Pfc. Andrew Holmes had a bad feeling when he followed a command from a higher-ranked soldier to help search a teenage Afghan boy standing in a poppy field.
Holmes knew his fellow Stryker infantryman, Spc. Jeremy Morlock, had been talking about killing Afghans in combat-like scenarios. He also knew Morlock was carrying a grenade he wasn't supposed to have.
And the boy? He didn’t look like a threat.
“I could see his hands were empty,” Holmes said in court at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Thursday. “I could see he didn’t have a weapon.”
Morlock yelled “grenade!” and ordered the junior soldier to fire his automatic machine gun.
Holmes, 21, of Boise, on Thursday admitted for the first time that he killed the Afghan that day in January 2010. He pleaded guilty to a murder charge that acknowledges his reckless actions caused the boy’s death, even though he didn’t intend to kill him.
“I had a moment where the right thing for me to do was to take cover,” Holmes said. “I fired six to eight rounds at the man, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
Holmes was the youngest of five soldiers from Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division who came home from Afghanistan in June 2010 facing charges that they carried out schemes to murder three Afghans.
Holmes is scheduled to be sentenced today by Army Judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks. Holmes also pleaded guilty to smoking marijuana during his deployment and briefly possessing a finger cut from an Afghan corpse that his squad leader told him to take.
The maximum punishment for the charges is life in prison. Holmes struck a plea deal that will limit his time in confinement, but its terms have not been disclosed.
About a dozen supporters and family members joined him in court, including murder codefendant Spc. Michael Wagnon. Holmes’ mother, Dana Holmes of Boise, closed her eyes from time to time as she took in her son’s confession.
His testimony showed that his leaders repeatedly put him in compromising situations. Morlock, who has pleaded guilty to murdering three Afghans, was Holmes’ team leader and his direct superior during patrols.
Holmes said Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the alleged “kill team” ringleader, was the soldier who gave him the finger from the corpse. Gibbs, 26, was a squad leader and a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s awaiting a court-martial on murder charges.
At the time, Holmes was a green private who’d been in the Army for a little more than a year.
“Andy Holmes joined the Army as a healthy, good natured 18-year-old kid who liked to play golf and go fishing,” said his attorney, Dan Conway. “Now he may be leaving the army as a felon.”
Holmes’ plea marked a turn from his statements over the past year. At previous hearings, his defense has cited testimony from a forensic pathologist who looked at photos of the victim and concluded the soldier’s gun didn’t cause the boy’s death.
In November, Holmes insisted he was innocent at a pretrial hearing before an Army investigating officer.
“I just want to take this opportunity to look you in the eye, to tell you soldier to soldier, that I did not commit murder,” Holmes said at the previous hearing.
For a time Thursday, Holmes expressed uncertainty about whether he knew the victim was innocent. That hesitation jeopardized his plea deal because Hawks could’ve thrown it out if the judge thought Holmes didn’t believe he was guilty.
“There was a lot of confusion that day,” Holmes told Hawks. “But I believe that when I pulled the trigger, there was a chance the guy was innocent.”
Holmes wanted the deal to ensure he won’t face a mandatory minimum life sentence. If the case were to go to trial, he’d face testimony from Morlock and another codefendant who took a plea deal, Spc. Adam Winfield.
Holmes also hedged on whether his weapon directly caused the Afghan’s death. The Army does not have physical evidence to settle the question.
Hawks pressed Holmes until Holmes clearly said he knew he was guilty. Eventually, Holmes said he saw the body had wounds that only he could have caused.
“When it comes down to it, I was ordered to fire and I knew I should’ve taken cover,” he said.