'Thrill Kill' Soldiers: What Were They Thinking?

Five U.S. soldiers stand accused of using grenades and rifles to murder three unarmed Afghan civilians earlier this year, and investigators say several of the soldiers even collected the dead civilians' body parts.

In a videotape obtained by ABC News' Brian Ross Unit, one of the accused soldiers, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, confessed to the murders. He said the officer in charge, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, gave orders to carry out the killings and that Gibbs had no problem murdering innocent civilians.

Mental health experts overwhelmingly agreed the actions the soldiers have been accused of are inexcusable, and they said a number of complex psychological factors may play a role in why soldiers obey their commander's orders -- even when this means committing atrocities. The emotional toll of combat, people's tendency to do whatever they're told to do and the soldiers' fear of their sergeant, whom several of the them portrayed as a "thrill killer," could have contributed to their decision to kill unarmed civilians, they said.

"Sleep deprivation plays a role, there's some question of traumatic brain injury and some question about the use of prescription drugs," said Dr. Jon Shaw, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine who spent more than 20 years in the military. He has no involvement with the accused soldiers.

The attorney for one of the accused soldiers said his client was under the influence of prescription drugs during his videotaped confession. Another of the accused soldiers said drug use -- often hashish laced with opium -- was rampant at their base in Afghanistan.

"There's a serious problem with substance abuse happening among our soldiers," said Dr. Jeffrey Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at teh University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. He added, though, the he doesn't believe substance abuse alone led to murder.

Extreme stress, psychiatrists say, is perhaps one of the biggest factors that can affect soldiers' judgment.

"When you're exposed to that kind of stress, there's a readiness to be more passive and accept external authority, especially in a command structure," Shaw said.

'The Lowest Level of Morality'

"This is a very prolonged conflict and engagement, and there are multiple indications that these army units are worn out," said Dr. Paul Ragan, associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Ragan, who served in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, has no involvement with the soldiers.

Ragan said that in a war that's lasted nearly a decade, soldiers in combat could experience a wide range of emotions that influence their behavior.

"They may be suffering from mental fatigue, or may be feeling dispossessed and angry," Ragan said. "Are these men put in impossible situations [in which they] begin to dehumanize the other group and take their rage out on innocents?"

The emotional upheaval may also affect their moral judgment.

"In a group, there's regression to the lowest level of morality," Shaw said.

Role of Commanding Officer Difficult to Ascertain, Say Experts

The parents of another accused soldier, specialist Adam Winfield, said their son felt his life would be in danger if he reported Gibbs.

Mental health experts say that if the stories about Gibbs are true, the situation is very troubling and indicative of a military breakdown.

Page
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...
See It, Share It
PHOTO: The scene near the finish line of the Boston Marathon is seen in this April 16, 2013 file photo. Inset, suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are seen. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died after a gunfight with police and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured.
Elise Amendola/AP Photo; Inset: Lowell Sun, FBI/AP Photo
PHOTO: The first explosion knocked down a runner at the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
PHOTO: Pulaski Township Police Sgt. Chad Adam seen here in this undated Facebook photo, went undercover as an Amish woman.
Pulaski Township Police Department/Facebook
PHOTO: The Earths shadow is cast over the surface of the moon as a total lunar eclipse is seen though a Magnolia tree top in the sky over Tyler, Texas, April 15, 2014.
Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/AP Photo