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Saturday, September 06, 2003

Iraq crash shatters two families

Army: Hijinks with a Humvee end in the death of a promising soldier and put the driver, a Dundalk man, on trial for murder.
By Scott Calvert
Sun Staff
Originally published September 2, 2003

In the wee hours of May 21, an Army Humvee on night patrol in Iraq hit a bump and flipped. An American soldier was crushed to death, and the driver - a 25-year-old sergeant from Dundalk with an infectious smile - faces the possibility of life in prison.

Sgt. Oscar L. Nelson III's fate will be decided this week at a general court-martial in Tikrit, Iraq, where Nelson is charged with unpremeditated murder and other serious charges in the death of Spc. Nathaniel A. Caldwell Jr., an aspiring minister.

Whatever the outcome of the Army trial - and one expert questions the key charge - the case has devastated two families. In the military, dying in the fight is considered a noble sacrifice. There is nothing noble about a senseless death. And being accused of causing one is akin to being labeled a coward.

On June 1, 11 days after the fatal crash, Army officials detained Nelson. He wrote his parents a letter, he said, while being held with "EPWs," or enemy prisoners of war. "I have been here ever since. At least my Arabic is getting good."

The Army says he was in the same building as Iraqi detainees but had no contact with them.

By the time he wrote the letter, Nelson knew the four charges against him: unpremeditated murder for "erratically" driving the Humvee "at excessive speed," carrying a possible life sentence; lying about the looters, up to five years; threatening Burden if he didn't lie, up to three years.


The next day, when Teresa Steele went to a Pizza Hut on Merritt Boulevard with her mother, her cell phone rang. It was Lt. Col. Alan Stull, who had recently ended his command of Nelson's battalion. As she stepped out to take the call, he told her about the charges he had pressed against Nelson.

"Ma'am," she recalled him saying, "you have to face facts. Your son murdered that boy." (Stull did not respond to an interview request placed at the Army's public affairs office.)

Crying uncontrollably, Steele stumbled back into the restaurant. Her mother saw her and assumed the worst. "Don't tell me he's died."

"They're charging him with murder, Mom!" she shouted.

Teresa and Larry Steele are in Tikrit for the court-martial. So is Cheryl, who could not be reached for comment. Amanda Caldwell and Robert Caldwell Jr., Nate's brother, are there, too. All except Larry, a 57-year-old terminal manager for a car carrier, were called as defense or prosecution witnesses and will have travel costs reimbursed.

"I think you need to prepare yourself and your family for the fact that your son is going to be discharged from the Army and he is going to spend some time in jail," he wrote July 29. "This case is not a matter of guilt; it's a matter of severity of punishment and damage control."

Nelson's attitude has evolved. He lamented that "it was a good life coming to me. Now it's all gone." But he also defended himself, saying that the Humvee was unsafe and the gunner had no harness, among other things.

This, yet another story from the 4ID, indicates that they had to do something. Charging him with murder seems like overkill. But this is about showing that the commanders have control of the unit. Not about safety or discipline. Because if it did, the charges would have been proportionate to the crime.

A military judge sentenced Sgt. Oscar L. Nelson III to seven years in military prison and ordered a dishonorable discharge. If the sentence withstands review, Nelson could be released in three to five years, military officials told his family after a two-day general court-martial this week in Tikrit, Iraq.


Nelson had been charged with unpremeditated murder and faced the possibility of life in prison. When the military trial began Sunday at a palace built for deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Nelson pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. In letters home, he had admitted turning off the Humvee's headlights May 21 while horsing around, then hitting the gas seconds before the vehicle struck a large bump and overturned.

Nelson also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators by claiming he was chasing Iraqi looters when Caldwell died. In addition, he admitted he unlawfully shot a rifle six days earlier when he fired toward fellow soldiers -- an unrelated act that he said was a joke

The judge "is sending a message to all the troops, because troops are out hot-dogging in vehicles," said Larry Steele, who unofficially adopted Nelson with his wife, Teresa, and traveled 6,000 miles to attend the trial. "A lot of soldiers told us that. The problem is they're bored."

Teresa Steele said she had hoped for a shorter sentence but no longer feels Nelson should have avoided punishment. "Knowing what I know now, he's guilty of what he was charged with," she said Tuesday after she and her husband returned to the United States. "He did drive his vehicle recklessly, and a man died for it."


Turley said the prison sen tence was in line with most civilian manslaughter cases in the United States, although he is not convinced that the accident should have resulted in any charges. "The core of the case remains an allegation of reckless driving," he said. "It appears exceptionally bad judgment was made on the spur of the moment."

Turley noted that a Navy submarine commander received only a letter of reprimand for rapidly surfacing beneath a Japanese fishing vessel and smashing apart the ship. Nine people on the Japanese ship died in the February 2001 incident.

posted by Steve @ 3:17:00 AM

3:17:00 AM

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