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'Dog Company' Examines War & Betrayal in Afghanistan

Lynn Vincent's books are better known than she is, probably because her name on the covers has taken second billing to those whose stories she's telling. Several of those stories -- "Heaven is for Real," "Same Kind of Different" and "Going Rogue" -- have been New York Times' bestsellers.

Now the East County resident gets the top spot for "Dog Company: A True Story of American Soldiers Abandoned by Their High Command," written with former Army Capt. Roger Hill. It recounts what happened to Hill when he felt forced to decide whether to follow military rules on the treatment of prisoners who were suspected Taliban spies, or do what he deemed necessary to get confessions that might protect his soldiers from deadly insider attacks.

Q: How did you first hear about this story?

A: I was a full-time staff writer at World magazine and I was contacted about this case involving this young commander and his first sergeant who were facing criminal charges in connection with battlefield activities. I wrote the story for the magazine in 2009.

Q: What was your reaction to what you learned?

A: As a veteran and someone who is very supportive of the military, it tapped into my sense of injustice. It felt like these guys were pushed up against a wall and left with few viable options and abandoned by their high command. And it felt like what they had done was certainly crossing the line in terms of military law, but also understandable given the corner they had been backed into.

Q: What made you decide it should be a book?

A: There was so much to it in terms of the human element. I absolutely fell in love with these guys from this company. They are the kind of warriors that movies should be made about. They are so colorful and diverse, and so loyal to one another.

It's not a policy book; it's a narrative. But what emerges from it -- and I didn't know this at the time -- is that this case is just the tip of an iceberg of a new phenomenon we are experiencing as a result of this counter-insurgency war we've been fighting since 2001.

There were very, very few soldiers and Marines prosecuted in all of World War II, all of Korea, all of Vietnam. In the single or double digits. There is a statistic out there that says only seven. That seems low to me. What we do know is that more than 200 soldiers and Marines and airmen have been prosecuted for crimes on the battlefield since we entered this war on terror.

I would suggest to you that it's not so much that our fighting men have changed but rather our rules of engagement and our view of warfare.

Q: Was it hard to get the soldiers to open up to you?

A: They really wanted to talk about what happened to them because they felt nobody in the military was listening. The investigators who were involved in this case would question them and then draw conclusions that may or may not have been based in reality.

When lawyers and investigators approach a case -- and I'm not saying this is dishonest, it's just the job -- they make an argument. They put together a case and they make an argument. And sometimes in these particular cases, when soldiers are prosecuted for crimes on the battlefield, the inconvenient facts are thrown out. Sometimes when they are asked questions they don't know the answers to, they are prosecuted for obstruction of justice.

So when they talked to me, not only were they talking about the case, they were talking about the loss of their brothers in Dog Company. And I felt like they really wanted to open up about that. I interviewed them between about 2011 and 2016. Hundreds of interviews.

Q: The book took eight years. That's a long time for you.

A: It is a long time. Part of that was because I had undiagnosed late-stage Lyme disease. What happened is I had this incredible cognitive decline that occurred over a period of about three years. And it got to the point where I could only read and write for 20 minutes, twice a day.

In the fall of 2013, I walked away from the book. I called my editor and said, "I have to stop working on this and figure out how to get well. And I don't know if I'm going to be able to get well and finish the book." Rather than canceling the contract, (the publisher) Hachette stuck with me. I got some treatment and six months later I was able to return to the book.

Q: The opening sentence of your author's note says, "What you hold in your hands is a book the government does not want you to read." How so?

A: The case is embarrassing to the Army and embarrassing to some of the officers involved because of the command's lack of support for these soldiers. And the case is also emblematic of a system in which the rules of engagement literally favor the enemy, and in which enemy spies and enemy fighters are released while young soldiers and officers trying to make the best decisions they can in the heat of the battlefield and with their lives on the line are prosecuted, kicked out of the Army and even thrown in prison.

Q: There are a lot of blacked-out sections in the book, redactions ordered by the military. (Hill had a top-secret security clearance that required him to show the book first to the Pentagon.) Tell me about the decision to include all those black-outs.

A: We submitted the manuscript to the Pentagon in 2015. When it came back, we were shocked at the number of redactions. I went through every one of them, and there were hundreds, and I documented where I got the information and I demonstrated that the information was public.

We submitted our appeal, and they came back and rejected it in full. We couldn't believe it. Some of the things that are redacted are completely benign terms that are used every day in the media, things like "F-15" and "Apache helicopter" and "Humvee." What that says to us is the Army didn't really want this book published.

Q: Did they think you would see the number of redactions and just throw up your hands and stop?

A: I can't really pretend to know their thinking, but that's a possibility. And so why did we choose to publish with the redactions still in it? Because we wanted the story out. Sure, we would like the book to do well, but even more important is to reverse this trend of prosecuting soldiers for doing their jobs.

Certainly I'm not trying to say that every person in the infantry makes the right decision every time. But in the heat of battle, we have to give each soldier what an attorney told me is "the super-benefit of the doubt." It's really easy to sit behind the wire or behind a desk or in a courtroom and second-guess an 18-year-old with an M4. But it's a lot harder when the bullets are snapping past your head.

"Dog Company: A True Story of American Soldiers Abandoned by Their High Command," by Lynn Vincent and Capt. Roger Hill, Center Street, 448 pages.

john.wilkens@sduniontribune.com; (619) 293-2236 ___

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This article is written by John Wilkens from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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