On March 30, 2010, I sent an email message to retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant John Stewart. I asked him to to call me and told him I’d like to speak with him about the case of his son, Kelly, a former Army Green Beret and highly-decorated combat veteran who had been falsely accused, wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Eighteen months and dozens of conversations later, I shared Kelly’s story in the form of my first nonfiction book, Three Days In August (October 2011). Below and with only minor formatting changes, I share an excerpt from the final chapter of that book, The Last Mission In Iraq:
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Kelly A. Stewart deployed to Iraq several times during his seven-year career as a Special Forces professional and built a reputation as a stand-up guy who would do anything for his country, according to Jeff Cole, a man who served with Stewart during his last mission in Iraq. For eight months in 2006, both were members of a Special Operations Task Force Operations Detachment Alpha (a.k.a., “A-Team”). On May 14, 2010, I spoke with Cole about the time he spent with his brother in arms.
Cole recalled the time he spent with Stewart as one during which he “got a new brother”.
“My team was assigned to work with an Iraqi Special Operations force,” Cole explained, “and our job was to, basically, go after high-value targets and, that’s when I began working with Kelly” who was on a different team.
“I would say Kelly struck me right away as someone who really has an aptitude for Special Operations type of work and, especially, the type of work we were doing.
“And the reason is, I think a lot of people get into Special Forces for various reasons, but Kelly’s family background kind of went to that. His father was Special Operations and served in Vietnam on the Air Force side.”
Cole came from the same background. His father was in Special Forces, and he counts that experience as one which gave him “a real good understanding of how Special Operations works.”
“Technically, Kelly struck me as somebody who was very proficient and very good at his job,” he continued. “And that wasn’t just my impression, that was the impression of my entire team.”
Stewart, at that time, was working a little bit more on the intelligence side, whereas Cole and his team were working on the operations side.
“We were the guys that were headed out of the Green Zone, the safe zone, and going out into Sadr City to carry out the missions that were assigned to us,” Cole said.
During these types of missions, he said, survivability relies solely on intelligence and on the kind of information Soldiers get before they go in there.
“That will determine your success or failure of your mission and whether or not your guys are gonna come back alive,” he concluded.
“Right away, Kelly built up a huge reputation with my team (and became) the go-to guy for us.
“Because he had such knowledge on where we were headed and the kinds of people we were up against, we began asking him if he wanted to come with us.
Cole went on to explain that, though the intel side does not normally mix with the operations side, things were different when it came to Stewart. Not only did he jump at any chance he could get to work with the operators, but the operators came to believe that if they “had a vacant slot, a seat that needed to be filled, an extra gun with us, (Stewart) was going to be that guy.”
Considering that their missions almost always involved firefights and run-ins with Improvised Explosive Devices, Cole said Stewart’s eagerness to serve set him apart.
“Not everybody was jumping at the opportunity to go with us,” Cole explained. “Kelly was an individual who, anytime we needed somebody, he was going to be there. But we always wanted to choose him as well, because he had the knowledge, the specialized knowledge, that would help us plan the mission better—and he also was technically proficient as a gunslinger too, to put it bluntly. (He was) always welcome, for those reasons.
On numerous occasions, Cole had the opportunity to see Stewart perform on the battlefield.
“(On) a lot of the missions, we would meet heavy resistance,” Cole said. “That would come in the form of Mahdi Militia or any type of militia force that would be on a rooftop—maybe a four- or five-story building—and they would be armed with anything from AK-47 to an RPG rocket.
“There were early warnings systems in place in these areas in Sadr City,” he continued. “Someone would trip or pull a fuse and take out the power for a whole city grid and that would be a warning that the Americans were coming and these guys would be alerted and there would be a heavy firefight. So that’s the environment we worked in.
“If we had it our way, we would go in just like a SWAT team here in America would go in—no shots fired, you arrest your individual you were looking for, you bring him back, collect some evidence, take some pictures, bring the individual back to an Iraqi court, turn him over to an Iraqi judge, present the evidence, and you’re done. That’s the perfect mission.
“Typically,” he said, “it didn’t end that way. Typically, it would end in a firefight.
It was during such firefights that Cole got to see Stewart in action.
“There were countless times—and I think it was pretty typical of our missions and the people we were working with that—during any given mission, somebody would save your life and you would save their life, countless times, just by the nature of what we were doing.
“Whether it was on the operations side where Kelly contributed to a high degree or on the planning side where he contributed to a high degree, if you were able to gather intelligence on whether there was an IED planted on a certain route and you were able to avoid that route, then you can see how that could be incredibly important. (It) really drives those statistics with low casualty rates.
“On the personal side,” Cole said, “you only have to do that a couple times for somebody, where you’re relying on them like that and they’re coming through for you before suddenly you’ve got a new brother. That’s pretty much how that went down. So we operated for about eight months like that.”
On their last mission in Iraq, Cole and Stewart saw a comrade critically wounded, shot through the chest.
“Basically, my role switched from being a combat leader to a medic that quick, and Kelly took up the slack,” said Cole, who was serving dual roles as both a troop leader and medic. “(Kelly) went from being just an ‘extra gun’ to taking up my position as a troop leader—of Iraqi troops, not American.
“I had to put down my gun in order to treat this casualty, but there were still bullets flying around—buzzing around our heads like bees, quite literally,” he said. “So that was hard for me to do, but he reassured me that he had me covered.
“Kelly stood over the top of me and the casualty pretty much the whole time on the way back out of Sadr City,” he continued, “and it was under intense fire.”
In addition to being their last mission together, Cole said it was also the most significant.
“It sticks out in my mind the most, because it was such a good example of how you really do rely on, and quite literally put your life in, somebody else’s hands.
Cole went on to describe the battle scenario.
“One of the things about Sadr City is that, if you ever heard the descriptions of Mogadishu—how a city suddenly erupted with fighters, they just come out of the woodwork—Sadr City was quite a bit like that,” he explained. “People would just surface with weapons, and they were ready to fight.
“(They had) a determination and tenacity that shocked me, just absolutely shocked me,” he said, adding that it was either a strong belief in martyrdom or just a real determination to crush the Americans.
“I’m not sure which,” he said, “but whatever it was, I was really impressed by it; I was shocked.”
Something that hasn’t impressed Cole since returning from Iraq is the military justice system and the impact misconceptions appear to have had on the court-martial of his brother in arms, Stewart.
Cole believes misconceptions, fueled by German media reports and based on Hollywood movie scripts and intraservice rivalries, played a significant role in the court-martial panel reaching a verdict that called for his brother in arms to spend eight years behind bars at the U.S. Military Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Further, Cole believes Stewart deserves the benefit of the doubt and should be granted a new trial.
“Special Forces has always been at a disadvantage with conventional troops because, by its nature, it’s elite,” Cole said. “The question is always, ‘What makes you so special?’”
He went on to explain that there are a lot of answers to that question, but the fact that someone feels the need to ask it gives an indication of how that makes conventional forces feel sometimes.
“The whole Hollywood culture of what a Special Forces guy—a ‘loose cannon’ or ‘rogue’ soldier—can do (and) what kind of damage he can do on the run” combines with media buildup to create some serious problems in the minds of people.
In the case of Stewart, Cole was referring to the fact that German news media accounts sensationally painted his friend as a Rambo-like character loose in the Bavarian Forest, a fugitive from justice who must have been guilty because he fled his court-martial proceedings.
“I don’t think that was the situation at all,” Cole said emphatically.
“Like Kelly’s father points out, Kelly never meant to hurt anybody. He never meant to engage. Had he decided to do any of those things, I’m convinced he could have succeeded at either one. You’re talking about someone who trained people to operate in secret, underground cells.
“Could Kelly have escaped and gotten away and found himself far away from his trouble?” Cole asked rhetorically. “Yeah, I think he well could have done that.
“Could he have killed a lot of police or military who were trying to locate him? Yeah. Absolutely. I saw his effectiveness in combat.
“He chose not to do either one of those,” Cole reasoned. “I don’t think either even entered his mind.”
The chapter continues for a few more pages and ends with Cole saying, “You always hope that somebody’s got your back.”
Today, I can say, “I have have Stewart’s back.”
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