A decorated Canadian Forces officer was hailed by a military prosecutor for his “integrity and honour” Wednesday even as he pleaded guilty to negligent performance of duty.
Major Christopher Lunney, 42, had to pause to compose himself several times as he told a court martial of his shock and remorse over the friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan that took the life of Corporal Josh Baker and wounded four others.
“I can offer no words of regret or apology that will address their loss,” Major Lunney said of the Baker family.
Major Lunney’s was the first of three courts martial resulting from the February 2010 training incident at a range northeast of Kandahar, when an explosive Claymore mine packed with 700 steel balls raked a Canadian Forces platoon.
The agreed statement of facts entered with his guilty plea may hint at the defence that will be mounted when two other soldiers under Major Lunney’s command are tried on charges of manslaughter in relation to Cpl. Baker’s death.
The court martial heard that the reservists involved in the incident “had been validated and declared operationally ready for deployment” to Afghanistan, but that they had received no training with the C19 explosive, also known as a Claymore, that killed Cpl. Baker.
The court martial also heard that, unbeknownst to Major Lunney, the captain leading the platoon training that day – who has since been promoted to major – had no training or qualifications on the C19, and had never used a Claymore before that explosion.
Major Lunney’s negligence was in failing to ensure that Capt. Darryl Watts was properly qualified, something the major had assumed because of Capt. Watts’s rank at the time.
Four other charges against Major Lunney were dropped.
“What transpired that day in Afghanistan was an avoidable incident,” his civilian lawyer, Phillip Millar, told the court martial, adding there were “triable issues” that could have been mounted in his client’s defence.
Instead, Major Lunney had instructed his lawyer that “the buck stops with me.”
Commander Peter Lemont, the presiding judge, accepted a joint sentencing agreement that will see Major Lunney demoted to captain and receive a severe reprimand.
The military prosecution in its sentencing submission noted the seriousness of the incident and its tragic consequences and said Major Lunney’s demotion was needed for general deterrence.
“Major Lunney’s words make it clear that specific deterrence is not at issue here,” added Major Anthony Tamburro.
The prosecutor praised Major Lunney’s swift action after the incident, co-ordinating the rescue efforts and then securing the scene for military investigators. , including collecting witness statements, photo and video evidence and waiving his own right to counsel.
“Major Lunney has acted with integrity and honour in the aftermath,” said Tamburro, as Major Lunney’s wife sat in the near empty court.
Major Lunney has served as a Canadian Forces liaison with families of slain soldiers, and delivered nine Canadian flags from their caskets during the course of his duties.
“I have seen that sorrow first hand,” Major Lunney told the hearing, his voice cracking.
He also survived a bomb blast that destroyed his Iltis vehicle in Bosnia in 1994, and testified he knows the mental and physical strength required to recover.
Six weeks before the training incident, the stabilization force to which Major Lunney was attached suffered a deadly roadside bomb blast, killing four Canadians, including journalist Michelle Lang.
Stripping Major Lunney of his major’s rank, said his lawyer, is no small matter.
It’s a rank, Millar told the court, Major Lunney achieved “literally, not figuratively, through his own blood, sweat and tears and that of his family.”