Ind. Marine's death tied to US-hired Afghan guards

January 6, 2011 7:20:17 AM PST
A US Marine from northern Indiana was killed in Afghanistan, and now the ABC 7 I-Team has learned that defense officials are investigating whether Lance Corporal Josh Birchfield was shot to death by private security contractors hired by the US government.

Birchfield's fellow Marines say the Afghan guards were high on opium at the time.

Birchfield was from Westville. He was buried in LaPorte County over the weekend.

Birchfield, 24, was on routine patrol in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan when he was shot in the head. The Department of Defense said only that Birchfield was killed while supporting combat operations. In e-mails, Birchfield's fellow Marines said that he was killed by private guards paid by the Pentagon to protect a road paving project, guards who had been using opium, the cash crop of that province.

When the remains of Birchfield were returned to the United States following his death February 19, his father in LaPorte County, Indiana, was told only that his son had been killed in combat.

According to some of the men who served with Lance Corporal Birchfield, the enemy that took Birchfield's life was closer than anyone knew. He was killed by American-hired afghan security contractors, said one of Birchfield's colleagues in an e-mail-- contractors who were high on opium the morning of February 19.

In Westville, Indiana, last weekend, people lined the streets to pay their respects, while NATO investigators overseas were trying to determine exactly how he was killed.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell provided the I-Team with the first detailed statement on the Marine killing:

According to Morrell:

  • Seven contracted security guards were detained after the incident.
  • and that investigators confiscated guns and drugs from the guard's compound
  • including 9 machine guns
  • rocket propelled grenade equipment
  • 1000 rounds of ammunition
  • and a 5oz bag of opium

An e-mail from a fellow military member who says he was at the scene of Birchfield's death said: "Since the guards are ordinary Afghanis, they are subject to corruption and play both sides of the fence between the US military and the local Taliban. They are also drug abusers. The shooter was found to have copious amounts of wet opium on him shortly after the shooting."

A Pentagon spokesman says the contractors have been questioned by U.S. military police. It is unclear if all or any of the seven are still in custody.

The The Department of Defense says a "full investigation" continues with the provincial Afghan governor in the loop.

Birchfield was described in one of the e-mails from Afghanistan as "the glue that held his squad together... a constant moral booster and a fierce Marine."