Airman 1st Class Corey Hernandez pulled the trigger. Nothing was supposed to happen, except the metallic click of the hammer striking the firing pin.
Instead, the pistol fired.
Senior Airman Michael Garcia fell to the floor of his apartment, just outside Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., a bullet in his head from his own gun fired by one of his best friends.
Police called what the airmen were doing “horseplay.”
The men had been playing a game, one that tests faith and wills, one increasingly common in the military. Two months ago, four Marines received time in the brig for their roles in the death of a Marine killed in Iraq while playing the game, called Trust.
Until Dec. 10, when the 23-year-old Garcia died, the Air Force had not had any reported incidents of airmen playing Trust.
Today, Hernandez, 21, faces charges of manslaughter and use of a weapon to commit a felony. A preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 11 in Sarpy County Court, the local civilian jurisdiction. If convicted of both charges, he could be sentenced to up to 70 years in prison, according to Nebraska sentencing guidelines.
The Air Force released details about the airmen’s job responsibilities — both belonged to units of the 55th Wing — but refused to speculate on Garcia’s death because it is still under investigation by the local civilian authorities. It did not rule out the possibility that Hernandez could be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice at some point as well.
“The 55th Wing, Offutt Air Force Base and the Air Force as a whole suffered a great loss with the death of Senior Airman Garcia. We share in the sorrow felt by his loved ones and the loss of one of our own affects all of us,” read a statement released by Offutt officials.
Drinks and a weapon
Garcia and Hernandez met in April, when Hernandez arrived at Offutt right out of communications tech school.
Both belonged to units of the 55th Wing, the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth. Hernandez is a voice network apprentice with the 55th Communications Squadron; Garcia was an intelligence analyst with the 55th Operations Support Squadron.
They lived in the same apartment complex, Gateway Park, only two miles from base, and hung out together often, according to James Martin Davis, Hernandez’s civilian attorney.
On the night of the shooting, according to authorities, Garcia, Hernandez and two other airmen started out at a nearby bar, winding up at Garcia’s apartment about midnight. Neither the police in Bellevue, Neb., — near Offutt — nor the Air Force would identify the other airmen.
At the apartment, Garcia brought out his Springfield .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, according to what Davis said Hernandez told him.
There was not supposed to be a round in the chamber. That’s the way the game is played — buddies trust each other that the weapon is cleared and pulling the trigger will be harmless.
Garcia “took the gun down, he put it in front of [Hernandez], and he says, ‘Trust me. Now point it at me and shoot.’ And Corey did,” Davis said
Hernandez and Garcia had played Trust with the gun before, Davis said, and they usually took turns as the shooter.
“They had done this a number of times,” he said. “No one knows why there was a round in the chamber.”
Garcia’s roommate, also an airman, dialed 911 shortly before 1 a.m. Dec. 11 to report the shooting. When officers arrived a few minutes later, Hernandez, the roommate and another airman were waiting outside.
“They were obviously upset,” said Lt. Keith Bader, commander of the Bellevue Police Department’s special investigations unit.
Officers found Garcia dead in the apartment, then drove the three airmen to police headquarters for questioning. They arrested Hernandez. He stayed in the Sarpy County Jail until Dec. 15, when he posted $20,000 of a $200,000 bond.
During questioning, according to Bader, the airmen did not say they were playing a game but did use the word “trust” in explaining what happened. Bader described the airmen’s actions as “horseplay” and “inappropriate handling of the handgun.”
“Actually, this is the first I had heard of it,” Bader said of the Trust game. “They did state that the victim had pointed the gun at himself and at others and had pulled the trigger.”
A Marine trick
Troops have played the Trust game — in different forms — for years, a few times with fatal consequences.
In 1997, a Marine lance corporal died in Okinawa after other Marines accidentally dropped him from the third floor of his barracks. In that version of the Trust game, the Marines took turns dangling each other out a window, holding only their ankles. Five Marines faced criminal charges; one was sentenced to 10 years in the brig.
A decade later, a Kentucky Army National Guardsman shot and killed his best friend, a fellow soldier, while playing Trust, which he said he learned while deployed to Iraq.
This year, two deaths, both caused by Marines, have been attributed to the game.
The first was the one in Iraq that sent the four Marines to the brig. The second was the fatal shooting of a civilian by his Marine roommate in an off-base home near Camp Lejeune, N.C. The Marine faces a charge of second-degree murder.
The game is touted as a way to build camaraderie and “maintain an edge,” according to the Marine investigation of the shooting in Iraq.
Perhaps because of Air Force culture, the high education level of airmen or the roles that the service has played in the war zones, airmen seem far less familiar with Trust than Marines seem to be. Enlisted airmen and an officer told Air Force Times that they either had never heard of Trust or had never heard of the game being played by their fellow airmen.
The officer, a judge advocate, said he remembers a case from his years as a defense counsel that involved airmen playing Russian roulette but has never heard of Trust being played in the Air Force.
“It was a late night after a drunken party and a few guys decided to play Russian roulette,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. “No one died … and I don’t think the weapon discharged either, but I can’t recall why.”
The 2006 fatal shooting of Airman 1st Class Carl Ware Jr. could have been the result of the Trust game. Ware died after being shot by Airman 1st Class Kyle Dalton.
Dalton did admit to pointing the gun at his close friend and pulling the trigger, not expecting it to fire. He originally was charged with murder but later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter by culpable negligence. He is serving 10 years in a military prison.
At the time, Ware’s wife, Christine Ware, told Air Force Times she did not believe the shooting was accidental but did not speculate on what may have been going on between the airmen.
The Nebraska shooting victim, Garcia, deployed twice in his four years as an airman, but the Air Force would not say where. Hernandez has never deployed in his 18 months with the service.
‘An invited act’
For the time being, Hernandez is in an administrative position reporting directly to his squadron’s first sergeant, said Ryan Hansen, an Offutt spokesman.
Hernandez is seeing a psychiatrist and chaplain on base to help him cope with Garcia’s death, said Davis, the defense attorney.
“The one good thing is that he is in the Air Force, and the Air Force is uniquely equipped these days to deal with [post-traumatic stress] because of the wars,” he said.
Davis is preparing to argue in court that the shooting was an accident.
“Unfortunately, when you have weapons involved and you have young people, there’s oversights and fatalities, and that’s what happened in this case,” he said.
Added Davis: “Not every death [from] a firearm needs to be punished in a criminal manner.”
Bader, the police lieutenant, said manslaughter in Nebraska is defined as “the unintentional killing of another during an argument or in the course of an illegal act, which in this case was pointing the weapon at another person.”
But Davis counters that pointing a gun is not inherently illegal if there is no intended threat, which would be considered criminal assault. He argues Hernandez committed no crime because the airmen had agreed to play the game.
“What he [Hernandez] did was an invited act,” Davis said. “Garcia asked him to do it.”
The Sarpy County prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the case.
The Air Force would not comment about assertions that Hernandez and Garcia were playing a dangerous game with a weapon. Airmen at Offutt are receiving no special weapons training because of the shooting, according to Hansen.
“All active-duty members of the Air Force receive weapons safety training as part of their career,” he said. “That training is updated on a regular basis and before deployments.”
Brig. Gen. John N. T. Shanahan, the 55th Wing commander, posted a commentary Dec. 15 on Offutt’s Web site encouraging his airmen to watch out for each other, help each other make good decisions and “simply [say] ‘no’ when somebody asks you to join in an action that you know could result in injury or damage.” The commentary, though, stops short of addressing weapons safety.
Davis said the Trust game is an extension of the warrior ethos the military intentionally develops in its personnel, so the military needs to do more to ensure that ethos doesn’t lead to reckless or risky behavior.
“It’s an extension of … what they’re taught, but they carry that idea with them to the barracks and apartment complexes,” Davis said. “At some point there’s a real responsibility of the services to step in and tell them where they have to draw the line.”
Filed under: Military Industrial Complex | Tagged: 55th Operations Support Squadron, 55th Wing, Bellevue, Bellevue Police Department, Camp Lejeune, Carl Ware Jr., Christine Ware, Corey Hernandez, James Martin Davis, John N. T. Shanahan, Keith Bader, Kentucky National Guard, Kyle Dalton, Michael Garcia, Nebraska, Offutt Air Force Base, Okinawa, Ryan Hansen, Sarpy County, Trust, Uniform Code of Military Justice, USAF, USMC |