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Commander defends Apache pilots in WikiLeaks video before 'The Fifth Estate' movie release

Oct. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
An image from the Wikileaks video Collateral Murder
An image from the Wikileaks video Collateral Murder (Screenshot)
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Lt. Col. Chris Walach is shown during a 2006-2008 deployment to Iraq. (Courtesy Lt. Col. Chris Walach)

More than three years after the WikiLeaks video went viral, the commander of the Apache pilots who fired on a group of men in Baghdad, killing two Reuters employees, is speaking out.

Retired Lt. Col. Chris Walach commanded 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment for three years, leading them in combat in Iraq for a 15-month deployment during the height of the troop surge.

Walach, now an independent management consultant based in Nevada, contacted and spoke to Army Times a week before the Oct. 18 release of the movie “The Fifth Estate,” which chronicles WikiLeaks’ rise to notoriety.

Walach said it was time for him to set the record straight and “stand up for what is right.”

“This is the first time I’ve spoken of this firefight, and I did not speak out in the past three years because ... I believed at the time that the WikiLeaks narrative would fade away, but instead it grew into an evil and haunting presence,” he said. “Now, with the making of the movie ‘The Fifth Estate,’ [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’ actions are once again glorified. This story is about defending the honor and integrity of my people and my unit that served in war together.”

The WikiLeaks video, which has more than 14 million views, was posted in April 2010. Titled “Collateral Murder,” it shows a July 12, 2007, firefight involving soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment and pilots from Walach’s battalion responding with close-air support.

The footage, taken from the AH-64 Apache helicopters, shows the pilots engaging a group of men. The scenes are graphic; the soldiers use crude language, and the mood is tense.

After getting permission, the Apache crew fired its 30mm chain gun.

Among those believed to have been killed were Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver Saeed Chmagh, 40. Two children were wounded.

A military review concluded the aircrew mistook a photographer’s camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and that the journalists “made no effort to visibly display their status as press” while accompanying armed insurgents. None of the pilots were disciplined because the review found they followed the rules of engagement and law of land warfare, Walach said.

The leaked video painted an unflattering portrait of the war and raised questions about the military’s rules of engagement.

It also led to the arrest of Pvt. Bradley Manning for leaking reams of classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning, who now wants to be called Chelsea Manning and to live as a woman, is serving a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized the unauthorized leak of the video.

“You’re looking at a situation through a soda straw, and you have no context or perspective,” he said at the time.

Walach, who retired in 2008, said WikiLeaks used the “Collateral Murder” video to become famous.

“I will let the war historians be the judge of my battalion’s war record,” he said. “At over 5,200 missions we conducted, our war record speaks for itself, from the opinions of senior officers to the individual squad leaders we supported on the ground.”

The soldiers of 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, deployed to Iraq in November 2006. The 500 soldiers and their 26 Apache helicopters operated in Baghdad and served a 15-month tour.

The battalion, which returned to Fort Hood, Texas, in January 2008, had two aviators killed in action and several others wounded during its deployment.

'Chaos every day'

His soldiers served during a time of chaos, Walach said.

“We were dealing with chaos every day,” he said. “The pilots, in order to deal with combat and when you’re being shot at every day, there’s a mental process you have to go through in order to effectively operate. When people see something like that, it may seem shocking, but we weren’t operating in a normal environment.”

Of the 5,200 missions conducted by his battalion, 314 were direct fire engagements, Walach said.

“The average person isn’t going to understand what it’s like to see people blown to bits in front of you,” he said. “Nobody is really going to know that environment unless they were standing right there.”

His pilots executed their duties that July day the same way he would have, Walach said, adding that he and his chain of command reviewed every engagement. This particular engagement was reviewed by officials at the 1st Cavalry Division and Central Command levels as well, Walach said.

Walach declined to name the aviators who performed that mission.

“When WikiLeaks posted an edited version of our combat video on YouTube, blog sites across the globe included death threats against [the crews] that participated in this mission,” he said. “This is why I won’t release their names. They have families, and they are still on active duty.”

His crews were “solid,” Walach said.

“None of them were brand new,” he said. “All of them had extensive training at Fort Hood, ... and we all had been fighting in Iraq since November of 2006. In the worst of the worst situations, I would trust my life in their hands. The culture I fostered within my battalion was that if soldiers on the ground called on us, we always had their backs, no matter what.”

Walach also blasted reports, because of the language used by the air crews in the video, that his soldiers were trigger-happy.

“These are extremely surreal conditions we put our men and women in,” he said. “In Iraq, you can’t put pink gloves on Apache helicopter pilots and send them into the Ultimate Fighting ring and ask them to take a knee. These are attack pilots wearing gloves of steel, and they go into the ring throwing powerful punches of explosive steel. They are there to win, and they will win.”

The ratio of missions performed and direct fire engagements shows his air crews pulled the trigger just 5 percent of the time, Walach said.

“The notion that my pilots were trigger-happy is just plain absurd,” he said.

On July 12, 2007, his pilots took what information was available and made the best decision possible under the circumstances, he said.

“There are many opinions as to what happened [that day],” Walach said. “Ultimately, my combat pilots at the scene did the best they could under extreme and surreal conditions.”

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