WASHINGTON — It was 1st Lt. Clint Lorance's first patrol as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, and he set out on foot for a village in a remote section of Kandahar province one morning last July with about 20 soldiers, mostly infantryman.
By the time that patrol returned to its base, two Afghans had been shot off a motorcycle that had approached the patrol and two others were in custody.
The Oklahoma-born Lorance, who had joined the Army the day he turned 18, had given the order to shoot the men on the motorcycle — a decision he would tell his mother later that he would make again if he were in the same situation.
Pending an investigation of the shootings, Lorance was stripped of his leadership, and his weapon was taken away in a combat zone.
He is now at Fort Bragg, N.C., waiting to see whether he will face a court-martial on murder charges. An Article 32 hearing, similar to a grand jury proceeding or preliminary hearing, was conducted at the base in late January.
His mother, Anna Lorance, who lives in the northeastern Texas town of Celeste, said in an interview, “None of this makes sense. I know there's a reason for everything. I don't see the reason for this at all.”
To Anna Lorance, her son was only trying to protect his platoon.
“I feel like if he hadn't made the choice he made that day that him and his soldiers would be brought home in body bags,'' she said in an interview.
The Army doesn't see it that way.
A public affairs officer at Fort Bragg said Lorance has been charged with two counts of murder “arising from his order that two soldiers illegally shoot two Afghan villagers who were riding a motorcycle but showing no indication of hostile act or hostile intent.
“He was also charged with attempted murder for ordering the same soldiers to engage a third individual from the same motorcycle who successfully fled the area without being shot.
“Lorance is also charged with making false official statements, ordering illegal harassing fire into a nearby village, obstructing justice, and for making threats against Afghan villagers through an interpreter.”
According to the spokeswoman, the charges could be modified when the chain of command renders a final decision based on the Article 32 findings.
Lorance's attorney, Guy Womack, of Houston, called the charges “preposterous” and said, “If there's a trial, it will be a fight.”
Womack, a retired Marine officer and former military judge who has worked on hundreds of cases in the military justice system, said all of the circumstances from the scene of that July morning “point to this being some kind of enemy action.”
“Everything these soldiers did was absolutely within the rules of engagement.”
The soldiers who shot at the Afghans saw them approaching the patrol, suspected them of being Taliban fighters because they were on a motorcycle and asked Lorance by radio if they could shoot, Womack said.
“If they hadn't gotten the lieutenant on the radio, they would have opened fire on their own,” Womack said.
The soldiers who shot at the Afghans have not been charged, Womack said.
The Houston attorney said he believes the commanding general reviewing the case is doing so deliberately. The case is one, Womack said, in which people “must not second-guess our soldiers in the field making life-or-death decisions in the heat of battle.”
It's not always easy to identify enemy combatants in Afghanistan, Anna Lorance said, adding that “it's not the blue coats and the red coats.”
Anna Lorance said her son told her, “I did what I had to do. I did my job.”
Rules of engagement
Donald G. Rehkopf, a former Air Force attorney with the Judge Advocate Generals Department and an expert in military law, said the rules of engagement will govern Lorance's case. Though there are broad rules for Afghanistan, there are narrower ones for the various regions, he said, and one factor will be whether Lorance took the necessary steps before ordering fire.
In some circumstances, he said, anybody could be considered a threat to U.S. force.
Rehkopf, of New York, who is part of the legal team seeking Supreme Court review of 1st Lt. Michael Behenna's conviction of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone, said the Army must prove Lorance “intended to kill an innocent civilian. I don't think they'd be able in a million years to do that.”
Rehkopf said the political uproar in Washington now regarding the case of an Air Force officer's sexual assault conviction being overturned by a general could lead the commanding general reviewing Lorance's case to take heat off himself and refer it to a court-martial to have the facts sorted out.
Lorance, 28, was born in Hobart and lived in Jackson County — the home of his mother's family — for a few years as a child but went to high school in the northeastern Texas town of Merit.
Anna Lorance said her son wanted to join the military when he was 17 and was in the recruiting office on his 18th birthday.
“He said, ‘I just have to serve my country.' He's the most patriotic man I've ever met in my life.”
She said he spent two years in Korea and 15 months in Iraq before going to the University of North Texas and becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
He was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant in 2012 and deployed to Afghanistan in the Infantry.
Lorance said her son is not incarcerated at Fort Bragg and does his job every day as he awaits a decision on his case.
“He is not a murderer,” she said. “To see him broke down like this is just devastating.”