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 célebre 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, saying the case "deserves a high level of attention and scrutiny."
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 paint is 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 Williams, who was on his third tour in Afghanistan and was a squad leader in the platoon, 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. 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.
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 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. "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.
Lorance told the soldiers the next morning that the Army’s rules of engagement, governing when they could use deadly force, had changed and that they were now allowed to fire on any motorcycle they saw. Soldiers testified that they were shocked but did not argue.
At the trial, Army prosecutors showed that the rules had not changed — a fact they suggested Lorance would have known.
A few minutes into that morning patrol, while walking through a field of grapes, a private named James Skelton spotted a motorcycle in the distance carrying three men and called it out to Lorance.
News media reports based on interviews with Lorance’s family and lawyers have described the motorcycle "speeding toward the platoon," giving the lieutenant only seconds to act. But soldiers testified that the bike was about 200 yards away and could not have reached the platoon’s position in the grape fields.
Without asking for more information, Lorance, standing in a low spot where he could not see the motorcycle, told the soldiers to "engage," soldiers testified.
"Nobody fired initially," Todd Fitzgerald, a specialist in the platoon who was standing near the lieutenant, said in an interview. "There was no reason to. Then Lorance said, ‘Why isn’t anyone firing yet?’"
Skelton fired two shots that missed.
The men on the motorcycle stopped, got off and looked around, soldiers testified, trying to figure out what had happened. Lorance radioed a nearby truck that had a machine gun with an order to fire. Williams, who watched through a high-powered camera at the outpost, saw two bursts from the gun truck take down the motorcycle driver, then, after a pause, a man with a wispy white beard. A third man fled into the village.
"I got on the radio and was, like, what the hell just happened?" Williams said. "There was no threat from those guys whatsoever."
Lorance then told the machine-gunner to fire at the motorcycle, but a boy had come to retrieve it, so the gunner refused.
"I wasn’t going to shoot a 12-year-old boy," the gunner, Pvt. David Shilo, testified.
Soldiers searching the dead men found only a pair of scissors, an identification card, some pens and three cucumbers.
Women and children came out of the village, screaming and crying, soldiers said. Fitzgerald said that the lieutenant turned to him and said, "If anyone tries to touch the bodies, shoot them." Then, as the villagers confronted the platoon members, Fitzgerald said, Lorance swore at them and said, "Shut up or I’ll kill you, too."
In the letter seeking clemency, Lorance acknowledged making "some statements that framed me as someone I am not," but said those statements were just "an attempt to establish common ground with the battle-hardened troopers of the new platoon."
Lorance’s lawyer said his decision was reasonable because there were enemy fighters in the area.
In the village, the lieutenant radioed a false report to commanders that the villagers had carried away the bodies before they could be identified, soldiers said. That day, members of the platoon reported the falsification to the company commander.
In the court-marital, members of the platoon who testified gave a consistent account of Lorance’s actions before and after the killings.
Lorance did not testify, saying only during the sentencing phase, "I take full responsibility for my actions and the actions of my men."
Don Snyder, an author in Maine who has interviewed Lorance in prison and started the petition drive to pardon him, said Lorance was trying to appear tough for his men and got caught up in his own act.
"It’s a tragedy like something out of Shakespeare," he said. "He became the bully and the monster he was trying to protect everyone from."
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."
Members of Lorance’s former platoon say his actions ripped apart their tight-knit group.
"It tainted our entire service," Fitzgerald said. He choked up when he thought of the effect on men from the platoon.
"We gave a lot, sacrificed a lot. To see it destroyed, that was bad enough," he said. "Every time a new story calling him a hero happens, I don’t sleep. I lay down in my bed and close my eyes and lay there all night until the sun comes up."