Private Brandon Queen was advised to carry a knife with him at all times by his team leader, knowing that their squad leader favored young, pre-pubescent-looking soldiers. “Once the sun goes down, who knows where Santoro is and where Queen is. Something could happen in the corner of the FOB,” his team leader told SOFREP.
At Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kushamond in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, a rogue soldier stalked the men of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 101st Airborne Division.
Staff Sergeant Johnathan “Johnny” Santoro was a predator, Queen was told, and he had to take precautions. “Everybody knew he was gay and everyone was scared of him. Basically, he used intimidation and rank [to get what he wanted],” Queen said. After dealing with months of groping, stalking, and harassment, Santoro attempted to forcibly pull down Queen’s pants to perform oral sex on him. Queen removed himself from the situation, and multiple members of the platoon heard Queen running away at a high rate of speed in the dead of night.
John Santoro was asked to comment on this article but declined to respond.
In the unit famously known as the Band of Brothers and renowned for their military actions waged against the Nazis during World War II, Sergeant Santoro perpetrated a string of sexual assaults in a cultivated environment of fear and manipulation. Those assaults were both ignored and then covered up by the 1/506th chain of command. Several members of the platoon compared their unit’s handling of Sergeant Santoro to how the Catholic Church has attempted to cover for pedophile priests.
“Right when I got there I started hearing rumors about this squad leader who they think is gay and very forceful on certain people,” Sergeant Joe Barnes said of meeting up with his platoon in Afghanistan. “I started hearing from other lower enlisted guys that they would get drunk with this guy and then he would offer to suck their dick. Like, you don’t have to do anything, I’ll just suck you off.”
First Platoon arrived at FOB Kushamond in August of 2010. Out on the flat plains of Paktika, the infantrymen walked right into a nightmare, receiving very accurate mortar fire and rocket attacks on their base. Each time they left the wire in their Humvees, they came under attack by the Taliban. Firefights were nearly a daily occurrence, as were IED strikes, as the area of operations was packed with Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Haqqani-network fighters.
Prior to their year-long deployment to Paktika Province, the men of 1st Platoon knew all about Santoro. The rest of the battalion knew that something was wrong as well, including the battalion commander and command sergeant major. Private Queen was so new to the unit that he was probably the only one left in the dark.
Arriving in the platoon less than a month before deployment, Queen recalled that, “When I first got there, Santoro was talking about other boys, calling them deployment bitches. All the other sergeants just sat there and laughed.” Santoro had also only recently arrived at 1st Platoon, having been fired from his job as a member of LTC David Womack’s personal security detachment (PSD).
When Santoro suddenly showed up in 1st Platoon, one of the team leaders asked his friends on Womack’s PSD what had happened. Santoro was “pressing a private first class under the lieutenant colonel and sergeant major to have a sexual affair, making sexually suggestive comments. The kid felt uncomfortable and complained, so they made the switch.” There were also rumors going around about Santoro having sexually assaulted soldiers in previous deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The way they made it seem was that he was being selected as a quality leader to take these positions and train these soldiers, which was not what was happening,” Sergeant First Class Matt Mason said. “He was not being selected, he was being fired, relieved of his duty, and sent to another place to attempt to rehabilitate him.” Mason became the platoon sergeant halfway through the following deployment. “Sergeant Santoro, before he came to the platoon, was doing some other type of funny stuff with other soldiers, but no one looked into it,” remarked Jonah Jones, a private in the platoon.
Santoro appeared to take a special interest in Brandon Queen from the first day he was assigned to 1st Platoon. Arriving at FOB Kushamond in August, 1st Platoon was known to be troubled by the battalion staff. They were also right smack in the middle of one of the heaviest enemy infestations in all of Afghanistan. The infantrymen found themselves under constant Taliban attack. Most patrols took place in armored Humvees, but they soon lost count of how many of their vehicles were rendered inoperable by IEDs. In addition to heavy combat, the platoon was dealing with numerous internal issues. One private was found convulsing in his hootch after getting high by inhaling Dust-Off refrigerant-based propellant cleaner. A sergeant slapped around a private in the platoon after he discovered him stealing a care package sent to him from his child back home.
Then, one night, their platoon sergeant slipped away into the darkness and abandoned his men. The intensity of the combat that 1st Platoon was in was too much for him, so he boarded a helicopter and flew to the battalion headquarters, where he rode out the rest of the deployment behind a desk. The morale of his former platoon was devastated. In an infantry platoon, a lieutenant acts as the platoon leader, but the platoon sergeant is the senior enlisted soldier who actually runs the platoon. For the Red Currahees, losing their platoon sergeant to cowardice was like a knife through their hearts.
As the senior squad leader, Sergeant Santoro became acting platoon sergeant until a replacement could be found. With the platoon sergeant gone, and Matt Jones, their platoon leader, unable or unwilling to intervene, Santoro continued to manipulate, coerce, and abuse his teammates. The staff sergeant was an intimidating figure, standing around six foot three and weighing in at about 250 pounds. “He was built like John Cena,” Barnes recalled.
In the beginning of the deployment, Santoro’s squad consisted of the bigger guys in the platoon, since weapons squad is responsible for lugging around and firing heavy machine guns. As weapons squad leader, Santoro was able to maneuver people around and dictate the allocation of personnel in the platoon, getting the youngest and smallest privates placed in his squad.
Santoro also shrewdly assigned soldiers who he was not sexually interested in to conduct tower guard together on the perimeter, leaving him unimpeded to prey on young privates in the platoon. Jonah Jones realized in retrospect that he was assigned tower guard at certain times because Santoro “didn’t like black guys at all,” Jones said, and this allowed Santoro to take advantage of his fellow teammates. In a bizarre power game, Santoro would also not allow Queen to talk to his then-wife on the phone. Santoro wanted to control his teammates, and he did. Those who stepped out of line were “smoked,” meaning that he corrected them by having the privates do physical exercises until they were exhausted.
“There were a few moments with other privates where he got drunk with them and solicited them. When they said no, he smoked the shit out of them for days,” Barnes told SOFREP. Barnes was also a sergeant, but was outranked by one pay grade because Santoro was a staff sergeant. As an NCO, Barnes still felt the need to ask why the privates were being smoked. “Mind your business, Sergeant Barnes,” Santoro replied.
Although sexual assault in the military has been a widely reported problem in recent years, it is often assumed, implied, or stated outright that all of these assaults consist of male soldiers perpetrating violence against female soldiers. Official DOD statistics tell a different tale. From 2006 to 2014, the numbers of male soldiers reporting sexual assault has steadily increased, with 1,073 male soldiers reporting in 2014. Contrast this with the number of female soldiers reporting sexual assaults in 2014, which was 3,671.
Furthermore, male soldiers face an additional stigma when they are sexually assaulted, as society largely believes that this issue is nonexistent. Male soldiers face allegations that they are homosexuals when they report sexual assault, or worse, are told that they should have fought back. Few, if any, female soldiers would be chastised in a similar manner after reporting sexual violence to their chain of command. The Department of Defense’s reporting estimates reflect this reality. In 2014, it is estimated that 43 percent of all female soldiers who were sexually assaulted reported the incident. In the same year, it is estimated that only 10 percent of male soldiers who were sexually assaulted reported the crime.
When Sergeant First Class Matt Mason arrived at Kushamond to become the new platoon sergeant, he found a situation that resembled “Lord of the Flies.” “It was a soup sandwich. Morale was almost nonexistent, guys were doing canned air duster, inhaling that stuff. That was the first incident I ran into,” Mason said. One of his first acts was to take formal action against some of the problem children, by UCMJing them, kicking them out of the platoon, and discharging the one huffing canned air from the Army.
The entire platoon was physically corrected several times as well. Mason had the private who had been huffing zipped up inside of a body bag, then the rest of the platoon had to carry him while running laps around the base. “I took them back old school,” Mason said. “They didn’t like it, and neither did the commander. Sorry, but that was the army I was raised in.” Mason had known Santoro since he was a young specialist, when he first arrived at Fort Campbell in 2004. Although he knew that Santoro was homosexual, he was unaware of how dire the situation was.
Mason began to get an inkling of what was going on in his platoon because weapons squad members would serve as the driver and gunner on his Humvee. By spending time with them out on combat operations, the platoon sergeant got to know his men a little better, and they often asked him if they could change positions and move out of Santoro’s squad. At first, Mason thought it was just because Santoro was a stern and harsh leader, and that his men were being too soft, but as time went on, he realized that something was amiss.
There was “a lot of hands-on playing around, horseplay, and they did not feel comfortable with it at all. You could tell by the emotions on their faces and body language. I had to try to have him [Santoro] removed several times through the first sergeant, and he talked to the battalion command sergeant major who said that will never happen,” Mason told SOFREP. First Sergeant Cavataio was known to be on good terms with Santoro.
Despite what Cavataio was telling Mason, it seemed that Command Sergeant Major Judd had not received the message about Santoro. “Supposedly the battalion CSM shut it down. I did my part talking to the first sergeant,” Mason said. “I talked to the CSM every time I went through the battalion hub, which was three or four different times for UCMJ, as well as for my leave. I would always sit in there and talk to him [Judd] for a few hours, because I knew him from working in the battalion for a year.”
“He would have mentioned it to me if it was brought up to him. It was one of those things where I don’t want to step out of line and ask if it was ever brought to him. Then I would have a head-butting match with the first sergeant,” Mason continued. Without actual proof of Santoro abusing his authority, or a witness coming forward, Mason felt that there was not much more he could do.
Meanwhile, Santoro continued his pattern of sexual abuse against his fellow soldiers. “He would try to get me away from everybody so he could talk to me personally,” Queen said. Santoro would follow him to the bathroom and creep around as well. Queen also claimed that Santoro attempted to drug him at one point, saying, “He went to the platoon doctor and got something. Later, he tried it with liquor.”
During mid-tour leave, Santoro went back to the United States and traveled to Las Vegas, where he allegedly paid to fly an underage boy from West Virginia out to see him. Santoro “had his way with him,” according to Mason. The chain of command knew about it, but no action was taken.
Back in Afghanistan, Santoro continued his reign of terror. “I had to go my whole deployment trying to avoid this guy and make him happy so that he would leave me alone,” Queen recalled. “He would kick my door in, come in my room, and grab me. He would just randomly do it like he was playing around and feel up on me.” But this behavior was repeated with others in the platoon as well. “More to me, because I was like his thing or something.”
Other members of the platoon described how Santoro was known to coerce privates into sitting on his lap so that they could “cuddle” with one another. Another eyewitness said that he saw Santoro nibbling on a soldier’s ear after hearing rumors about such behavior for some time.
Many of the platoon members that SOFREP spoke to believed that Santoro was kept around as long as he was because they were on a hot deployment and receiving daily contact with the enemy. In an already troubled platoon, the last thing many felt they needed was to lose their senior squad leader. “One thing I can say about him: I know he was one of the best sergeants I ever had as far as making sure that we did our job,” Jones said. At that time, Jones did not know about the sexual assaults and felt that “Santoro knew his job; he was the weapons squad leader and we definitely needed him.”
“We were getting so much contact from rockets into our base, and going outside the wire in so much contact that it didn’t make sense to tell on him because he was so good outside the wire,” Barnes said. Then, one day, “We started wrestling once after work and he forcefully jammed his fingers in my ass,” Barnes recalled. Fighting his way out of the attack, Barnes yelled at Santoro over the episode.
“Did you just see what happened?” Barnes asked a soldier who had witnessed the event.
“I think I saw what I just saw,” he replied.
Afterwards, the two infantrymen went to their hootch to talk about what had just happened.
“What do I do?” Barnes asked.
“I don’t know, Sergeant,” his teammate replied.
It wasn’t until Santoro tried to force Queen into oral sex that the chain of command took any action. Queen went to talk to his platoon sergeant about the incident. “He had tears in his eyes,” Mason said. “He is a small guy—very small frame. It was basically that he was afraid for one, to be in that building with Santoro. And that he was tired of living in fear, I guess, is the best way to put it, of being groped on a daily basis. Because there was nothing he could do about it and he was scared to death.”
“After I told Sergeant Mason, [I learned] he had already heard and knew about everything, so he moved me to another squad. He had his eye out for me,” Queen said of the encounter.
“As soon as I found that out, I was like, that is it. He was moved out of the hootch [with Santoro]. I went directly to the first sergeant,” Mason said, who then took the issue to First Sergeant Cavataio, telling him, “We need to go to the commander, now, with this.” Together, they went and talked to the company commander, Andrew Hill. Hill initiated a commander’s inquiry into what was going on in 1st Platoon while they were still in Afghanistan, still three or four weeks away from being redeployed back to Fort Campbell. Amazingly, no immediate action was taken, and Santoro was not removed from the platoon.
When asked why Santoro was not yanked out of the platoon and at least moved to the battalion staff, Mason was at a loss as well. “I don’t have a good answer for that. It still puzzles me now,” Mason said in an interview with SOFREP. “At that point, there were still guys who were being actively assaulted, sexually. It was rough times. I don’t know why they didn’t move him.”
One of the first questions that many 101st soldiers asked when they heard about the sexual assaults on FOB Kushamond is why the soldiers did not fight back against Santoro. Part of it was because of his imposing stature; some of it had to do with a quick turnover in the chain of command, with incompetent leaders; and some of it had to do with it being covered up way above the platoon level. Nonetheless, one soldier in the platoon nearly killed Santoro during the deployment.
“We were sitting there cleaning our guns, and he pointed a loaded gun at Santoro,” Queen said, referring to a soldier who everyone SOFREP interviewed believes was sexually assaulted by Santoro far worse than anything previously mentioned in this article. He will be referred to as Moore, a false name to protect his identity. SOFREP reached out to him, but he did not respond to our requests. “Santoro did not even care,” Queen said. Santoro “thought it was a joke and all a game.” Moore was so aggravated and broken down that he demanded that Santoro stop sexually assaulting him. Santoro laughed it off and Moore backed down.
First Platoon returned from Afghanistan to their home base, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with the status quo intact, although Santoro was soon moved to the battalion staff. The commander’s inquiry had been a sham at best. It concluded with a recommendation that charges not be pressed against Sergeant Santoro.
However, things began to unravel for the 1/506th soon after they arrived at Fort Campbell. While assigned to be a runner for staff duty one night, Queen was asked by the sergeant on duty if the rumors about Santoro were true. Queen told him about everything that had happened on their deployment, and the sergeant hit the roof, taking the issue right up the chain of command.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Barnes felt sold out and betrayed by the Army. He had been trying to talk to his command about Santoro, but to no avail.
Getting called into the battalion commander’s office, Barnes said, “I got silenced. They did everything they could to silence me. I got brought into a room with the battalion commander and brigade commander and command sergeant major. They asked me, ‘Sergeant Barnes, what can we do to make this all go away?’” SOFREP reached out to Judd and Womack for comment on this article, but they did not respond.
Making things even worse, Santoro continued his track record of manipulating personnel assignments. Knowing that Barnes was talking to people in the company about the assaults, he had Barnes moved. “Santoro was the one who initiated this stuff. When I got put in the ammo NCO position, I was sitting across from him every other week in a brigade-level meeting,” Barnes said angrily. “Since I was ammo NCO, I got to sit across the desk from him every other week. Nobody cared, nobody gave a fuck.” How Santoro, a mere staff sergeant, had such incredible clout within the battalion is a mystery, one that deserves further scrutiny.
Mason knew Lt. Col. Womack and CSM Judd well from his many years at the 101st, and did not believe that they were involved in whitewashing the case. However, “I think, because of the amount of exposure that our platoon was already getting, it seemed like everything that was negative that happened was being brought to light that had happened in the past, was happening because of the lack of leadership on the NCO side. As it is slowly coming to light, everyone is worried about that instead of how well they are actually performing.” Mason specifically felt that First Sergeant Cavataio did not want to air any more dirty laundry. “I think there was a bit of a cover-up there,” Mason said.
Moore, the private who had suffered the brunt of Santoro’s sexual assaults, was discharged from the Army just a week after the platoon returned home. Such a rapid out-processing from the Army is almost unprecedented, and how it was accomplished has never been properly explained. It is hard to imagine his paperwork being processed so quickly without direction coming down from the battalion staff.
The unit “started burying things,” Mason said. “The command didn’t want another scandal. Had the news gotten ahold of it, you are talking a massive story at the time. Multiple soldiers being sexually assaulted overseas by their own leader? Come on.” The platoon sergeant also alluded to a past scandal in the 101st Airborne division at Fort Cambell, the 1999 murder of a gay soldier named Barry Winchell, killed by a fellow soldier named Calvin Glover largely because of Winchell’s sexuality. “Fort Campbell has a history of issues being covered up, as I’m sure other posts do, but Fort Campbell is notorious for it,” Mason said. “I think it all started back with the gay gentlemen who was killed in the barracks.”
But Sergeant First Class Mason was having problems of his own and had to step down from his platoon. “My mental status just degraded severely [after that deployment],” Mason said. While shopping at Walmart one day, he had a full-blown psychological breakdown. “I’m a wreck, people at work are wondering what is going on. On top of that, I had PTSD since 2003, which had gotten worse with each deployment after.” As platoon sergeant, he was also grappling with the guilt of what had happened to the men in his platoon at the hands of Santoro.
Meanwhile, command of the company transitioned from Captain Andrew Hill to Captain Kyle Packard. On the day of the change-of-command ceremony, Sergeant Barnes showed up outside of Packard’s office in tears, begging him for help. Forced to work alongside his attacker at work, Barnes had few friends or allies in his unit. “They really don’t give a fuck about us,” Barnes said of his chain of command. “They care about their image. I verbatim remember hearing, ‘do you really want to tarnish the Band of Brothers image?’” he recalled. He was told not to go public with the Santoro attacks because it might hurt his unit’s reputation.
Packard “was the saving grace in this story,” Barnes said. “He even said that those over him were trying to shut it all down. He fought tooth and nail not to let any of this slide, even though it wasn’t on his watch.” Between Queen telling the staff duty sergeant about the sexual assaults and Barnes talking to Captain Packard, a formal investigation was finally started. Packard took the issue to Lt. Col. Womack, who agreed to initiate a CID investigation. Womack and Command Sergeant Major Judd both left the unit soon after. The battalion commander and sergeant major “promised that they would do anything to make things better, then left and no one ever saw them again,” Barnes commented.
With Sergeant Mason stepping down and a CID investigation underway, 1st Platoon was effectively disbanded as it had been constituted previously, and its personnel spread out across the battalion. A no-contact order was issued to Santoro for him to stay clear of the alleged victims in the case, but he was not to be deterred.
Battalion Executive Officer (XO) Matt Weber did not have any qualms with Barnes up until the CID investigation began. “Then, the entire shop turned against me,” Barnes said. Meanwhile, Santoro was stalking Barnes, driving in circles around his block and parking outside for prolonged periods of time. He also sent text messages to both Queen and Barnes. He would send Barnes inappropriate jokes saying that he wanted to bounce his head off the headboard of a bed. “He would be okay when he was sober,” Queen said, “but whenever he got drunk, it would aggravate his lovey-dovey stuff. ‘I’m gay, let’s go do something,’” was the sort of thing he would drunk-text Queen and other soldiers. “He would get drunk and ask us to come over. After he found out everything that was going on, the messages had continued. He said that he would get us all back and he would never forget.”
“They put a no-contact on Santoro to us,” Queen continued. “At first he did not follow it, but stopped when he felt the heat from CID.” As the CID investigation ground on, it took a toll on the men of 1st Platoon. “I did see Joe [Barnes] around regularly while he was at battalion, and he was still doing good work, but you could also tell there was a new vacantness to his eyes,” a soldier in the company told SOFREP. Mason said that, “I saw Queen months later, and the poor guy was just a wreck, an emotional, physical wreck.” Mason’s situation did not improve, either. The company commander put him on suicide watch because he was so worried about him. There had already been a rash of suicides in the unit at that time.
The court martial finally began nearly a year later. The charges against Santoro included a half dozen counts of sexual misconduct, abuse of rank, and drinking overseas while deployed. Victims were called to testify, but according to one officer stationed at the unit, it was difficult for CID to find witnesses who were psychologically sound to offer testimony because of the amount of trauma they had endured. It was an amount of trauma that could not be easily explained simply by groping or touching.
When the victims were called to the stand, the defense made it out as if they were homosexuals who had led Santoro on, according to several victims interviewed by SOFREP. They also tried to play the sexual assaults off as typical military horseplay. “What if I was gay and led this on? That was their defense,” Barnes said. “Well, probably Sergeant Barnes was gay and he let this happen,” he said mockingly of the defense. In infantry units, impromptu wrestling or combative matches between soldiers are common, but of course do not involve any sexual touching. This distinction was difficult to explain in a court of law.
The defense had text messages between Santoro and Barnes from eight months before the trial which were used as evidence. “They pulled up text messages where I said to the guy, yeah, why don’t you come over to my housewarming party, and they used that as evidence to say I was gay and inviting him over for gay activities.”
Many of the crimes committed by Santoro were omitted from the trial entirely. “They tried to play it off like it was just a joke, all funny, all games,” Queen remembered. “Santoro was sentenced to one year in prison,” Queen said, which was “too lenient when six to seven people are testifying to sexual assault and using your rank to manipulate people.”
“If I sexually assaulted six different females, there is no way I would get a slap on the wrist and a year in prison,” Barnes commented. The reason for the light sentence was largely because the trial did not include any charges regarding oral sex, sodomy, or other forced penetration, just groping and fondling. In the end, Santoro did not even serve the full year, as he became eligible for early release.
For Santoro’s victims, the events and attacks that transpired on FOB Kushamond continued to haunt them long after they separated from the military. “I really loved what I did in the Army. I was really proud of what I did in Barge Matal,” Barnes said. “I got back and everything collapsed on me when this happened, and I was never able to recover from it.”
Perhaps what haunted the enlisted men the most was that they didn’t do more to stop it. Feelings of guilt became overwhelming. “I feel the burden for the lower enlisted guys. I should have done something. I deal with that burden every day,” Barnes said as he reflected on the 2010 deployment to Paktika Province. Private Jonah Jones had similar feelings, saying, “It doesn’t just affect those who he’d done it to, but to those who were around, because those guys were like my little brothers. We went to war and it was a hard deployment, and I just can’t believe it happened.”
Sergeant Mason continues to be plagued by guilt as well. “It still haunts me because I feel, what else could I have done? Should I have jumped that command and gone to a higher level? What could I have done differently?” he asks.
More than just the sexual assaults at FOB Kushamond, the issue as to how a staff sergeant like Santoro had such clout in the battalion remains a mystery. How was he able to so easily avoid judicial action for so long? Lt. Col. Womack had no issue in recommending that two privates in 1st Platoon be discharged, one for stealing mail and the other for huffing canned air, but Santoro skated by. Cultivating a pervasive climate that allowed him to continue to sexually assault soldiers, Santoro deftly manipulated people, groomed victims, and avoided accountability for years.
Even his promotion to staff sergeant was highly irregular. “I don’t know what he did to become an E6, but it was dirty and there was no [promotion] board, and it was not supposed to happen,” Mason told SOFREP. “I have no idea who signed off on his paperwork. He was told several times that he was not supposed to be wearing that rank. On his ERB [enlisted record brief] he had a date of rank, so what could I do?”
Mason claims that Command Sergeant Major Judd strongly disliked Santoro, and yet no actions were taken until the command was left without any option but to get CID involved. After the investigation kicked off, Judd and Womack both out-processed from the unit. Someone was clearly looking out for Sergeant Santoro, but who that someone was remains a mystery, as does what kind of leverage Santoro may have had over them. A skillful manipulator, Santoro knew exactly how to play the system, both formally and informally.
On May 1st, 2016, while SOFREP continued the investigation into the FOB Kushamond sexual assaults, Joe Barnes passed away at the age of 27. He is survived by his son, whom he loved dearly. In the end, Barnes fell as another casualty of war, but one that never should have been. He was betrayed by the Army that he loved. Few reached out to help their teammate when he really needed them in the aftermath of his 2010 deployment. How many other of Santoro’s victims are suffering from the same guilt that Barnes was stricken with is impossible to say.
“There is truth that lives and truth that dies,” goes the lyrics to an old Leonard Cohen song. Despite betrayal, deceit, deception, shame, guilt, and a highly dysfunctional system in the 101st Airborne Division, Joe Barnes remained true to himself and his unit, determined to make sure that the truth did not die.
The Department of Defense Public Affairs office was contacted for comment on this story, but did not respond in time to be included in this publication.