Two Marines and a Navy corpsman deployed to northern Iraq are being investigated in connection with the death of a U.S. contractor last week, according to media reports describing the latest in a series of incidents and allegations of misconduct involving special operations troops.
The contractor, who worked for Lockheed Martin, was wounded in a "physical altercation" on New Year's Eve in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, the New York Times first reported Monday, citing two unnamed Defense Department officials.
The man, identified by an aunt to The Daily Beast as Rick Rodriguez, a 20-year Army veteran and Green Beret, was evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was pronounced dead on Friday.
Rodriguez's wife and four children, who live in Fayetteville, N.C., had been flown to Germany and had decided to remove him from life support, an unnamed military source told the news website. Friends posted consoling messages on the Facebook pages of Rodriguez's family members.
An employee "was fatally injured while supporting Special Operations Forces within the Operation Inherent Resolve area of operations in a non-combat related incident," a Lockheed Martin statement said.
"We are supporting the Naval Criminal Investigation Service as they conduct an investigation into the circumstances of his death," said the emailed statement, which did not name Rodriguez. "Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and we are committed to supporting them during this difficult time."
An NCIS spokesman confirmed that the matter was under investigation but declined to provide details.
Operation Inherent Resolve referred questions to Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, where the two Marines and the sailor were reportedly assigned on a mission to advise Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. MARSOC confirmed with Stars and Stripes that a forward-deployed contractor supporting one of their units had died.
"MARSOC is providing all requested support to investigators as they look into this incident," MARSOC spokesman Maj. Nick Mannweiler said.
The Marines and sailor had not been detained and remained on duty in Iraq, NBC reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The Marines were gunnery sergeants, The Daily Beast reported, citing unnamed sources. The altercation may have been spurred by events at a gym or in a shooting competition, in which bravado and trash-talking turned into a brawl that left Rodriguez beaten into unconsciousness. One unnamed military official told the outlet there were "lots of witnesses."
On Facebook, Rodriguez regularly posted photos or videos of his gym sessions. About 11 days before the fatal incident in Irbil, he posted a video of himself lifting weights.
"This makes sense to me. This right here. This place. This sanctuary. This quiets the thoughts. Calms the nerves. In here I feel like my old self," he wrote in the post.
About 5,000 U.S. troops are deployed to Iraq to train, advise and assist security forces battling an ISIS insurgency in that country and are working to rout the militants from their last refuge in neighboring Syria, where President Donald Trump had called for the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 troops deployed there last month. Trump said he would not pull troops out of Iraq and the administration now appears to be slowing its proposed withdrawal from Syria.
Some 3,000 U.S. citizen contractors are spread across the two countries supporting the military mission there, U.S. Central Command data showed in October, with another 3,200 contractors coming from the local population or third-party countries.
Last week's contractor death is the latest in a series of high-profile episodes that have raised concerns about misconduct among elite troops. The number of special operations forces have more than doubled since the 9/11 attacks and officials have expressed concerns that the units are strained by the tempo of deployments supporting the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as operations in dozens of other countries.
Among the cases that have grabbed headlines: two Navy SEALs and two Marines were charged last year in the 2017 strangling of a Green Beret in Mali, a SEAL standing trial on war crimes charges for allegedly stabbing to death a wounded Islamic State prisoner in Iraq, and a Green Beret charged with murdering a suspected Taliban bomb maker in custody in Afghanistan in 2010.
A commando unit in Afghanistan is also reportedly under investigation for the beating death of an Afghan detainee last year.
The issue does not appear to be limited to U.S. special operations forces. A series of media reports last year exposed allegations of war crimes by elite Australian units.
Last month, Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, called for a 90-day review that will look at instruction, culture, command climate surveys and research into behavioral health issues linked to operations. Thomas cited the need to prevent "an eroded values system" from going unchecked and undermining trust in the elite forces.