Military stays tight-lipped about a soldier's sacrifice

  • Article by: ROD NORDLAND , New York Times
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 7:05 PM

Colleagues and friends of Specialist Dennis Weichel have shared his rescue of an Afghan boy, but no official account has been released.

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An Army carry team carries the transfer case containing the remains of Army Spc. Dennis P. Weichel, Jr. of Providence, R.I., upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del., on Sunday, March 25, 2012.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - The story of Specialist Dennis Weichel could easily be a counterpoint to the gruesome account of the U.S. soldier charged with 17 counts of murder in Kandahar on March 11. Weichel, who was 29, was killed while rescuing an Afghan child, but more than a week after that event the military has yet to officially confirm what happened. The initial details came from Afghan civilians in northeastern Laghman Province and then fellow soldiers and friends.

Even after months of a series of episodes of soldiers behaving badly, from Qur'an burnings to massacres, the military was almost reluctant to trumpet its good deeds.

On March 22, Weichel, a Rhode Island National Guardsman, was part of a convoy leaving a firing range when he jumped from his vehicle to help a group of children. The children were trying to collect the brass shell casings to sell for scrap metal. Afghan witnesses said that when a 10-year-old boy darted under a vehicle, Weichel went to push him to safety. Then the vehicle ran over Weichel, killing him.

The boy, Zaiullah, the son of an Afghan policeman, confirmed the account.

Matiullah Khan, a vegetable seller and Zaiullah's uncle, said, "As you know, all five fingers on one hand are not equal, and it's the same with American soldiers."

"What that soldier did in Kandahar was such a brutal act, no human could do what he did," he said, referring to the accusations against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the Kandahar killings. "This soldier, he looked at my nephew as a human being and endangered his life to save my nephew's life."

The reasons why

The military is often hampered by its bureaucracy and slow to decide when and what information to release. A spokesman for Weichel's unit, Maj. Christopher Thomas, said an investigation was still underway. "I'm concerned we should not set the precedent of commenting before the investigation is complete," he said, "even though from the reports we've heard it's a shining example of what our soldiers are all about."

Also, after years of emphasizing better community relations, most soldiers are routinely involved in providing services to Afghans and think of their actions as just part of their jobs.

While the official response has been quiet, the comrades of Weichel -- a father of three -- praised his sacrifice.

"That's Specialist Weichel for you," said Sgt. First Class Robert Tobin, who was with him that day. "He had a tremendous love for his kids and his family, and I can only imagine the reason why he would do something like that was because he would want somebody to do something like that for his kids."

Shared on Facebook

While the military debated whether to release details of Weichel's death -- even though he had been promoted to sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star posthumously -- friends put up a Facebook page in his memory. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee was among those listed as commenting.

It read: "Specialist Dennis Weichel's life was marked by bravery, selflessness, and commitment to others -- and unfortunately it was in demonstrating these remarkable characteristics that it was lost."

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