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Tennessee Town Backs GI in Iraqi Murder Case

Next week, when Staff Sgt. Raymond Girouard faces court-martial on charges of killing three Iraqi detainees, he'll have the financial and moral support of Sweetwater, Tenn.

Three other soldiers have struck plea deals. But Girouard says that he and his fellow soldiers were following orders. And folks in his hometown, population 6,000, believe him. They have raised money to hire a civilian attorney to defend him.

Girouard's court-martial will begin Monday.

Now 24, Girouard grew up attending the First Assembly of God church. The drum set in the Praise and Worship band is the same one he played as a teenager.

Church worshipers have offered their prayers and support. And in just two months, people like George McBride have helped raised more than $20,000 for Girouard's defense.

"We know him and we want to support him," McBride says. "We want him to get a fair trial. We want him to be well represented. And we want the truth to be known."

What is known is that on May 9, Girouard's unit captured three Iraqi men during a raid northwest of Baghdad. The Iraqis were alive when the unit radioed in for pickup.

But by the time the helicopter arrived, the detainees were dead. Initially, the soldiers claimed they shot the unarmed men because they were trying to escape. But over the past few months, three of the accused soldiers admitted they deliberately released the detainees and shot them.

They now claim that Staff Sgt. Girouard gave them the order to do it. Girouard's attorneys say he never gave an order to kill the men.

Girouard's attorneys claim the soldiers had rules of engagement from their commanding officer directing them to kill all military-aged men. The officer in question is Col. Michael Steele, famous for the so-called "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia.

But Steele has denied stating any such rules of engagement, and a judge says he doesn't have to testify at Girouard's court-martial.

Meanwhile, the convicted soldiers are expected to take the stand to say that Girouard led the planning and cover-up of the killings.

"It's a very heavy burden that the accused has, when he or she says, 'I was only following orders,'" says Gary Solis, a military law professor at both Georgetown and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"Can you demonstrate that you received an order?" Solis asks. "If it was an unlawful order that you didn't realize — and should not be expected to realize it was an unlawful order? That's asking a lot."

Solis says the defense of obedience to orders is the most frequently raised defense to war-crime charges, and it's very rarely successful.

But that's what attorneys for Girouard intend to do next week when they question his fellow soldiers about what they believed their orders were that day in May.

His family says Girouard is eager to face the men and take the stand in his own defense. The most the convicted soldiers got as part of the plea deal was 18 years in prison. If convicted, Girouard could face a life sentence.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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