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When Sgt. John Huling and his fellow Marines pushed out on patrol May 6, they weren't all that concerned about the Afghan soldiers serving alongside them.
The relationship with the Afghan National Army forces working alongside them in Helmand province's Nawa district was solid, Marines said. They not only cooperated outside the wire, but built a camaraderie based in part on friendly games of soccer and volleyball during down time.
That didn't stop an Afghan soldier named Zabetullah from opening fire on an element with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, that was resting near a berm during a two-day partnered clearing operation, according to military documents released through the Freedom of Information Act. The turncoat soldier "intentionally fired two bursts from his weapon in quick succession down the line of Marines," then "continued to fire single shots while partially covered by the dip in the berm."
"It was not a negligent discharge, but several intentional shots," a gunnery sergeant later told investigators, according to his witness statement. "At first, I did not see where it was coming from. I looked for cover and slid into the canal on my back. I then saw Sergeant Huling, and I heard him yell that he was hit. The ANA soldier was so close that I could only see his weapon, not his face."
Huling, 25, was mortally wounded and gasping for air, military documents said. His death marks one of at least 52 this year in which Afghan forces have turned on coalition troops training them. A Navy corpsman next to him also sustained at least one gunshot wound, but survived.
Zabetullah was killed by a Marine sergeant in the group within moments of the attack, the investigation found.
"Most of the Marines slid back down the berm into the canal in order to take cover," the sergeant said in his witness statement. "I was closer to the crest of the berm, so I dove over it … I was not initially able to hit the shooter because of the cover, but then he started to run away across the field in front of the berm. He was still shooting backwards from his hip in ones and twos, with his head facing back towards us. I popped up to the kneeling position and put three rounds in him."
The Marines scrambled to keep Huling alive, but it quickly became clear he was in trouble.
"I started stuffing the wounds with whatever I could — gauze, fingers, whatever we had to stop the bleeding, but it was apparent right away that Sergeant Huling was not in good shape and was not going to make it very long," said the sergeant who killed Zabetullah.
The circumstances of Huling's death stand as an exception to what top U.S. commanders say is the case for most green-on-blue killings. Zabetullah and his fellow Afghan soldiers had not had any recent disputes with the Marines, who were with 2/6's 3rd Platoon, Echo Company, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. Top officials with the International Security Assistance Force say most green-on-blue killings occur because an Afghan soldier or policeman feels personally insulted or slighted, but the Marines did not recall interacting with Zabetullah before the operation.
There may have been signs the soldier had ulterior motives, however. Although his fellow Afghan soldiers lagged to the Marines' south while they were speaking with villagers, he urged the Marines to push further north, away from them. When the sergeant overseeing the patrol asked Zabetullah to tell his colleagues to join them, his response was "vague, again stating that his radio was not working and that he could not reach the ANA patrol."
The incident shook up survivors on both sides. Zabetullah may have been using his radio, but it apparently wasn't to communicate with his fellow Afghan soldiers, they later determined.
"When I asked the ANA staff sergeant what the shooter had been saying over the radio to him … he said he had not been in radio contact with the shooter," said the Marine sergeant. "Whoever the shooter was talking to, it was not the ANA patrol leader."