When Army Sergeant Dennis Edwards spoke at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School last month, 100 students listened in rapt silence as he told chilling tales of battlefield horror in Iraq and criticized President Bush's motives for going to war.
Edwards, 23, a Barnstable High School graduate, said he and two other soldiers shot and killed a 10-year-old boy in Iraq who pretended to be wounded and suddenly fired an AK-47 rifle. The boy was found to have explosives attached to his body, Edwards told the stunned audience.
Now, Edwards has admitted to his superiors in the elite 82d Airborne Division that the story about the shooting was a lie, Army officials yesterday. As a result, the veteran of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be charged with making false statements, face a court-martial, and be stripped of his rank.
His confession has also saddened Dennis-Yarmouth teachers and students, who said they felt honored and captivated by his appearance.
''We need to use this as a teachable moment," Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi said yesterday. ''We need to make sure our students . . . clearly understand that sometimes individuals might elaborate stories or examples for their own benefit."
An investigation is expected to take about three more weeks, said Sergeant First Class Chris Fletcher, a division spokesman. Any punishment will be determined by the soldier's immediate commander.
The range of punishment could include a loss of rank and pay, confinement to barracks, extra duty, or a decision not to impose any discipline, Fletcher said. ''That's the commander's prerogative," Fletcher said.
Edwards, an air-defense technician who remains on active duty at Fort Bragg, N.C., is the first soldier in the famed paratroop division to be investigated on suspicion of lying about his experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan, Fletcher said. Edwards's superiors learned of his comments during routine reviews of media coverage of the division.
Edwards did not return a telephone message left at his home in Spring Lake, N.C., where he lives with his wife and two young sons. Edwards reenlisted last year and had planned to remain in the Army until at least 2007. Edwards's mother, Edna Marceline of West Yarmouth, told the Associated Press yesterday that she has not talked to her son about the Army's statement that he fabricated the story about the Iraqi boy.
''All I know is my son's never lied before," she said. ''So I don't know why he would start lying now."
Edwards was on leave visiting family when he appeared Nov. 23 in the school cafeteria at a teacher's invitation. The Cape Cod Times reported that Edwards criticized Bush's invasion of Iraq as a ''personal vendetta" to complete President George H.W. Bush's unfinished work against Saddam Hussein. ''The first Bush couldn't get it done, so it's time for the next Bush to do it," the Times quoted Edwards as saying in the talk.
In an interview later, the Times reported, Edwards said that ''we went over there for one reason, and because that fell through we're stuck over there for another reason." Edwards, who served in Iraq from August 2003 to March of this year, said US officials had not planned well for the mission.
Fletcher said Edwards will not be disciplined for those comments. Although soldiers can be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for ''disloyal statements," Fletcher said, the 82d Airborne Division has a ''strong policy" not to prosecute for ''political or policy-based" comments.
''We don't want to interfere with a soldier's First Amendment rights," Fletcher said. However, Edwards has received counseling from his superiors about what he should and should not say in public, Fletcher added.
Pierantozzi, the Dennis-Yarmouth superintendent, said he was told that the anecdote about the Iraqi boy followed a question about the most horrifying experience that Edwards had witnessed or heard about.
Pierantozzi, who did not attend the talk, said that story marred an impressive, well-balanced presentation about the war. Edwards spoke about his living conditions, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the lack of armored Humvees. He also criticized the news media for what Edwards said was a lack of reporting on positive results of reconstruction, such as new schools and other infrastructure.
''The overall presentation to our students was extremely well received, it was informative, it was respectful, and he attempted, at times, to show both sides of an issue," Pierantozzi said. ''The inaccuracy of one anecdotal story, although problematic for us and disturbing, certainly doesn't change our view of the sergeant totally."
According to the Cape Cod Times, Edwards initially told 82d Airborne commanders that his comments during an hourlong question-and-answer session were taken out of context by the newspaper. He also said that the anecdote about the child's shooting might have been made by his brother, who attended the session, the paper reported.
Fletcher confirmed yesterday, without discussing specifics, that Edwards has admitted lying to his superiors when questioned about the newspaper report.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com