Full Story Finally Told: KR Staffer in Iraq Killed by Soldier With Drug Issues

By: Greg Mitchell

Earlier this week, E&P touted a remarkable four-part series for the Sacramento Bee by Russell Carollo called “Suspect Soldiers,” which probes how a rising number of Army recruits are entering the service with criminal records or histories of drug or alcohol abuse — and what often happens when they get to Iraq. For Tuesday’s Bee, and other McClatchy papers, Carollo looks at a tragic case that E&P has written about several times in the past.

It opens as follows. The entire piece is up at www.sacbee.com.

Dr. Yasser Salihee’s body lay in his compact car on a busy Baghdad street for everyone to see.

The doctor, employed as a journalist by the now defunct Knight-Ridder Newspapers group, had been shot by an American soldier who claimed that Salihee refused to slow down and who believed he presented a threat.

Though the details are disputed, the results were not: The June 24, 2005, shooting outraged the very population the military was trying to win over.

“Before the accident I loved the Americans ? but after the accident, I hate all the Army,” said Salihee?s widow, Raghad al Jabar al Wazan, also a medical doctor. “All my neighbors were hating the Americans.”

The shooter seemed beyond suspicion, with a resume fit for a character from a John Wayne movie: son of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot, former elite Army Ranger, sniper team leader, accomplished hunter and marksman, aspiring wilderness guide with a trunk full of awards and a small fan club of admiring young soldiers.

“This kid was a good soldier,” said former Louisiana National Guard Maj. Andre Vige, who conducted an administrative inquiry into the shooting. “Good outfit. Good guys. One of the premier combat brigades of the National Guard. They were the standard bearer.”

But a yearlong examination by the Sacramento Bee found that the shooter, Staff Sgt. Joseph J. Romero, brought a long, troubled past with him to Iraq, and the Guard unit Vige praised was riddled with misfits, drug users and soldiers with criminal records ? at least two of them former mental patients.

At the time that he shot Salihee Romero was under investigation for selling cocaine, military records show.

Days before the shooting, Romero threatened to kill a fellow soldier who reported him to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command or CID. Three weeks later, the drug allegations would prompt the Army to strip Romero of his leadership, bar him from missions and take away his large-caliber sniper rifle.

And less than three months after the shooting, on Sept. 9, 2005, Romero was sentenced to 14 months’ confinement and given a bad conduct discharge, convicted of selling cocaine, possessing other drugs, obstructing justice and communicating a threat.

Salihee would go on to posthumously receive the Overseas Press Club of America’s top reporting award, with other Knight Ridder journalists, for reporting from Iraq. Knight Ridder would be bought in June 2006 by The McClatchy Co. which continues to operate the Baghdad news bureau where Salihee worked and owns the Sacramento Bee, as well as 29 other U.S. newspapers.

Vige, whose investigation of the Salihee shooting was made public three weeks after Romero was sentenced, said he was never aware that Romero was under criminal investigation at the time he shot Salihee. He said he never considered doing a background check on Romero because he “considered it irrelevant.”

“Every time I met with Romero he was extremely professional,” said Vige, now retired from the National Guard. “This was a stand-up soldier.”

Romero is one of more than 70 soldiers and Marines that the Bee’s examination found with questionable backgrounds who were linked to incidents in the military, most occurring in Iraq.
Greg Mitchell’s new book includes a chapter on this case. It it is titled, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits– and the President — Failed on Iraq.”

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