An Army officer sentenced to jail time for failing to enforce safety procedures at a firing range where a young soldier was fatally shot on Fort Campbell, Kentucky, represents a “terrible case of the Army throwing a young officer into the woodchipper,” according to his attorney.
Capt. Christopher Peeples was convicted of dereliction of duty on April 13 and sentenced to four months in confinement, according to records recently released by the Army, after a court-martial determined his conduct was “likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm” to an Army private who died Aug. 1, 2018. Peeples was in charge of firearms training at the time and failed to follow safety precautions and ensure proper medical care was available at the range, the court ruled.
Peeples was released Wednesday, June 22. Attorney Jason Marquez, who is the executive director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Military Justice Clinic, told Coffee or Die Magazine that his client took responsibility for failing to enforce some safety rules at the range, but that the Army was overzealous in its prosecution, setting a chilling standard for other officers at Fort Campbell.
“A soldier did something dumb with their weapon, which led to this young soldier being shot, and the command whipped out the microscope,” Marquez said. “They decided heads had to end up on spikes.”
The Army redacted the name of the private who died on the range and did not specify the cause of death in court documents. However, 101st Airborne Division Pvt. Jeremy J. Wells died Aug. 1, 2018, during a training incident at a small-arms range on Fort Campbell, according to the Fort Campbell Courier. Wells was treated at the scene and then rushed to the hospital, where he later died from unspecified wounds. He was 19 years old.
According to Marquez, the young private’s death was the result of a “series of terrible accidents.”
One soldier finished firing his rifle and then, without checking to make sure it was unloaded, set it down pointing in the direction of another soldier, Marquez said. At that point the firearm went off, and a round tore through the young soldier’s back, Marquez said.
Peeples was one of three people charged in connection with the incident, Marquez said. The soldier handling the firearm has already served a one-year sentence for his role in the private’s death, and a noncommissioned officer tasked with overseeing range safety was also charged, he said.
Peeples was assigned to B Company, 96th Aviation Support Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and was the officer in charge of the firing range at the time of the incident.
The officer in charge is generally responsible for ensuring soldiers follow numerous safety standards. The officer must make sure soldiers don’t engage in automatic firing, cross firing, or firing from the hip, and that soldiers keep weapons pointed downrange. Army rules also require that a medic be on site during firing range operations, and the officer in charge is required to make sure medics have a map to the nearest medical facility and know how to get there.
Peeples failed to fulfill several of his duties on the day of the incident, the court found, including ensuring there were enough safety officers at the firing range. Army rules require at least one noncommissioned officer to oversee every four shooters.
According to court documents, Peeples also failed to make sure weapons were inspected to make sure barrels and chambers were clear and that weapons were always pointed in a safe direction.
Peeples also failed to rehearse medevac procedures and “negligently failed to ensure the overall safe conduct of training and proper use of the installation training complex,” the court-martial found.
The Army originally sought to prosecute Peeples for manslaughter, Marquez said, but Peeples ultimately pleaded guilty to a single specification for reckless endangerment.
“He took responsibility for the things that he didn’t do correctly on the range that day,” Marquez said. “But there’s nothing that occurred on this range that doesn’t happen in one aspect or another on any range on any given day. The thing that happened this time is a soldier died.”
Peeples was released Wednesday after having a month shaved off his sentence because the judge determined he had been subjected to unlawful pre-trial punishment, Marquez said. During the three and a half years that Peeples awaited trial, his command assigned him to “demeaning details” and carried out other “hazing instances” rather than treating him as innocent until proven guilty, Marquez said.