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The Courier-Journale October 11, 2005

Soldier dies a negligent death

Kentuckian shot by officer in Iraq

By Alan Maimon

WHITEHOUSE, Ky. -- When Wendell and Kathy Tackett learned their son had been shot and killed in Iraq on June 23, they assumed enemy fire had hit him.

But Sgt. Joseph Tackett was killed by a U.S. soldier -- one of 10 homicides since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003.

Even more rare, his death was at the hands of an officer, the military said.

The Pentagon hasn't released an official report on the death, but military officials said the 22-year-old was killed by a lieutenant who pointed his M-16 rifle at Tackett in a "safe haven," a place where loaded weapons are forbidden.

"He was killed by a stupid, senseless, irresponsible act," said Kathy Tackett, 52, a food-service manager.

At a court-martial, Lt. Willie Davis pleaded guilty Aug. 31 to negligent homicide and negligent dereliction to clear his weapon and maintain muzzle awareness, said Lt. Col. Clifford Kent, spokesman for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga.

The maximum sentence for the crime is 45 months in prison. Davis, of Lithonia, Ga., was sentenced to 30 months at a military prison at Fort Knox and was discharged from the Army, Kent said.

The Tacketts, from Johnson County, said Davis should have received the maximum sentence.

"To me, that's not enough punishment," said Wendell Tackett, 53, a house builder. "But what I want most from him is an apology."

Wendell Tackett said he and wife only recently learned that Davis is being held in Kentucky and have been going through military channels to try to talk to him.

Davis declined an interview request through Gini Sinclair, a Fort Knox spokeswoman. Davis' family could not be reached for comment.

In an e-mail to the Tacketts obtained by The Courier-Journal, Col. Daniel Pinnell, Tackett's battalion commander, said he and witnesses to the shooting didn't suspect "any malicious intent" on Davis' part.

Rare case

The vast majority of deaths in Iraq -- more than 1,900 -- have involved soldiers killed in action. The figure includes friendly-fire incidents.

One soldier died as a result of homicide in the 1991 Persian Gulf War out of 382 total fatalities, according to an analysis by GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and intelligence Web site.

During the Vietnam War, which saw more than 58,000 American deaths, 944 soldiers were killed by "accidental homicide" and 234 by "intentional homicide," according to the National Archives.

Tackett's shooting occurred in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, a walled compound where soldiers can relax and let others protect them, Fort Stewart spokesman Rich Olson said.

He said Tackett's death was "inexcusable," the kind of incident that prompts military officials to ask, "How the hell could this happen?"

Pinnell said in his e-mail that Tackett was shot during a nightly briefing with his and Davis' platoon.

"Joseph was unconscious from the time he was struck until he passed away a short time later at the hospital here in the International Zone," Pinnell said in the e-mail.

Kathy Tackett said military officials told her that the incident occurred in the basement of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, which was being used as living quarters.

"They said Lt. Davis came in carrying his weapon and willingly pulled the trigger on a gun he thought was empty," Kathy Tackett said.

Other soldiers asked Davis why he was bringing a weapon into the briefing, against the rules, Kathy Tackett said she was told. To prove the weapon was unloaded, Davis pointed it at Tackett and fired, she said.

The Army's casualty report on Tackett says he died of a gunshot wound in the head.

In a July letter to battalion spouses and family members, Pinnell praised the battalion's high level of training.

"No other unit in Iraq even comes close to the level of safe and effective combat patrol operations achieved by your soldiers over the last six months," Pinnell wrote. "Our combination of intense and detailed preparation, and patience in execution have made us a tough target to hit."

Parents await details

Wendell Tackett said he hopes the Army's official report provides more details, including why Davis' gun was loaded, why its safety was off, and why Davis didn't fire at the ceiling.

He said military officials told him the report would be completed by early next year.

"It's hard to know why these procedures weren't followed," Wendell Tackett said of the death of the youngest of his three children. "Not knowing exactly how this happened is the worst part."

Only the primary next-of-kin has full access to unclassified and declassified military documents.

Kathy Tackett said their daughter-in-law, Stephanie Tackett, has refused to share information about Davis' court-martial, including the depositions of soldiers who witnessed the incident.

Kathy Tackett said the couple, who had been married for about 11/2 years and had no children, had been having marital problems.

Reached by phone at her home at Fort Stewart, Stephanie Tackett, a native of Johnson County, declined comment.

The Courier-Journal, in a Sept. 22 open records request, asked for copies of witness depositions and other documents related to Davis' court-martial, and a preliminary report on Tackett's death. The government has 20 business days to respond, and the request is pending.

'For the people'

Tackett, a 2000 graduate of Johnson County Central High School, felt a duty to enlist after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his mother said.

He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, and after more than a year at Fort Stewart, was deployed again in January.

Kathy Tackett said her son befriended Iraqi college students, introduced them to American rock music and exchanged e-mails with them while home between tours.

Tackett hoped to complete his associate degree in general studies through a correspondence course while in Iraq, his mother said.

The Army posthumously promoted Tackett to sergeant and awarded him a Bronze Star for "meritorious valor."

Wendell Tackett said his son's death has soured him on the military.

"It's not changed me on the war, but I have hard feelings towards the government," he said. "I can't be against the Iraq war, because Joe knew what he was doing. … He knew it was for the people."


Copyright 2005, The Courier-Journal