By Smedley Butler
A U.S. Special Forces soldier pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing about $210,000 from the federal funds entrusted to his team in Afghanistan for overseas operations and reconstruction.
Philip Stephen Wooten, 35, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud to steal and convert government money and to smuggle currency into the United States, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The former staff sergeant with the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., served in Afghanistan from July 2009 until January 2010.
Wooten had access to federal funds designated for overseas operations and reconstruction as a field ordering officer. His alleged partner in the scam, who was not identified, served as the paying agent on the same operational team.
“Sgt. Wooten betrayed his fellow service members and put that mission at risk,” said Steve Trent, acting special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. “American servicemen and women put their lives on the line every day in Afghanistan and play a vital role in the reconstruction mission.”
Prosecutors maintain the duo drew money from a U.S. finance office in Kandahar and brought it to their outpost in Khas Uruzgan Province. Instead of using the funds to build local infrastructure and foster closes ties with the indigenous population, they converted it into money orders for their own use.
The gross imbalance of burdens and benefits in the military-industrial machine has given rise to an entire genre of films depicting similar scams by the 99%. Wooten’s real-life theft is reminscent of the fictional tales of riches being secured by combat soldiers in films like “Kelly’s Heros” and “Three Kings” and the final episode of the “Band of Brothers” television series.
Wooten and his partner used false receipts to conceal the diversion of funds during mandatory 60-day audits, according to prosecutors. They converted some of the money orders into cash and jewels, including two 18-karat gold and diamond wedding bands and an 18-karat gold and diamond ring with a 2.6-carat diamond. The jewels were appraised at $88,500, according to court documents.
Prosecutors are seeking recovery of the jewels and $62,419 in unspent cash.
“Philip Wooten deceived his country and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and dishonored the very principles he promised to uphold,” said Chris Briese, who heads the Charlotte division of the FBI.
The incident underscores the incredible class divide that seperates the legalized thievery of the Fortune 500 in Iraq and Afghanistan and the illegal thefts sometimes perpetrated by ordinary soldiers returning to a nation plagued by high unemployment.
Publicly traded companies like Halliburton have generated billions of dollars in revenue from military contracts of sometimes questionable value. Meanwhile, the mercenaries employed by private security firms with political connections, like the company formerly known as Blackwater, often earn more than $100,000 a year for the same work as enlisted soldiers.