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Released on parole after serving five years at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth for killing an al-Qaida terrorist, Army Ranger Michael Behenna doesn't want the nation to forget the nine military service members with similar stories who remain at the Kansas penitentiary.
In an interview Thursday with Michael Savage, who called Behenna "an American hero unfairly charged and convicted," the former first lieutenant noted he was among what activists call "The Leavenworth 10," soldiers or Marines incarcerated at Ft. Leavenworth for killing members of al-Qaida or Iraqi insurgents.
Savage told Behenna: "You're such a soldier, you don't want to leave anyone behind."
The website for "The Leavenworth 10," who are serving from 10 to 40 years in prison, says "they and their families have fallen victim to the untenable Rules of Engagement, demoralizing 'Catch and Release' policies, and climate of political correctness that govern our troops’ actions while trying to survive a combat zone."
Behenna talked with Savage about his life since being released on parole March 14 after serving five years of a 15-year sentence for the death of al-Qaida operative Ali Mansur in Iraq in 2008.
"I've been trying to put my life back together. I've had to start all over again," Behenna told Savage.
Five years of legal battles on his behalf, led by his parents, Scott and Vicki Behenna, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, in January, the family asked for his release at a parole board hearing, arguing he is no threat to society.
Behenna led a platoon in Iraq that suspected the al-Qaida operative of being involved in an attack that killed two of their colleagues. But Behenna eventually was ordered to release Mansur to his home, because military intelligence could not find sufficient evidence against him. Prosecutors of Behenna claimed that in the process of returning Mansur, the officer shot and killed him in cold blood while Behenna claims the al-Qaida operative was attacking him.
Behenna told Savage he still doesn't understand why the order was given to return the al-Qaida operative to his home.
Savage, who along with his listeners has been a major contributor to a defense fund the family has established that receives online donations through the "Defend Michael" website, asked Behenna how he could help him now.
Behenna pointed out that "The Savage Nation" raised more than $100,000 for his defense.
"You and your listeners have already done so much," he said.
Savage remarked: "But it didn't go to you; it went to your lawyers. You put five years into prison for doing your job for America. We owe you. We all owe you."
Behenna, who said his needs to purchase a vehicle, has a job lined up that will begin in the middle of May, cattle ranching and farming in northern Oklahoma.
"I want to get out in the country and live a quiet life," he said.
Savage, explaining he and his audience are not "giving you a handout, we're giving you what you deserve," asked what else he needed.
"Me personally, I don't need anything else," Behenna replied. "But what I want people to realize … is that there are still others that are in Fort Leavenworth for similar type offenses, or alleged crimes, that I was convicted of."
In an interview in February with Savage, Vicki Behenna said the U.S. government's prosecution of her son, whose claim of self-defense is backed by forensic evidence that was withheld at the trial, is "inconceivable to me."
She said people often asked her why she and her husband kept fighting.
"There's an injustice here, and it's not just an injustice because it happened to my son," she explained to Savage. "But, how in the world do we expect to send soldiers and combat Marines into combat zones and not support them?"
Vicki Behenna, a federal prosecutor who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing case, argued soldiers in combat "are going to make decisions that the general public is not going to like, but you don't incarcerate them for the decisions that they make."
Scott Behenna is an FBI intelligence analyst and retired Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation special agent.
'I want to fight terrorists'
Haunted by the images of people leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11, enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Central Oklahoma, telling his parents he wanted to enlist in the Army and "fight terrorists."
He graduated in 2006. After Officer Candidate School and Infantry Officer Training, Behenna was selected to attend the U.S. Army's Ranger School. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as a platoon leader and deployed to Iraq in 2007.
Behenna and his platoon conducted counter-insurgency operations in the Salahuddin province.
Behenna, who learned Arabic in his spare time, was known for his efforts to engage Iraqi civilians, and he encouraged his soldiers to learn about their culture and eat their food.
"He was the type of guy that liked Iraqis," Spc. Cody Atkinson told the Los Angeles Times. "That was the only annoying thing about him. He was always about saving the country."
The platoon suspected the al-Qaida operative, Mansur, of being involved in an attack that killed two of their colleagues. But after holding him for nearly two weeks, his superiors said military intelligence was unable to find sufficient evidence and Mansur was ordered released.
An intelligence report, however, had identified Mansur as an explosives transporter for the local al-Qaida cell, and a local sheik identified him as a terrorist.
Behenna's platoon was ordered to return Mansur to his town as soon as possible. The prosecution alleged Behenna, while conducting an unauthorized interrogation, shot Mansur in cold blood. Behenna claimed he fired in self-defense because Mansur was trying to attack him.
A government witness presented exculpatory evidence to prosecutors, but he was not allowed to testify, and the evidence was provided to the defense only after the verdict was delivered.
Bush 'did nothing'
Behenna was charged in 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, and went to trial in February 2009, just after Obama came to office.
Savage helped lead a campaign urging Bush to intervene.
"He did nothing," Savage said in the interview with Vicki Behenna.
"Nothing," she affirmed.
Vicki Behenna said she would have understood the administration's unwillingness to intervene if it were a case like the U.S. solider in Afghanistan, Sgt. Robert Bales, who killed 16 civilians inside their homes.
"The Army knows that the man that Michael shot was a member of al-Qaida, and the man was coming toward Michael to take his weapon from him to use it against him," she said.
"How in the world you can charge a solider for a shooting incident and convicted him of murder is just beyond me," she added. "I don't understand."