What Killed Sergeant Gray: Part 2

Sergeant Adam Gray in Iraq.
Photo courtesy Tony Sandoval

The family tried to cheer him up with parties. "First, we had Christmas," Chavez said. "We went up to the nursery and got a tree. Then we had Christmas with Christmas lights, cookies, the whole shot. And then we had New Year's Eve and then we had Valentine's. From March - what was it? - March 1st to March 21st, something like that. We crammed in every holiday we could because March 20th was his birthday, so we had a big birthday party for him.

"And that was the very last picture that I got of him was at that birthday party. He never came home."

Cindy Chavez has been trying to get more details from the military about what happened in Alaska. And she's searched for other soldiers who'd served with Adam, to find out what happened in Iraq.

"I know there's more to this story," she said. "I know it. And I'm not going to give up until I find out."

Cindy knew that her son arrived in Iraq in early 2003. He was part of a tank battalion, the 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment (or Battalion 1-68) with the 4th Infantry Division. By the time they arrived, much of the fighting from the invasion was over.

"Ten thousand rounds of machine gun ammunition and not a lot of things to shoot," Gray told his mother in a tape-recorded letter. "There's no killing left to do, mom. They didn't leave me any killing, those bastards."

Chavez said Gray was quoting a military comedy he enjoyed titled Major Payne. But fellow soldiers said he and his other unit members were frustrated that they weren't able to put their tank skills to use.

"He wanted fight - that's what he was trained for - and he wanted to do it well," remembered his friend and fellow tanker, Tony Sandoval. "We never really had the ability to be utilized for what we trained for. Everyone was getting really frustrated…when we realized we weren't going to be utilized."

They were dispatched to Balad, to Forward Operating Base Lion - about 70 miles north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle. There, the unit traded many of their tanks for Humvees, and patrolled nearby towns.

One night, Gray and his fellow tankers roamed nearby streets, searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They looked through their night vision imager and saw a small cluster of people with a rifle.

"We assumed these guys were out setting IEDs," said Gray's tank commander, Sergeant Oral Lindsey. "Why else would they be walking around at night with an AK-47?"

The tankers opened fire on the group, but discovered they weren't insurgents planting IEDs - instead, it was a family of three. The military airlifted the victims to medical treatment, but two of the three injured died, including a small girl.

"Not a day goes by that I don't see that little girl's face, and it's hard, man," Lindsey said.

The experience apparently made a deep impression on Adam Gray, too. It was one of the few things he told his mother about Iraq. Cindy Chavez says one night, when they'd been drinking, he told her the story of shooting the little girl.

"And when he talked about it that one particular night, he choked up and he goes, 'Ma, I couldn't see. We couldn't see. It was just the night vision and all it does is give you a shadow.'"

And there were other incidents in Iraq.

Forward Operating Base Lion in Balad, Iraq, where 1-68 was dispatched. Balad is about 70 miles north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle.
Photo courtesy Tony Sandoval

The soldiers in Gray's tanker unit were trained to fight a conventional army, but they had to quickly adapt to guerilla warfare as Iraqi insurgents attacked US troops. As part of that mission, the soldiers were charged with arresting people suspected of helping the insurgency. They brought the prisoners to a makeshift jail that they set up in a windowless, concrete building at FOB Lion.

The soldiers in Adam's unit weren't trained to guard prisoners. That's normally the work of military police. But at FOB Lion, they did guard duty.

Sometimes the soldiers guarding the prisoners helped "soften them up" for interrogation.

Lindsey described how troops were tasked with keeping detainees up all night. They'd blast rock music next to their ears. Other members of the unit detailed how some soldiers from Battalion 1-68 performed water torture. They pinned down detainees while pouring water over their mouths and noses to make them feel like they were drowning.

Cindy Chavez says Adam didn't mention the water torture to her. But he did tell her about the prisoners he guarded.

"You tell them not to speak - they're not allowed to speak," she recalled from her conversation with Adam. "And he goes, 'Inevitably one will start speaking…So then we tie their hands up and then tie them to the highest rung on the bars. And then they'd have to hang there for a couple of days and they're not allowed to sleep, drink, eat.'

"And thinking of that I thought that was so torturous and inhumane but it was an order. That's what they had to do."

The shooting incident and the detainee abuse were the "two stories [that] always have stuck in my mind," said Gray's mother.

Those experiences also troubled some of the other men in Adam's unit.

"It haunts me every day, and it's something I'll never get away from - and it's been four years since I was over there," said Jonathan Millantz, a combat medic who oversaw the detainees' medical care. "It's something that I'm sure it took a toll on Adam."

When Gray got home just after his tour, he visited his family for a month in California, and then went to Fort Wainwright in Alaska for training on new armored vehicles known as Strykers. It turned out to be a distressing experience.

"I would rather be in Iraq full time than be in Fairbanks," his mother remembered him telling her.

Gray told Chavez that he was surrounded by soldiers who hadn't been to Iraq, and felt like an outcast at the base. One of his friends in Alaska remembered how he seldom talked about his tour in Iraq. Only once, over many beers, he admitted that he was upset by "the things he had to do" in Iraq. But few knew what that really entailed. And those who knew what had happened to Adam and his fellow soldiers in Iraq seldom wanted to discuss those events.

After her son's death, Chavez made phone calls and sent letters until the military finally sent her documents about her son and the investigation into his death. One of the documents was a psychological autopsy that confirmed Adam reported to Fort Wainwright's clinic that he had problems with "poor sleep [and] re-experiencing events secondary to being in Iraq." It also showed that he got in fights, had recurrent nightmares, and had faced problems with substance abuse (particularly alcohol).

Adam Gray was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that has afflicted many veterans who've fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent RAND study found that 300,000 returning service members - nearly one in five - suffer symptoms of PTSD or depression. Some research on wartime psychological trauma has shown that veterans who've participated in or were exposed to "abusive violence" - including but not exclusive to detainee abuse - had high risk of experiencing PTSD.

Gray was given medication to allay anxiety. The government documents didn't explain why he didn't receive more aggressive treatment for these symptoms.

So far, Cindy Chavez isn't satisfied with what she's learned about what happened to her son - neither in Iraq nor in Fairbanks.

But Chavez insists that her search "is just not about Adam." It has also been about learning what happened to his fellow soldiers, as well as how to help them and their families who are suffering from similar tragedies and unanswered questions.

"If I can make that change, if I can make any difference in the world with that, that would be an ultimate goal," she said.

She also wants to help put a face on the problem of soldiers returning from the Iraq War troubled and suffering. She's made laminated cards with a picture of her son, smiling and baby-faced under a shaved head. They say "Adam James Gray - The Bomber - Our Hero."

Return to What Killed Sergeant Gray

©2018 American Public Media