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Originally published March 20, 2011 at 7:31 PM | Page modified March 21, 2011 at 8:34 AM

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War changed soldier accused in Afghan killings, mother says

Army Spc. Jeremy Morlock, one of five Joint Lewis-McChord soldiers accused of participating in killing unarmed Afghan civilians, is expected to agree to a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against the other platoon members.

Seattle Times staff reporter

WASILLA, Alaska — When Spc. Jeremy Morlock returned home last spring for a respite from the war in Afghanistan, he lacked the brash confidence that characterized his playing days as a high-school hockey star. He was jumpy, constantly looking over his shoulder, and terrified of returning to his platoon fighting in the southern province of Kandahar.

When his stay in Alaska ended, he could not bring himself to depart. He went AWOL for several more weeks to spend time with his family and girlfriend. Finally, he rejoined his unit.

"He thought he was going to be killed. He literally believed he would not come home. He told us that almost every day," said Audrey Morlock, the soldier's mother.

Morlock survived his tour of duty. But not as a free man.

Held in solitary confinement at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Morlock is one of five soldiers from his platoon in 5th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division accused of participating in the murders of three unarmed Afghans in January, February and May of 2010.

Morlock's court-martial trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday, with the defendant expected to agree to a plea deal that would result in a prison term up to 24 years with a possibility of parole earlier.

His agreement to testify in future trials will likely make him the star witness against the other charged soldiers — Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, Pfc. Andrew Holmes, Spc. Michael Wagnon and Spc. Adam Winfield.

Plea document

In a plea document obtained by The Seattle Times, Morlock portrays Gibbs, who joined the platoon in November to replace another wounded sergeant, as a key figure in the murder plots. Gibbs talked about unlawful killings in Iraq and then noted how easy it would be to stage similar killings in Afghanistan.

In the plea document, Morlock also makes a previously undisclosed allegation that a sixth soldier was involved in one of the plots. The Seattle Times is not naming that soldier because he has not been charged by prosecutors.

In pretrial hearings, attorneys for the other accused soldiers have challenged Morlock's version of events, saying that he has made substantial errors in his recounting.

Morlock plea's agreement bears the signature of Capt. Dre Leblanc, the Army's lead prosecutor in the war-crimes case. But it still requires approval by an Army judge at the court-martial before becoming final.

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Morlock, 23, has gained considerable notoriety through a videotaped interview with investigators, which was leaked to the media, that details the killings. Morlock also is one of two soldiers who posed kneeling next to the body of a slain Afghan. The military had tried to block release of those and other photos for fear of aggravating tensions with Afghanistan's civilian population. But Der Spiegel, a German news organization, has published three images, including one that depicted Morlock smiling next to the slain Afghan he allegedly helped kill in January.

"We apologize for the distress these photos cause," reads a statement released by the Army Sunday. "The photos appear in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that has characterized our Soldiers' performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations."

Mother blames Army

Morlock's mother, in an interview with The Seattle Times, blames much of her son's plight on a failure of Army leaders to oversee the platoon's behavior and actions.

"I think the government is just playing these guys as scapegoats. The leaders dropped the ball. Who was watching over all this?" Audrey Morlock said.

During the court-martial's sentencing phase, the defense is expected to bring to the stand Alaskans who can offer a different perspective on Morlock.

Jeremy Morlock is the second oldest of six children whom Audrey Morlock, an Athabascan Alaska native, raised with her husband, Richard Morlock, a retired Army paratrooper who shuttled between Wasilla and a North Slope oil-field job until his drowning death in July 2007.

Richard Morlock would take Jeremy and his other children on outdoor excursions all across Alaska, where they would fish for halibut or king salmon, hunt for moose and snowmobile.

Richard Morlock also was a big reason his son decided to join the Army. As a child, Jeremy Morlock tried on his father's beret, played GI Joe in the woods and imagined a day he would follow his father's path.

"He knew he was going to join in elementary school. That kid talked about it all the time," said Morlock's former hockey coach, Jamie Smith. "He had it all planned out. His dad was an example to him."

Hockey also was Morlock's passion. He played for years on a tight-knit youth team that included a childhood friend, Track Palin, son of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who volunteered as team manager.

Smith recruited Morlock to join him on a high-school team that won three conference championships. Morlock was a checker who would do whatever the coach asked, and suffered four concussions, according to his mother.

Right after his 2006 graduation, Morlock enlisted in the Army.

A year later, his father died in what Audrey Morlock described as a "devastating blow" that robbed her son of someone who would have been a big source of support during the year in Afghanistan.

Initiated into war

Morlock's brigade arrived in southern Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 at the onset of a major push by U.S. forces to gain control over rural areas that were Taliban strongholds. Morlock was quickly initiated into the war.

"I have been here barely for two months, and I don't think that I will ever be able to talk about some of the things that have happened," Morlock wrote to his mother. "I don't mean to worry you. ... I will be OK. I am too smart for anything to happen to me."

By late fall, Gibbs was outlining what he referred to as "scenarios," in which platoon members could kill unarmed Afghans and drop grenades and other "props" by the bodies to make them appear to be legitimate battlefield casualties, according to Morlock's plea-agreement documents.

In that document, Morlock recounts in considerable detail the events surrounding each killing.

But the accuracy of his memory is likely to be a big issue should he testify in other trials.

In addition to his hockey concussions, Morlock suffered additional concussion in Afghanistan. In May of 2009, he was being evacuated for these head injuries when he was detained by investigators, according to Audrey Morlock.

A subsequent Army evaluation found that at various times in his years in Afghanistan Morlock had a post-concussive syndrome, had a dependence on cannabis, had abused opiates and sedatives, and had a personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But an Army board concluded that Morlock "did not have a severe mental disease or defect at the time of the alleged criminal conduct that resulted in him being unable to appreciate the nature and quality of wrongfulness of his conduct."

Legal fees

Morlock's mother says she has spent more than $50,000 on legal fees for her son's defense. She is bitter at what she says were misleading statements by investigators who initially indicated to her son that they were after higher-ranking soldiers and not him.

Even as he departed Afghanistan, she says, her son still believed he would not be prosecuted.

In testimony in court, investigators have denied misleading Morlock and other solders who came under questioning.

Since his imprisonment last spring, Morlock has become a father. His daughter was born in December.

Audrey Morlock says her son has not fared well in solitary confinement, but his lawyers have been unable to get him released to mingle with a broader prison population. Despite medications, she said, he struggles with nightmares that rob him of sleep and "can't hold his hand out straight without shaking."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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