Army to Court-Martial 82nd Airborne Paratrooper Involved in Deadly Syrian Firefight Last Year

U.S. troops encounter a hostile pro-Syrian regime militia at a checkpoint near Qamishli, Syria.
FILE -- In this Feb. 12, 2020 file photo, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve forces conducting a patrol to protect key terrain and natural resources encountered a hostile pro-Syrian regime militia at a checkpoint near Qamishli, Syria. After coalition troops issued a series of de-escalation attempts and warnings, the patrol was attacked by a barrage of stones, small arms fire, and arson from nearly 10 militia men. Coalition forces returned fire in self-defense, killing an adult male combatant. The incident is under investigation. One U.S. service member received a superficial injury during the engagement and since returned to duty. The coalition operates in Eastern Syria to partner with Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat ISIS remnants and protect critical infrastructure. (Jodi Eastham/U.S. Army)

An 82nd Airborne Division soldier whose patrol came under fire in Syria last August will face court-martial for a series of charges that include violating orders and reckless endangerment, the military said last week.

Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue referred the case against Sgt. 1st Class Robert Nicoson to trial, division spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Lea said in an email Thursday.

Nicoson’s case underwent an Article 32 preliminary hearing in May, similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding, to review evidence against him on charges related to several incidents, including a patrol that got caught up in a deadly firefight near the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli on Aug. 17, 2020.

“It is alleged that Sgt. 1st Class Nicoson was involved in incidents of violating orders, reckless endangerment, making unlawful threats and obstruction of justice after the fact,” Lea said.

The charge sheet will not be available until Nicoson is arraigned, which could be in the next couple of weeks, Lea said.

Nicoson’s attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, did not immediately return a request for comment on the case. Stackhouse told Stars and Stripes after the May 20 hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C., that prosecutors did not call a single witness and instead relied on a “very thin Army CID (Criminal Investigation Command) investigation” and a low burden of proof to push for court-martial.

Prosecutors also provided the defense with two classified investigation reports “just prior to the hearing" that they had not previously made available, Stackhouse said. Both investigations, conducted before any Army CID involvement, “contained very favorable evidence for SFC Nicoson,” he said.

“While I can’t go into the facts contained within those investigations yet, I think it’s fair to say that SFC Nicoson was not even in the country at the time two of the charges are alleged to have occurred,” he said. Some of the charges stem from a patrol in June, and from events after the August firefight, Stackhouse said in an earlier phone interview.

The defense entered both records into evidence and sought to have them declassified, Stackhouse said.

The May proceedings were recessed to allow the preliminary hearing officer to review and consider evidence before issuing a report to the commander, said Lt. Col. Mike Burns, division spokesman at the time.

“Long story short — new information was made available and is being considered,” Burns said.

Military officials have declined to discuss specifics of the charges against Nicoson. Nicoson was a platoon sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division’s Blackhorse Troop, 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment on what Operation Inherent Resolve has described as a routine anti-Islamic State patrol last August when a firefight broke out at a Syrian checkpoint.

A Syrian fighter was killed and two others were wounded in the firefight, but there were no coalition casualties. It was one of several high-profile altercations last year between U.S. military patrols and pro-regime Syrian forces or their Russian backers in the civil war that began in 2011.

Nicoson had been under consideration for a Bronze Star with valor device for his actions during the battle, at least until September, Stackhouse said earlier this year. Nicoson's wife, Beverly, told Stars and Stripes via email earlier this year it wasn't clear why the Army went from considering an award to seeking punishment.

Prosecutors claim he put the platoon at risk by going where they shouldn't have been, then threatened Syrian forces before the fighting broke out, Stackhouse said. Prosecutors do not allege misconduct during the actual gun battle or say that Nicoson started the firefight, he said.

The charges are merely accusations, said Lea, the division spokesman.

“The accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

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