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The Air Force is now handling an investigation into a video showing U.S. troops cheering as they watch while a sheep is beaten to death with a baseball bat, a service spokesman said.
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals applauded the move, saying they are happy the military is taking the matter seriously.
"These men need to be grounded for such a despicably base act," said Kristin Simon, of PETA. "It's a slap in the face to the honorable men and women who serve our country so bravely."
Meanwhile, a Hollywood songwriter who has asked to remain anonymous has offered a $5,000 reward to whomever can identify the service members in the video, Simon said.
In the brief but violent video, a service member drags the sheep into a room, where a man wearing civilian attire strikes the animal 11 times with a baseball bat. Each strike to the sheep's head and neck is accompanied by a loud, metallic crack of the bat.
The animal struggles to get back on its feet before it finally collapses under the ferocity of the blows. All the while, the troops cheer, making no effort to help the sheep.
Initially, the Army's Criminal Investigative Command was tasked with looking into the matter because the troops in the video wore what looked like Army uniforms.
However, closer analysis of the video revealed that the service members appear to be wearing Air Force uniforms, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Andy Roake. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations took over the investigation Jan. 20.
Roake could not say whether the troops in the video would face any disciplinary action.
"The actions seen in the internet video are contrary to the high standards we expect of every airman, and run counter to Air Force's core values," Roake said in an emailed statement. "Once the investigation is complete, and the facts have been determined, the Air Force will take appropriate action."
For standing by as the sheep was bludgeoned to death, the troops in the video could be punished under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Abraham Burgess, an attorney who specializes in military law.
"If I were advising the commander, I would argue that that by watching, not intervening or encouraging the acts in the video, they are bringing discredit or prejudicing the public against the armed forces," Burgess said during a Jan. 18 interview with Army Times, a sister publication of Air Force Times. "You see in the video what is wrong and what hurts our reputation."
It is unclear from the video when and where it was taken. Nor is there any obvious indication of the units the troops are assigned to.
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals http://www.armytimes.com/news/2012/01/army-peta-to-army-investigate-sheep-beating-video-011712/">notified the Army about the video in November, but the group claims it never received a response. PETA then issued a news release with the video earlier this month, hoping publicity surrounding a separate video purportedly showing Marines urinating on Taliban corpses would help their cause.
"They need to investigate, and if they reach a dead end, they reach a dead end," PETA President Ingrid Newkirk told Army Times on Jan. 17. "There is no medal for failing to take it seriously."