Artist's sketch of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs in court (File)
Artist's sketch of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs in court (File)

A military court in the western U.S. state of Washington is set to try Calvin Gibbs, an American soldier accused of masterminding the brutal killings of Afghan civilians last year. Gibbs' court martial is set to get under way on Friday.

In the months leading up to his court martial, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs has refused to cooperate with military investigators.  

The accusations against him have been based on witness accounts that have included grisly details of random killings, and body parts put into plastic bags as trophies. He is accused of three counts of murder.

Gibbs led a platoon of the 5th Stryker Brigade, based here at Joint Base Lewis McChord. Members of that platoon say he threatened anyone who did not keep quiet about the killings. Victims included a 15-year-old boy who was unarmed and chosen at random. Witnesses are quoted as saying Gibbs played with the boy's corpse, and cut off a finger as a keepsake.

Now, he faces life in prison. Other members of the platoon have also been charged and sentenced.

The trial comes as the U.S. military draws down its operations in Afghanistan and takes stock of its accomplishments in the region. The Army says it hopes the trial will help correct any impression that it tolerates criminal behavior.

Colonel Barry Huggins commands the 2nd Brigade that absorbed Gibbs' 5th Brigade.  He spoke to VOA in May. ?Unlike the people we are engaged in conflict with at the moment, they are not about a policy. They are an aberration. The targeting of civilians or the harm that comes to civilians is not part of our strategy. It's an aberration from that strategy,? Huggins said.

The military has come under criticism for not acting quickly after a platoon member's family alerted officials at the base about the crimes.

Liberal activist Jorge Gonzalez, a veteran of a Stryker brigade, runs a cafe outside the base. Along with free coffee for soldiers, the cafe counsels those who are considering leaving the military for ideological or other reasons.  

He says the court martial might bring justice in the Calvin Gibbs case, but he says the damage to the military's image cannot be repaired.

?The story will go everywhere and everybody will think that this is what the U.S. military does, which is very bad. But it leaves that impression, even though it was just a few soldiers that got caught. It's definitely horrible for the rest of the soldiers,? Gonzalez said.

Soldiers here at Gibbs' home base speak of anger and shame. One soldier who did not want to be recorded says he hopes justice will be done, and a separation made between the real warriors who hunt down the Taliban, and those he calls "fake warriors" who kill defenseless civilians for sport.   

The panel deciding on Gibbs' case will be chosen on Friday, and testimony begins on Monday.