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For Allen West, "War Hero" Is in Eye of the Beholder

West speaking at a recent health care town hall meeting.
West speaking at a recent health care town hall meeting.
Flickr: AllenWest

Judging by the avalanche of campaign contributions and the enthusiastic backing of the national GOP, Allen West is no longer a prohibitive underdog in the campaign for the 22nd Congressional District that spans coastal Broward and Palm Beach.

This means that as the race gets closer to the finish line, West will face the kind of scrutiny that comes with being a true contender.

Even these days, at public appearances, he's routinely introduced to the audience as a "war hero" -- a curious description for a soldier who resigned rather than face the threat of being court-martialed for torturing an Iraqi prisoner.

West canceled a scheduled interview with Juice last week, and we haven't heard back from his campaign this week. In the meantime, let's take a closer look at the incident that ended West's military career.

As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, West commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 20th Field Regiment, based in the city of Taji, north of Baghdad.

According to a sworn statement West gave to military investigators, his unit received a tip on August 8, 2003, that insurgents were plotting to assassinate him. West was ordered by his superiors to alter his schedule and keep a low profile. About a week later, a convoy that would have contained West was attacked with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire. None of the soldiers were hurt, but the IED blast ripped a panel off of a Humvee.

West told investigators that about a week later, the original informant furnished names of three Iraqis he believed to be part of the assassination plot. One of them was Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, an Iraqi police officer with whom American soldiers thought they were on friendly terms.

On August 21, 2003, based on West's order, soldiers snatched Hamoodi from the police station, hauling him to a military detention center. You can read the transcript of Hamoodi's interview on page 10 of the investigative report posted in this Slate feature about questionable treatment of detainees by American soldiers.

Hamoodi claimed that his first interrogator, an Egyptian woman, told him that she'd kill him if he didn't talk, then kicked him in the leg. West says that when he arrived at the facility, his interrogators told him that Hamoodi "was not divulging any information. I was concerned for the impending safety of my soldiers and myself."

Arriving at the interrogation room, West approached Hamoodi, took out his gun, and chambered a round. He placed it in his lap with the gun barrel facing Hamoodi. "I had drawn out my pistol as a means of conveying a threat to him for the seriousness of wanting the information," West told investigators.

Hamoodi said that after West's arrival, "a soldier pulled his shirt over his head, and numerous others began to punch him in the chest." The beating bruised his ribs, said Hamoodi, but those bruises had healed in the month that passed before he met with investigators.

Said West: "Yes, there had been sporadic body punches and shoving to the individual, which I witnessed but did not allow to get too brutal."

Hamoodi still didn't give West or the soldiers the information they wanted, either because he wasn't part of the assassination plot or because he was being an uncooperative witness.

West ordered Hamoodi out of the interrogation room and took him outside the facility, where Hamoodi says West pointed to six soldiers who were standing in line with their weapons in hand. Through the Egyptian translator, West told Hamoodi: "If you don't talk, they will kill you."

When that didn't work, West admitted to pushing Hamoodi's head into a clearing barrel full of sand, which is typically used for clearing weapons. West then put his gun into the same barrel, near Hamoodi's head and fired.

"In my anger I do not know if I fired two shots in to the barrel or one into the air and another into the barrel," said West in his sworn statement.

West claimed that the tactic worked. "Mr. Hamoodi came forth with names, location, and method of attack." The attack was to occur near the Saba al Boor police station with rooftop snipers from Fallujah, after Hamoodi signaled to them what Humvee contained West.

Soldiers set up surveillance in hopes of catching those involved in the ambush, which was supposedly scheduled for the next day. But the attack didn't occur. A search of Hamoodi's home reportedly turned up no evidence of the plot.

Hamoodi, who was interviewed by the New York Times nine months after the interrogation, said that he was never involved in any assassination plot and that the information he gave was induced by fear of death.

Hamoodi was detained for 45 days, then released without having been charged. West told the Times, "It's possible that I was wrong about Mr. Hamoodi."

West informed his superior, a colonel, that he had fired his weapon to intimidate a detainee. But according to the Times, the case didn't spark an investigation until a sergeant with another battalion mentioned the interrogation in a letter of complaint about West's heavy-handed leadership style.

The investigation found probable cause that West violated two statutes of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which forbade threatening a prisoner and assaulting him. The army initially moved forward with a criminal prosecution of West, until a hearing officer dismissed the case, fining West $5,000. He resigned in spring 2004 with full benefits from his 22-year career and settled in Plantation.

By the time the article about him appeared in the Times on May 27, 2004, West had already become a martyr to conservatives unfazed by the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, which broke the previous month. To that set, West was heroic for putting his soldiers' safety first.

But there were still no signs of the meteoric political rise to come. West told the newspaper that he'd turned down a lucrative offer to work with a private military contractor with work in Iraq, saying that he'd rather get a job teaching inner-city youth in a Broward County school and that his new goal was to work his way into a school administrator's role.

Instead, after a year teaching at Deerfield Beach High School, West headed back to a war zone. He took a job in Afghanistan, joining a private military contractor with a controversial past.

More about that in a post to come.


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