Rare Battlefield War Crimes Case Reaches Sentencing Phase at Guantánamo Bay


Twenty years ago, when the Eggers family of Cape Coral, Fla., got the devastating news that their eldest son had been killed in Afghanistan, they did what Gold Star families do.

They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery. They listened as an Army priest described his last battlefield confession. They mourned with President George W. Bush, the commander in chief, and they faithfully honored him each Memorial Day.

This week, the father and sister of Capt. Daniel W. Eggers, a Green Beret, are honoring him in a different way. They are at Guantánamo Bay to represent him at the sentencing trial of a former commander of enemy insurgents in Afghanistan.

Captain Eggers was 28 when he was killed and on his second tour in Afghanistan. He had immersed himself in Afghan food and culture, and spoke Pashto. “He was a very humble gentleman,” Bill Eggers, his father, said in a recent interview. He grew up aspiring to join the Army as far back as anyone could remember and truly believed in “God, family, country,” his father said.

In a plea agreement two years ago, the insurgent leader, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, admitted to commanding the fighters who planted and armed the pressure-activated mine that killed Captain Eggers and three other members of the U.S. Special Forces. There had been a firefight, and the American commandos were in pursuit of what they believed to be fleeing Taliban when their Humvee tripped the explosion.

The case is an outlier at the Guantánamo court, which was created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and considers the globe to be the battlefield in the war on terrorism. Mr. Hadi’s case takes a more traditional view of warfare and the combat zone. In pleading guilty, Mr. Hadi agreed that some of the tactics his Taliban and Qaeda forces used to fight the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 constituted war crimes.

He admitted to conspiring with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda starting in 1996. He helped the Taliban blow up monumental Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in March 2001.

By 2003, after the U.S. invasion, he was a commander of insurgents, mostly Taliban but also other forces. They fired on a medical evacuation helicopter trying to retrieve an injured soldier who later died. Forces under his command posed as civilians to carry out suicide attacks or packed bombs in civilian vehicles to attack and kill American and allied forces.

This week, a jury of U.S. military officers is being chosen to hear evidence and family impact statements to decide a 25- to 30-year sentence. Under the 2022 agreement, Mr. Hadi could serve it in the custody of another country, if a trusted ally can be found to give him medical care. In his 17 years at Guantánamo, he has had a series of surgeries on his spine for a degenerative disc disease that has left him disabled and in need of specialized care.

Mr. Hadi, now 63, was captured in Turkey in 2006 and taken to a secret C.I.A. “black site” prison before Guantánamo. He was charged in 2014, his seventh year of military detention, in a little-known case that was initially unfamiliar to the Eggers family.

Bill Eggers, a Vietnam War veteran and former police officer, became the first family member to watch the pretrial proceedings in the case. He sat as the lone spectator in the cavernous courtroom’s special section for victims and their relatives, peering across rows of defense tables to the defendant and judge in front.

Daniel Eggers’s widow, Rebecca, had learned about the case and called her father-in-law. “Pops, can you do me a favor?” he recalled her saying, as she asked him to represent the family.

Public service is part of the fabric of Captain Eggers’ family, stretching back to a maternal great-grandfather who served as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War. Bill Eggers served as a door gunner on helicopters in Vietnam. Daniel Eggers’s younger brother Billy did two tours in Iraq. His sister Maris Lebid is a detective on a Florida police force.

Col. Rebecca Eggers, who was born in Vietnam and raised on a Wisconsin farm, recently retired from the Army, which she joined more than two decades after she was evacuated, as an orphan, as Saigon fell. She met Daniel at Officer Candidate School. Their two sons, who were 6 and 3 when their father died, went to the Citadel in South Carolina, their father’s alma mater.

When he was still an altar boy, the future Captain Eggers came home from middle school and asked his mother: Can someone be a soldier and a priest at the same time? She explained that the Army has an officers corps of chaplains, among them ordained Roman Catholic priests.

It was a short-lived ambition. By high school he had “discovered girls,” his father said.

When she first heard of the case, Captain Eggers’s sister found it a bit baffling. “War is war,” Detective Lebid said back then. But the prisoner’s decision to plead guilty resolved something.

“I think my brother would respect that,” she said. “Knowing that they were both leaders of their groups, he would respect that this guy took responsibility for it, instead of being a coward.”

Now, it’s hard to imagine what Captain Eggers might think of this war crimes case.

“Would my son think he’s a victim?” Bill Eggers said. “I really can’t answer that.”

“There was a commander on one side and he was on the other. …” Mr. Eggers said, considering. “He would probably say, ‘Let the system handle it. Don’t stress over it.’”

Mr. Hadi, an Iraqi who says his true name is Nashwan al-Tamir, served in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and fled to Afghanistan to avoid returning to Saddam Hussein’s army in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi admitted to commanding forces who laid the mines that killed Captain Eggers and three other U.S. service members.

Mr. Hadi also agreed that his forces were responsible for the roadside bomb on May 29, 2004, that killed Captain Eggers and the other commandos on his tactical combat team.

Captain Eggers’s white marble headstone cites II Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.”

A chaplain who had been in Afghanistan later eulogized that Captain Eggers worshiped until the end of his life. At his fire base near the Pakistani border, he had attended every service but one, when he was away on a night mission. He said his confessions and so died “in a state of grace,” without sin, the chaplain said.

There were no better words, Bill Eggers said, that a Catholic family could hear. “I got closure right then, there.”



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