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Dispatch from the 101st

Soldiers feel shock, anger at one of their own

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 24, 2003
Dispatch from the 101st

photoTimes staff writer Wes Allison has been attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He is living and traveling with the troops as they are deployed abroad.

Reports from a region in conflict

CAMP PENNSYLVANIA, Kuwait -- The soldiers muttered and swore and stomped, some spitting mad and others simply sorrowful or bewildered. We're supposed to be fighting the Iraqi army, they said, not standing guard against each other.

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division grappled with the notion Sunday that one of their own was apparently solely responsible for the morning's gory grenade and rifle attack at a brigade headquarters here, killing a captain and injuring 15 others, including a brigade commander.

The slain officer was identified as Army Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, originally of Williams Township, Pa. He was sleeping in his tent when the attack occurred.

Officers said the attacker apparently acted alone, and the suspect was identified as Sgt. Asan Akbar, 31, of the 326th Engineer Battalion. The Army released two Kuwaiti interpreters who were detained soon after the attack. Akbar, who is separated from his wife and has no children, has served with the Airborne's 326th Engineering Battalion for four years. Fellow soldiers described him as a loner who was not particularly good at his job.

George Heath, a spokesman at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st, said Akbar had not yet been charged with a crime. He did not release Akbar's hometown.

Heath said Akbar, a Muslim, had been "having what some might call an attitude problem." As a sergeant, Akbar commanded four to seven soldiers.
photo
Seifert

Another Army spokesman, Max Blumenfeld, said the motive in the attack "most likely was resentment."

One grenade went off in the command tent.

"When this all happened we tried to get accountability for everybody," said Col. Frederick B. Hodges, commander of the division's 1st Brigade, who was slightly injured in the attack. "We noticed four hand grenades were missing and that this sergeant was unaccounted for."

A picture on the front page of the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville showed Hodges with blood on his uniform and his right arm in a sling.

"He's an intense person and he'll recover," Heath said of the colonel.

Ten of the injured had superficial wounds, including punctures to their arms and legs from grenade fragments, Heath said. The Army did not release any more details about the wounded.

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Kumm, the attack suspect's platoon sergeant, said Akbar recently was scrubbed from a coming mission. He was still supposed to go forward into Iraq, but in a diminished role.

Akbar came to 2nd Platoon a year ago as a "rehabilitative transfer," an Army term for moving a soldier to another unit because he doesn't get along with his colleagues or may benefit from a change in leadership.

Kumm said the suspect served in each of the battalion's three other platoons at Fort Campbell before being moved to this one.

"His mentality is a bit lethargic and he doesn't have the best comprehension for the task at hand," Kumm said.

Lt. John Evangelista, Akbar's platoon leader, said the suspect liked to be alone and didn't appear to have any close friends. After noticing he had been especially quiet recently, Evangelista said, he approached him about a week ago and asked if all was well.

Akbar replied that he was fine and that he was eager to move on to Iraq, Evangelista said.

According to Army records, Akbar enlisted April 15, 1998, at Fort Gordon, Ga., and was assigned to work with Army signal corps. His record indicates that he progressed up the ranks to sergeant quickly and was assigned to the Army's satellite systems operations, an elite group in the corps.

Akbar, an American citizen born Mark Fidel Kools, apparently grew up in California and was living in Moreno Valley, Calif., in 1999. He was a convert to Islam. Several soldiers in his platoon said they never heard him speak against America or its mission in Iraq, or against the U.S. military.

"I would have never, ever thought that," said Evangelista, 24, of Geneva, N.Y., who was still visibly shaken Sunday afternoon. "Everyone's just in shock."

Camp Pennsylvania, like all the U.S. Army camps along the Iraqi border, is heavily guarded, with armed patrols and strict procedures for leaving and entering. It is home to the Airborne's 1st Brigade Combat Team, which has been preparing to move north into Iraq.

Despite several recent Iraqi missile attacks, commanders have insisted the biggest threat to soldiers massing here is terrorism -- but from without, not within.

Sunday's assault rattled soldiers of all ranks and put the base on high alert all day and all night.

"I think it's opened up quite a few people's eyes on why they need to watch out for each other, and maybe even learn a bit more about each other," said Spec. Stephen Shomo, 23, of Clearfield, Pa., an operations specialist.

All soldiers undergo criminal background checks when they enlist, and some are required to undergo psychological profiling, depending on their jobs.

But responsibility for tracking the stability of any one member of the Army falls to the soldier's colleagues and commanders, who are encouraged to pay attention, especially during deployments.

Sgt. 1st Class Jim Perdue, a scout platoon leader with the 327th Infantry, said leaders try to keep track of their soldiers' personal and financial status, and a soldier whose behavior changes can expect to hear from a chaplain or superior to make sure things are okay.

"It's normally talked about," Perdue said. "You've got to know your soldiers. That's the only way to tell if there's a major shift. ... In the military, you're encouraged and almost ordered to know everything about them."

New details emerged about the attack.

Akbar was on guard duty in the 2nd Battalion motor pool after midnight Sunday when he allegedly took four grenades and headed toward the brigade headquarters a half-mile away.

It was cool and very dark, and the waning moon hadn't risen. Most soldiers were asleep in their tents. First Akbar allegedly stopped the generator that provides power to the brigade operations center, then he approached a nearby row of sleep tents.

Officials said Akbar lobbed four grenades into three tents, then shot soldiers with his M-4 rifle as they tried to escape.

Some were injured by gunfire; others by the blasts.

Akbar also was hit in the leg by shrapnel, and he stopped to rest on a concrete barrier outside the row of tents.

Akbar then tried to blend into the ranks of soldiers converging on the scene, officials say. When the grenades exploded, men in the brigade operations tent boiled out, guns ready.

Among them was an engineer from Akbar's brigade. As he fanned out with several others, he asked the men on his left and right to identify themselves, Kumm said.

He was surprised to hear from Akbar, who should have been at the other end of camp. The engineer asked what he was doing but didn't pursue it further.

Meanwhile, soldiers at each of the three battalions on post were trying to account for their people and weapons. The 326th Engineers quickly realized the sergeant and four grenades were missing and reported the news to headquarters.

"I thought of the worst," Evangelista said. "I knew as soon as we heard the grenade attack and heard we were missing somebody ... we'd have to check our grenades."

The engineer at brigade headquarters had kept track of Akbar. When headquarters was warned to look out for him, the sergeant was quickly detained, Kumm said.

Akabr spent most of the rest of the day handcuffed in the back of an armored Humvee.

Many of the soldiers wounded in the attack returned to duty Sunday afternoon.

Several others remained in stable condition at a field hospital at nearby Camp Udairi, and at least four were transferred to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. All were in stable condition.

And score one for the toughness of the infantry: Because of Hodges' rule that if there aren't enough cots for everyone, then no one gets a cot, the victims were sleeping on the floor.

That's good news because a grenade explodes upwards, and most were spared the full brunt of the blasts. Many who suffered minor injuries were hit in the feet or lower legs, said Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, who took command of the brigade while Hodges was treated.

"If they had been sleeping on cots," Hughes said, "many of them would be dead right now."

-- Information from the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service was used in this report.

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