SWEETWATER, Tenn. — Ray Girouard couldn't wait to leave home.
The trip back took most of a decade — with a stop at a military prison along the way.
Now the former Army Ranger who once faced death for suspicion of war crimes cuts hair in the town where he grew up, among the neighbors who raised money and signed petitions to help bring him home on parole.
Army prosecutors called him a killer who ordered the deaths of three unarmed Iraqi captives. Friends and family called him a hero who just followed orders.
Girouard waited through an arrest, a court-martial and nearly three years in prison to tell his story.
"I was a scapegoat," said Girouard, speaking about that day in May 2006 for the first time since his trial. "My soldiers messed up, and I covered up for them out of loyalty. In the end, I came out better than they did. I'm out. They're still in prison. Now I'm just trying to start over."
The mission started out like most. Girouard, then a staff sergeant in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, had just reached the halfway mark on his second tour of duty in Iraq.
The May 9 mission called for the soldiers to storm a suspected training camp for terrorists between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
"The rules of engagement were that we were to kill all military-age males," Girourd said.
Girouard's brigade commander, Col. Michael Steele, later denied giving any such order.
Girouard and his squad ended up on the north end of the island. Inside one house, they found three men hiding behind a pair of screaming, crying women.
They found a fourth man dying on the floor near a window. The soldiers had fired at the window earlier after spotting movement.
The next house stood a few hundred yards to the north. Girouard ordered his men to shoot over the house in case women or children were inside.
"A guy ran out with a little baby girl, holding her up," Girouard said. "I grabbed the baby, and my guys take him down."
The sight, together with the men hiding behind the women, enraged Girouard and the other soldiers.
"Now it's just me, my squad, and these three detainees. We start packing up our gear, and I go behind the house to get on the radio and get the (helicopter) called up."
"I'd looked at the detainees, and they just had zip ties on their wrists," Girouard said. "They needed (more secure) flex cuffs. I told my guys to change them out. I get around the house, and I hear this volley of gunfire. I realize it's coming from behind me.
"I run back and see these three bodies lying on the ground with their blindfolds half-off. My guys are shouting, 'They tried to escape. We shot them. They were terrorists. They were going to come back and kill us.'"
Two soldiers — Spc. William Hunsaker and Pfc. Corey Clagett — later testified they cut the zip ties, pushed up the blindfolds and told the men to run. When they opened fire, the shots killed two of the prisoners and wounded the third.
Another soldier, Spc. Juston Graber, testified he finished that man off on Girouard's orders. All three soldiers ultimately pleaded guilty — Hunsaker and Clagett to murder, Graber to aggravated assault — as part of deals in exchange for their testimony against Girouard.
The men said Girouard ordered them to stage the escape. He says that's a lie.
"I was scared," Girouard said. "I'd killed people before, but this was (wrong). I'd reported one killed. Now we had four killed. I told them, 'Don't say nothing.' Then I reported they'd attacked my guys, and my guys defended themselves."
The cover story didn't hold up. Within a month, Army investigators had charged Girouard and three of his soldiers — Hunsaker, Clagett and Graber — with murder, a potential capital offense.
Army prosecutors secured the three soldiers' testimony and offered Girouard a plea bargain — life in prison. He refused.
Girouard spent nearly a year in custody before his court-martial in March 2007. A jury found him guilty of three lesser counts of negligent homicide, with a sentence of 10 years in prison — eight years less than either of the men who admitted to staging the escape.
Girouard thinks the jury accepted his story of what happened. He's appealing the conviction.
"I proved I didn't give the order," Girouard said. "I proved I didn't kill anybody. The others know what they did. They've got to live with that. That's good enough for me."
After nearly three years in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Girouard came home on parole in October, a little more than three years after his arrest. He first came to Sweetwater, where a friend from high school offered him a job at the Sweetwater Barber Shop. The town welcomed him back with a celebration at the local park.
"At first, everybody said I was a war hero," he said. "I still get that when I stop at the gas station."
His wife, Denise, and 7-year-old son, Hunter, came out for the homecoming but remain at their home in Clarksville, Tenn., across the state line from the 101st Airborne's home at Fort Campbell, Ky. Girouard said he hopes to rejoin his family once the first 60 days of his parole expire in December.
"I'll try to explain to my son one day that my guys messed up and that I tried to cover for them. If he ever wants to go into the military, I'll encourage him. I'll support him in whatever he wants to do, and I'll want to make sure he does it right."
There are currently 1 users browsing this thread. (0 members and 1 guests)