‘no’ when it’s accompanied by a rifle.
“One of the things that the average American does not understand is you can’t use the same filter that we use in the Western world in Afghanistan. At the risk of sounding like some sort of racist, those people are barbarians. We grew up playing baseball and basketball. You know what they grew up doing? They throw rocks at each other, for fun. They keep small boys around to have sex with them. They’re not the same as we are, and bless their hearts, that’s the way they want to be.”
In the weeks before he took command of First Platoon, Lorance sought information on the top Taliban targets in the region. Lorance, an inexperienced, newly installed platoon leader, decided to reject the strategy his superiors had devised. “We lost the Vietnam War because of people like Colonel Mennes,” he told me. He wasn’t interested in counterinsurgency, in winning hearts and minds. “I came in strong,” he said. “I know I am not the only one that fought the war that way.”
When Skelton asked for permission to shoot, Lorance gave it. This was the first time he had ever issued a command to use lethal force, and he was doing so with the sparest grasp of unfolding events — without even seeing the target. Did he really have enough information to give this order? I asked him.
“No,” he said, “but one of the things that we’re drilled on in the military is ‘Let your leaders lead.’” He described Skelton, a private, as a “subordinate leader” and added, “If I can’t trust my own subordinates, then I can’t operate.” Yet when I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned Skelton in his log, he said, “That’s easy. What happened out there was my responsibility, period.”
During the minutes that passed before he radioed Shilo in the gun truck, I think Lorance realized he couldn’t defend the order he had given Skelton. (The Army makes every soldier, and his commander, accountable for every round that leaves his weapon.) But a second order to fire would justify the first one. If the motorcycle kept going, Lorance could make the case that a threat existed. Lorance had time to ask Shilo whether the men on the motorcycle had stopped, but he didn’t.
When Lorance saw the bodies of the two men, he seemed to realize he’d killed innocent people. For that reason, he told Skelton not to do the Battle Damage Assessment — “because you won’t like what you see.” But I think he also believed he wouldn’t be punished. He understood how these investigations worked; he was confident he could write a report that would exonerate himself. The chain of command would support him as it had supported other men in such situations. What he didn’t take into account was that his men would consider his behavior so egregious — not just dangerous but illegal — that they would report him.
“If I were in their shoes,” Lorance said, “I would think to myself, Well, I don’t know this guy. He just got here. Why don’t we give him some time, and if we go on a couple more patrols with him, and we think he might be crazy, then we report him. That’s the whole problem — I wasn’t even given a chance.”
Reading the investigators’ report, I’m struck by how certain Lorance seemed in the days after the incident that he would be vindicated — so certain that his fellow officers questioned his grip on reality. To one, he said he couldn’t “wait to get back” to the Strong Point and “shoot every motorcycle I see.” To another, he remarked he might like to work for Blackwater, the private security firm that has been involved in the shooting of civilians in Iraq, and heard that it was hiring. These are strange jokes, because they present him exactly as the prosecution later would: a reckless, trigger-happy killer.
Lorance’s version of the events of July 2 has evolved, but he has always maintained that he acted in good faith. If that’s true, I asked him, why did he try to cover up what he’d done? Why did he tell Swanson he hadn’t done the Battle Damage Assessment? Why did he order Skelton not to mention the Battle Damage Assessment in his report?
Several reasons, he told me: The platoon was split up, and he didn’t know what was going on with its different elements. He was trying to control the helicopters. “The way you word things on the radio is extremely important,” he said. “Whatever you say to them is painting the picture for them of what’s going on. BDA was not the most important thing right then. I knew that we needed to do it at some point.”
“But the Battle Damage Assessment had already been done,” I said. That had come out at the court-martial.
“I knew that I had sent people to do the BDA,” he said. “That was one of the things they brought up in the court-martial: ‘He sent the wrong people to do BDA’ — which is incorrect. They were just as trained as Skelton was, and I wanted Skelton to be right there with me.”
He had swerved away from the question. “But only Skelton had the portable biometric instrument that was used for BDA,” I said.
“I didn’t even think about that at the time, to be honest with you.”
But in our last conversation he had said otherwise. “You explained that you wanted Skelton to stay with you and do biometric enrollments because he had his ‘little computer thing.’”
“The thing is, Skelton is my guy. He’s my intel guy.” Lorance was getting annoyed. “It’s all so frustrating, because there are hundreds of thousands of these patrols over this war, over these couple of wars, that nobody is dissecting like this. I bet if you would dissect those patrols, you would come up with just as many ambiguities as you are right now.”
I understood that, I said, but he’d just been talking about being attentive to how he worded things on the radio. Then he had proceeded to lie over the radio.
“Right,” he said. “Well — ”
Not only that, I said, but he had told his troops to let the villagers take the bodies away. According to court-martial testimony, that was something he’d learned at brigade headquarters: The commanders can’t ask you questions if there are no bodies.
“I wish you would have been there, because almost every single situation that happened over there, we let the Afghans recover the bodies,” he said.
“Right,” I said, “but you don’t lie about it.”
“Well, no. I mean, it’s hard for me to — ” He stopped himself. “At this point, I feel like I’m not going to answer any more of these questions. You’re saying, ‘Did you lie on the radio and all?’ Do I deserve 20 years in prison for that?”
He went on: “This is the only interview I’ve ever done that is, like, very hard questions. I feel like I made the best decision I could make at the time, and I would do it again. Do I wish that I would have been in a different position in that patrol, like up front somewhere, where I could see everything? Yes. Because it would have been a very different call. I would have stopped the Afghans from shooting, and I would not have told anybody else to shoot. But I wasn’t. That’s not how the world worked out for me.”
For his part in the actions he had just described, people around the country, including many on Fox News, called him a hero. Did he agree with them?
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “I’m just some guy who made a really impossible choice in a war. People call me that everywhere I go, and I ask them to stop.”