March 12, 2006 - The Black Hearts Incident
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
March 12, 2006. A US Army patrol in Yusufiyah, Iraq come to investigate reports of an alleged terrorist attack that butchered a whole family of Iraqis. What is discovered there shocks the Army to the core - for the crimes were perpetrated not by terrorists, but by Americans from the Black Heart Brigade.
***Serious, Real-Life Trigger Warning.***
I came into the military in 2012, just after the Iraq War had technically ended, so I never personally experienced what many of my peers and superiors had gone through and have told me about. I apologize if I don’t relay their war as they understood it, but hope they understand. To me it is history, to them it was their personal experience, and we would do well to remember that whenever we examine events of the past in general. The past is a foreign country.
During the 2003-2011 War in Iraq, the area immediately south of Baghdad became known to the occupying American forces as the "Triangle of Death." Centered on the cities of Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah, and other large urban clusters, the area was one of Iraq’s main hot spots for violence and local resistance. Repeated incursions both by rogue Shi’a militias and al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch clashed with each other as much as they did with American forces, and made life both for occupiers and occupied a living hell. The period 2005-2007 was the worst for the Triangle of Death, and for Iraq as a whole.
The experience of war in Iraq was unlike any America has ever faced. The United States inherited and exacerbated a shattered government and society, and was unable to prevent the rise of various powerful militant groups vying for their interests in a vacuum of power. Saddam Hussein’s secular Sunni autocracy had kept a tight lid on the major factions of the region, but the 2003 invasion blew that lid off. Attempts to install democracy were impeded by the fact that any democracy would be Arab Shi’a-majority, with negative consequences for the Sunnis in the north and west and the Kurdish Shi’as to the north. Neither was willing to risk a hostile government, and both attempted to assert control over sections of the country. The Sunnis, already on the receiving end of Shi’a retaliation after years of Saddam’s persecutions, allied themselves with al-Qaeda and the radical Islamist movement.
In the midst of this upheaval, George Bush’s administration was happy to pretend that nothing was wrong and Iraq was improving even as the situation steadily deteriorated. War in Iraq placed unique and unforgiving pressures on American servicemen, different and in some ways worse than those of the World Wars or Vietnam. American forces were stretched thin, asked to make bricks without straw and covering huge swathes of territory with only a handful of soldiers. The lack of manpower – another mistake of the Bush Administration – meant that soldiers quickly became strung out, stressed, and anxious. Some began to resort to drugs or violent fantasies.
Morale plummeted, discipline began to crack, and leadership in many cases failed to cope with the new situations. Officers who had trained their whole lives to lead troops into a modern conflict now found themselves in a counterinsurgency war. The enemy was unidentifiable – which led to a growing belief that everyone was the enemy. The mission, the war, and the purpose of the occupation were little understood and even less appreciated. From everyone I have talked to, the lessons of the Iraq War were enduring cynicism and bitterness; the American military was sent to do a job its politicians did not understand and its members had never prepared for.
Some units had it worse than others. In 2005, the 101st Airborne Division rotated to Iraq to take up positions in and around Baghdad, including the Triangle of Death. The occupation of the Triangle was left up to the 2nd Brigade, and the area of Yusufiyah and Mahmudiyah to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. The 101st is one of the most storied units in American history, and the 502nd had fought through Normandy and across France and Germany during World War II. Its legacy was one of heroism against tyranny.
The 1-502nd was led by Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk, a heavy-handed dictator with little tolerance for disagreement and little mercy for his men. Kunk was a fighter, a hard-headed go-getter, and was merciless towards his subordinate leaders: if they could not make do with what they had, it was their fault. The 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-502nd, was his favorite whipping boy. In the first few months of their deployment, 1st Platoon experienced grave losses in leaders and men. Their first superstar Lieutenant was blown up by a land mine, their veteran Platoon Sergeant earned Kunk’s ire and was transferred out, and by the first few months 1st Platoon had lost ten soldiers killed.
1st Platoon lived in squalid conditions, stretched out guarding multiple villages and roads. The War in Iraq was straining the Army to the limit, and this was where the seams began to show. They were treated with contempt by their superiors, under constant mortar and sniper fire, always lacking sleep and stretched out by mission after mission. They held exposed positions day and night under direct orders, waiting for the sniper shot that would kill them; they patrolled streets to search for roadside bombs, often finding them with their feet. They lost many of their personal belongings in a fire at their barracks, they lost multiple friends and leaders to enemy bombs and ire, and their mission only grew more strenuous. Some men wore the same uniform for two months straight.
Pressure grew. Men began to break down, but they could not leave as there was no one to replace them. Some turned to bootleg alcohol or even harder drugs, the only release from the monotonous grind of duty. Others began to exercise their frustration and hostility on the local population, bullying, insulting and abusing them. With the constant attrition of leadership, fewer and fewer Sergeants and officers were around to keep the soldiers in line and maintain discipline.
One soldier under particular stress was Private Steven Green, a known malcontent. Green constantly spewed virulent hatred of other races, religions, and nationalities, and was a passionate conspiracy theorist. He was obviously cracked in the head, making constant comments about how he just wanted to kill some Iraqis. He was referred multiple times to the Combat Stress team at 1-502’s FOB, but they simply gave him some pills and sent him on his way. The reasoning was atrocious: the thought process seems to have been “if we sent everyone home who was cracking, we’d have nobody left.”
On March 12, 2006, Green and fellow Privates Cortez, Barker, and Spielman were at their checkpoint, unsupervised by an NCO or officer (there were not enough). Drinking bootleg Iraqi alcohol mixed with Rip-It energy drinks, playing cards, and hitting golf balls, their conversations were often dark – but today they turned darker than usual. Green kept talking about “killing some Iraqis.” Someone mentioned a local home, the residence of Qassim Hamza Raheem, a local worker, who had a 14-year old girl – Abeer - they described as “pretty hot.” Their conversation soon turned into a plan to rape and murder Abeer. Green promised to be the trigger man if one was needed.
That night, the four U.S. soldiers slipped out of their checkpoint, crept to the Raheem residence, and quickly took the family hostage. As the other soldiers assaulted Abeer, Green murdered the parents and Abeer’s 6-year old younger sister, first with a shotgun and then with Qassim Hamza’s AK-47. After they were finished, Green shot Abeer in the head several times, doused her body with petrol, and lit it on fire to conceal the evidence. They picked up any evidence they could find, then tossed the AK-47 into the canal to conceal their crime. They then returned to the checkpoint to “celebrate” their psychopathic achievement with a barbeque.
This horrifying war crime was only made worse by leadership’s failure to respond to it. Iraqi soldiers who discovered the crime reported it to Sergeant Anthony Yribe, another member of 1st Platoon, who took a team to investigate. Despite his initial assessment that al-Qaeda or another sect had committed the attack, troubling evidence discomfited him – particularly a shotgun shell found at the scene, since Iraqis almost never used shotguns. When Yribe cornered Green to question him, Green happily confessed to the crime; Yribe, stunned, kept the news to himself but remonstrated Green to “get his ass out of the Army, you are dead to me.”
Since both the US Army and the Iraqis had written it off as a more-violent-than-usual terrorist attack, the Black Hearts massacre might have died with Yribe. When new soldier Justin Watt arrived to join Bravo, Yribe advised him to keep his distance from Green since he was a murderer. When Watt questioned him further, Yribe told him what he knew, but growled to Watt that it was none of his business. Watt, who didn’t even know Green, was the only soldier with the conscience to report the crime during a mental health counseling session in June 2006. As the news lanced like wildfire through the Army’s channels, three months after the incident, Kunk was enraged and convinced that Watt was lying.
The Mahmudiyah Massacre – known now by the 502nd’s unit symbol as the “Black Hearts massacre” – soon became international news. It was a propaganda nugget for al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations. When three other soldiers from Bravo were kidnapped by militants, tortured, and murdered, the Mujahideen Shura Council (now part of ISIS) released a video of their mutilated bodies, claiming that it was vengeance for the “murder of our sister Abeer.” The cycle of violence in the Triangle of Death continued as the killings rose throughout 2006, even after the 101st Airborne left the sector. The crime was a grave discredit to the United States Army, and helped further the bitterness Iraqis felt towards their erstwhile liberators.
Green and the three other soldiers, along with another who had facilitated their crime, were tried and convicted of rape and murder. Green was spared the death penalty, which invoked outrage from the family’s relatives who had been brought to witness the trial in Kentucky – Abeer’s uncle described the sentence as a “crime almost worse than the soldier’s crime.” Either way, Satan got his man in 2014 when Green died in the United States Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona following complications from an attempted suicide. The other three participants in the rape-murder remain at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Why THIS story? This isn’t your usual stuff, Jay. This sucks, it’s nasty, it’s not a good story. And you're right.
United States military history is not an unblemished march of triumphs and heroes. There is dark stuff in there, darker than night, and it needs to be told. History is not complete without the good and the bad. The Black Hearts Massacre is important, not only for what it meant for the Iraq War but for what it says about soldiers in action. Green and the other criminals that committed the act were to blame, but so were multiple leaders at multiple levels that failed to lift the stress of combat, failed to understand what was going on in their sector, and failed to treat a soldier suffering from severe combat stress and exhibiting troubling behavior.
It also signifies a lot about the type of war Iraq was – a liberation turned into an occupation, crusade turned into trial, a badly conceived and badly executed military adventure. The people who caused it – the American leadership, Saddam and the Ba’athists, terrorist organizers – were not the people who suffered. Those were the American serviceman and the Iraqi civilian. The blame for the terrible failures in Iraq are widespread and deep, but only the people at the bottom paid the price. The cost of war is not merely in money and blood, but in scars in the human soul, damage to the human condition.
The dehumanizing and brutalizing element of war is always there. The more we send our American men and women into wars that they cannot win and do not understand, and the more we ask them to endure beyond the limits of human mental and physical endurance, the more we accept the risk of terrible events and the consequences of our hubris - and the consequences do not always fall on the deserving. If America has learned one thing from Iraq, it should be a painful and sobering understanding of our own limitations.
Book Recommendation: The one, the only: Jim Frederick, Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in the Triangle of Death and the American Struggle in Iraq (New York: Harmony Books, 2010).