LOUISVILLE, Ky. – An Iraq War veteran serving five life terms for raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her parents and sister says he didn't think of Iraqi civilians as humans after being exposed to extreme war zone violence.
Steven Dale Green, a former 101st Airborne soldier, told The Associated Press in his first media interview since the 2006 killings, that his crimes were fueled in part by experiences in Iraq's particularly violent "Triangle of Death" where two of his sergeants were gunned down. He also cited a lack of leadership and help from the Army.
"I was crazy," Green said in the exclusive telephone interview from federal prison in Tucson, Ariz. "I was just all the way out there. I didn't think I was going to live."
In the interview after exchanging correspondence with The Associated Press over the past 15 months, Green talked about what led up to the March 12, 2006, attack on a family near Mahmoudiya, Iraq, that left him serving five consecutive life sentences.
The former soldier, who apologized at sentencing for his crimes, said he wasn't seeking sympathy nor trying to justify his actions — killings prosecutors described at trial in 2009 as one of the worst crimes of the Iraq war.
But Green said people should know his actions were a consequence of his circumstances in a war zone.
"If I hadn't ever been in Iraq, I wouldn't be in the kind of trouble I'm in now," Green said. "I'm not happy about that."
Green was discharged with a "personality disorder" before federal charges were brought. Prosecutors sought a death sentence, but a federal jury in Paducah, Ky., opted for five life sentences on charges including the rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi and the shooting deaths of her mother, father and younger sister.
Four other soldiers were convicted in military court for various roles in the attack. Three remain in military prison.
Green is challenging the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which allows the federal government to charge an American in civilian court for alleged crimes committed overseas. He was the first former soldier convicted under the statute. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments Jan. 21.
Green is challenging the constitutionality of that law, saying it gives the executive branch too much leeway over whom to prosecute. Prosecutors say the law should be upheld.
"I've got some hope, but I'm not delusional about it," said Green, now 25. "I hope it works. But, whenever they give you multiple life sentences, they're not planning on letting you out."
Green didn't testify at trial. During sentencing, he apologized and said he expects to face "God's justice" when he dies.
A 19-year-old high school dropout from Midland, Texas, Green joined the Army after obtaining his GED from a correspondence school. He said signing up was easy, born of a sense of duty to defend his country and the opportunities that offered.
"I thought I'd be neglecting my duty if I didn't," Green said. "You've got a career, you've got a job. It gives you opportunities to do things with your life."
The military placed Green with the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne. Upon arriving in Iraq, Green said, his training to kill, the rampant violence and derogatory comments by other soldiers against Iraqis served to dehumanize that country's civilian population.
A turning point came Dec. 10, 2005, Green said, when a previously friendly Iraqi approached a traffic checkpoint and opened fire. The shots killed Staff Sgt. Travis L. Nelson, 41, instantly. Sgt. Kenith Casica, 32, was hit in the throat. Casica, whose frequent jokes endeared him to many, died as soldiers raced him aboard a Humvee to a field hospital.
Green said those deaths "messed me up real bad." Speaking about Casica and Nelson marked the only time in the interview Green's voice halted and appeared to choke up — unable to discuss events further.
The deaths intensified Green's feelings toward all Iraqis, whom soldiers often called by a derogatory term. "There's not a word that would describe how much I hated these people," Green said. "I wasn't thinking these people were humans."
Over the next four months, Green sought help from a military stress counselor, obtaining small doses of a mood-regulating drug — and a directive to get some sleep before returning to his checkpoint south of Baghdad.
In the interview, Green described alcohol and drugs being prevalent at the checkpoint. Green said soldiers there frequently felt abandoned by the Army and were given little support after the deaths of Casica and Nelson.
Spc. James P. Barker of Fresno, Calif., testified that he pitched the idea of going to the al-Janabi's home to Sgt. Paul E. Cortez of Barstow, Calif., who was in charge of the traffic checkpoint. Green, who talked frequently of wanting to kill Iraqis, was brought along.
Cortez testified that Barker and Green had the idea of having sex with the girl and that he didn't know the family would be killed.
Green, then a private, told AP he had "an altered state of mind" at the time. "I wasn't thinking about more than 10 minutes into the future at any given time," Green said. "I didn't care."
At the Iraqi home, Barker and Cortez pulled Abeer into one room, while Green held the mother, father and youngest daughter in another. Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, of Chambersburg, Pa., stood guard in the hall. As Barker and Cortez raped the teen, Green shot the three family members, killing them. He then went into the next room and raped Abeer, before shooting her in the head. The soldiers lit her remains on fire before leaving. Another soldier stood watch a few miles away at the checkpoint.
Since Sept. 4, 2009 sentencing, Green has been attacked at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., then transferred to Arizona. In prison, Green converted to Catholicism and has corresponded with a nun in Louisville about his faith.
Green described prison life as a "lonely existence" and said other inmates consider those convicted of sex offenses among the lowest, making life "hazardous" among the general prison population.
For Green, each day is just a matter of getting through 24 hours so he can do it all again the next day. Meanwhile, he lives with memories of the attack that took away the Iraqi family.
"If I thought that was an OK thing now, I wouldn't be much of a human being," Green said.