An Army noncommissioned officer has been charged with allegedly stealing machine gun parts and a smoke grenade, the disappearance of which set off a chaotic brigade-wide recall and search on and around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
Sgt. Christopher Shepler, a company NCO from 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, was charged with larceny and loss of military property, according to a Monday statement from 7th Infantry Division spokesperson, Lt. Col. Bryen Freigo.
The charges, filed last month, allege that Shepler stole an M2 .50-caliber machine gun receiver and an M240 machine gun barrel, in addition to the smoke grenade.
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The .50 cal piece was first reported missing on Oct. 7 by 5-20's sister company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment. The weapon was left in the care of 2-3's staff duty for soldiers to use if they wanted to practice operating the unloaded weapon in preparation for the brigade's upcoming Expert Infantry and Expert Soldier Badge qualifications.
Staff duty is a 24/7 posting in a unit's area, and operation of the weapon is part of the qualification for the two Army skill badges.
Military.com has reached out to Shepler for comment via email but did not hear back by publication. Military.com also requested the contact information for the NCO's legal counsel from the Army.
Messages reviewed by Military.com reveal unit leadership attempting to wrangle the chaos in the aftermath of the loss, asking subordinates not only to look for the missing items, but identifying Shepler, referring to him as a "person of interest" and sharing an apparent image of him in a group chat. The entire brigade was called in to search for the weapon during what was supposed to be a four-day weekend.
"It was really unfortunate that a leader in the organization made such a poor decision that affected the entire brigade right before a much-deserved four day," one soldier in the brigade told Military.com over text, adding that the decision to leave the equipment out in the first place was a leadership failure.
"I'm all for making equipment accessible to soldiers to train, but it's leaders' responsibility to ensure weapons are properly accounted for. … There were failures all up the chain of command that allowed it to happen."
Freigo said that the charges specify that Shepler allegedly "later lost the firearm," referencing the M2 receiver. He was charged with stealing all three items and charged with the "willful loss" of the .50 cal part, according to his charge sheet.
The receiver contains parts that make the .50 cal fire and, along with the barrel of the M240, are inert on their own.
A week after the items were reported missing, the charges against Shepler were filed.
"The charges have been referred to a general court-martial, and Sergeant Shepler was arraigned on November 17, 2022," Freigo told Military.com.
"A trial date has not been set at this time," he said, adding that "just as in civilian criminal proceedings, these charges are merely accusations and Sergeant Shepler is presumed innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt."
The M2 receiver ended up in a dumpster, which was routinely transported off post, and had been moved before the unit could find it, according to two soldiers familiar with the incident.
The M2 .50 cal receiver has not been recovered, Freigo said. The other items were recovered. He encouraged individuals with information on the missing machine gun part to contact JBLM's CID office.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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