WASHINGTON – Nearly two dozen soldiers from an Army platoon were on patrol in a dangerous valley in southern Afghanistan when a motorcycle sped toward them, ignoring commands to stop.
As he tells it, 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, the platoon leader, ordered his men to fire just seconds before the motorcycle bore down on them that July day in 2012. But the Afghans were unarmed, and two died. The next year, Lorance was found guilty at a court-martial of second-degree murder, one of the few times an American soldier has been convicted of a crime for actions in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. He is serving a 19-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
But the case is far from over. Lorance, who was dismissed from the Army, has become a cause célèbre for conservative commentators, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, who say the Obama administration punished a soldier for trying to defend his troops. Three Republican representatives - Duncan Hunter of California, Matt Salmon of Arizona and Ryan Zinke of Montana - have asked the secretary of the Army to review the case. And more than 124,000 people have signed a petition to the White House demanding a pardon.
“The warfighter doesn’t always have the benefit of time, given lives are always at risk in a war zone,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter, sent in January.
That chorus of supporters, however, is notable for what it lacks: members of the platoon itself.
Though many members of the platoon have never publicly expressed their views of the case, nine came forward to testify against Lorance at his trial, and in interviews several of those soldiers have contradicted Lorance’s account of a split-second decision to protect his troops.
The picture those soldiers painted was of a young lieutenant who, during just three days in command, ordered soldiers to fire repeatedly on unarmed Afghans, tried to falsify reports in order to cover up his actions, and so alienated and outraged his troops that they refused to follow orders and turned him in.
“War is hard, there is collateral damage. I get that - I’ve got my own stories,” Staff Sgt. Daniel Williams said in an interview. But he added, “That’s not what this was; this was straight murder.”
Lorance’s lawyers have cast doubt on the platoon members’ accounts, noting that the nine soldiers who testified against him were granted immunity.
Lorance is barred by the Army from speaking to reporters. But he denied any wrongdoing in an August 2014 letter to the general presiding over his court-martial, saying, “My sole purpose during my tenure as a platoon leader was to bring my men home safely.”
The lawyers also point to newly uncovered evidence suggesting that the men on the motorcycle may have had ties to enemy bomb makers - a detail that was not revealed to the defense before the trial.
“If the entire evidence had been turned over, this case would be decided differently,” said John Maher, Lorance’s lawyer. He is appealing the conviction and asking the Army to grant clemency.
The events of that day continue to haunt many members of the platoon. Some, stalked by anger and regret, say they have trouble sleeping. One cried while talking about how the episode tore apart the platoon. One recently checked into a clinic for post-traumatic stress disorder, saying the calls to free Lorance had revived disturbing memories.
In 2012, the platoon - part of the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment - was based in an outpost overlooking a mud-brick village amid fields of grapes in Kandahar province.
The region is a Taliban stronghold, and four months into the deployment, four men in the unit were severely wounded, including the original lieutenant. Lorance, a 28-year-old with no combat experience, was sent as a replacement.
Lorance enlisted in the Army in 2002, became a military police officer and did tours in South Korea as a traffic officer and in Iraq guarding detainees before being commissioned as a lieutenant in 2010.
Anna Lorance, his mother, said he was a thoughtful and generous child growing up in rural Texas. After joining the Army at 18, he anonymously sent $250 a month to his grandmother.
“He has always put everything he has into helping and protecting people,” she said.
Soldiers who served with him before Afghanistan described him as a top performer.
He “always expected the right thing to be done and the mission to be complete,” Joshua Campbell, who served with Lorance in Iraq, said in an email.
But soldiers in Afghanistan said Lorance had arrived at their outpost seemingly set on harsh tactics to subdue local insurgents.
“He looks like the all-American sweetheart when you meet him,” Williams said in an interview. “But he was just so aggressive. One of the first things he said to us was, we are going to go in Gestapo-style with night raids, pull people out of houses, make them afraid of us.”
The afternoon he arrived, Lorance ordered one of the team’s sharpshooters to fire into the village from the outpost, with the shots hitting inches from civilians, according to trial records. In one case, he ordered the sharpshooter to toy with a man by firing near his head and both shoulders to box him in.
Lorance then ordered the sharpshooter to aim near children and women in a grape field next to the outpost. The sharpshooter, Spc. Matthew Rush, refused.
“I said, ‘You know, they’re kids,’” Rush testified at the court-martial.
A spokesman for Hunter, who was a Marine officer who served three tours in Iraq, said the congressman did not dispute the platoon members’ accounts but believed that, given the confusing nature of combat, Lorance should be given leniency.
“It might be true Lorance wasn’t the Army’s best soldier,” the spokesman, Joe Kasper, said. But the sentence, he said, “under the circumstances is excessive.”