Investigation into Shooting of Marine in Syria Inconclusive, Officials Say

A Marine guides troop movement to a firing position in Syria. Military leaders were unable to determine whether a shooting there was an insider attack or negligent discharge. (Sgt. Matthew Callahan/Marine Corps)
A Marine guides troop movement to a firing position in Syria. Military leaders were unable to determine whether a shooting there was an insider attack or negligent discharge. (Sgt. Matthew Callahan/Marine Corps)

The military has been unable to determine whether a Marine shot while serving in Syria earlier this year was the victim of an insider attack, raising questions about whether U.S. troops serving in that country can trust the forces they're working to train and protect.

Sgt. Cameron Halkovich, a combat engineer attached to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, was shot twice in the leg by a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces on Feb. 17. Halkovich and another Marine were conducting a nighttime perimeter check on an Army-led base at the time of the shooting.

Marines with Halkovich's unit told Task and Purpose they believed the shooting had been intentional, leading to fear and mistrust of their Syrian partners.

But a team tasked with investigating the incident was unable to make that determination, according to a Friday news release from U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East.

"The incident was investigated by a team led by a U.S. Marine colonel who was unable to conclusively determine if a U.S. Marine was shot intentionally by a Syrian Democratic Forces guard, or if he was shot as the result of a negligent discharge," the release states.

A separate investigation conducted by unnamed partners supported the team's findings, according to the release.

Halkovich was presented with the Purple Heart for his injuries in April. Cpl. Kane Downey, the other Marine on patrol with him that night, received the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his actions.

Downey told investigators that Halkovich had walked ahead of him when he heard AK-47 gunshots. He then saw a Syrian soldier standing over Halkovich with a rifle, Task and Purpose reported.

The Marine shot and killed the man, applied a tourniquet to Halkovich's leg and fireman-carried him to a surgical facility, according to the outlet.

The investigating team verified those actions. Downey "acted appropriately and proportionally to the threat he perceived," according to the CENTCOM news release.

"Those actions in the face of the perception of imminent danger, and the second Marine's life-saving response to a fellow Marine's injuries, led the lead investigator to recommend the second Marine to be commended for his actions," the release continues.

The news release follows reporters' questions to Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of CENTCOM, after the Task and Purpose story was published. Votel said Wednesday he was not aware of other insider attacks in Syria, but that he needed to review the details before commenting further.

The investigation into the shooting will be released upon classification review, according to the CENTCOM news release. It led to recommendations that have been enacted, the release states, but it does not mention what those actions are.

Marines and other troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan routinely train to deal with insider threats. After a pattern of attacks in those countries, armed Marines sometimes observe training or patrol gyms and chow halls in case local troops attempt an attack when U.S. forces aren't wearing protective gear.

It's not immediately clear whether troops deploying to Syria now follow those same protocols.

--Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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