Defend Our Marines main page | Read part two of the interview here and part three here

DEFEND OUR MARINES

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“I had a feeling there was an agenda.”
 – LtCol Jeffrey Chessani, USMC (Ret.)

Haditha Incident Commander
Speaks Out for the First Time

 

by Nathaniel R. Helms | July 21, 2010

This is the first in a three-part series. Read part two here and part three here.

 

Correction: In this article, Defend Our Marines erroneously reported the Board of Inquiry that finally allowed Chessani to retire with his rank intact was initiated at Camp Pendleton. That is incorrect.
On Friday, August 28, 2009, the new general in charge of Chessani’s case, Marine Lt. Gen. George Flynn, Commanding General of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia, decided that criminal charges were not warranted. Instead, he ordered Chessani to face a Board of Inquiry to determine whether he be allowed to retain his rank. Flynn was selected as convening authority to prevent any appearance of undue command influence in the nonjudicial proceeding. Defend Our Marines regrets the error.


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Retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Jeffrey Chessani broke more than five years of silence Tuesday to tell Defend Our Marines what it was like to finally leave the Marine Corps he loves without ever being entirely exonerated of failing to adequately investigate an alleged massacre that never happened.

“Praise God, this has taken care of everything,” Chessani said during an in-depth telephone interview from his home near Camp Pendleton, California. In the background the tiny voices of some of his seven children could occasionally be heard.

After more than four years of legal wrangling, Chessani was forced to retire last week after Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus accepted a December 2009 ruling by a Camp Pendleton military board of inquiry that found Chessani was not guilty of misconduct after more than 23 years of exemplary service. The BOI ruled Chessani must retire anyway because he displayed “substandard performance” by failing to conduct a more detailed investigation of the civilians killed…” as a result of a house clearing counter-attack by four of his Marines.

The criminal charges against Chessani were dismissed in June 2008 when Marine Corps military judge Colonel Steven Folsom ruled that Chessani was the victim of undue command influence by General James Mattis while the distinguished general was considering whether to charge Chessani and his men with crimes. After two appeals courts refused to overturn Folsom’s ruling, Chessani was forced to endure a Board of Inquiry last December to determine whether he would be allowed to retire at his present rank.

I'm not bitter

During 2005 and 2006 Chessani commanded 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1)--the Thundering Third--a reinforced infantry battalion of roughly 1,900 Marines and attached Army and Iraqi units tasked with pacifying 4,000 square miles of Al Anbar Province when the incident at Haditha erupted on November 19, 2005.

“I’m not bitter. I am not necessarily glad these things happened, but it worked out for the best,"  Chessani said. "I was on my third deployment in three years and got prideful. I thought I might be selected for a top level school and colonel so I decided to give it a try. Before my third deployment we were looking at retirement when I came back. The deployments were so hard of my family. That was going to be the plan. Now we can do it.”

Chessani completed his final day of active duty service on July 16, 2010, more than four and a half years after he was charged with dereliction of duty and orders violations for allegedly covering up the deaths of 24 Iraqi citizens killed by Marines under his command at Haditha. The Iraqis--including women and children--died in a Marine counterattack after insurgents, hiding among them, triggered an IED ambush that killed one passing Marine and left two others severely wounded.

The IED ambush was part of a coordinated city-wide insurgent attack that shattered the morning dawn. The embattled Marines’ platoon leader ordered four men from the weakened squad to clear houses of gun-wielding insurgents who were firing on the Marines. The coordinated counterattack took less than a minute to clear two houses where the ambush was sprung, using rifle fire and grenades. The infantrymen’s devastating textbook assault was straight out of Marine Corps training manuals that didn’t address what to do when the enemy is using innocent civilians for shields. That oversight would cost Chessani and his Marines dearly.

On December 19, 2006, after refusing multiple prosecution offers to accept non-judicial punishment and early retirement instead of a career ending court martial, Chessani was charged with dereliction of duty and two counts of orders violations for failing to adequately investigate and report the incident. By doing so he placed his retirement pension, reputation, and family’s welfare on the line.

Isolate the force they want to destroy

“My Marines had done nothing wrong. I had done nothing wrong. The regimental commander Colonel [Stephen] Davis and Major General [Richard] Huck [2nd Marine Div. commanding general] had all the information in their hands by either the evening of the 19th or the next morning,” he said. “My operations officer and S-2 [intelligence officer] then personally briefed them at Haditha Dam a day or two later. We were told we were doing a great job. We received notes of congratulations from General Huck and other officers at division.”

Then everything crashed down around his command, Chessani said. In late February it became apparent that the senior commanders in Baghdad were looking for scalps to appease a Time magazine reporter named Tim McGirk that was hounding the senior commanders in the Green Zone with allegations of murder and mayhem at Haditha by unrepentant 3/1 Marines. First an Army colonel came for a look, followed by a team of investigators led by an Army major general, Chessani said. Meanwhile the first of dozens of Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents began ruthless interrogations of the 3/1’s enlisted men in a urine soaked dungeon beneath Haditha Dam. It was a text book effort of divide and conquer.

“It was just like the battlefield,” Chessani explained. “They [the Marine Corps prosecutors] wanted to isolate the force they wanted to destroy. That is why they did it. That is what Marines are taught. When I tried to explain, to put the ambush at [Routes] Chestnut and Viper in context they said ‘I don’t want to hear about that.’ All they wanted to know was what happened at the IED site. There were several significant incidents going on that day. We destroyed an insurgent safe house down the road with bombs the same morning, turned it into dust. There could have been civilians killed there. They didn’t care; they didn’t want to hear about that. We found insurgents buried in shallow graves still in their weapons and equipment. We had to bury dead insurgents wearing ammunition vests because they started to stink. They didn’t want to know how it was related to what happened on Viper and Chestnut. I had a feeling there was an agenda.”

Chessani was the highest ranking Marine charged with crimes stemming from the November 19, 2005 incident in the war-torn province. In addition to Chessani, eight other Marines, five enlisted men and three officers serving under him were charged with unpremeditated murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, lying to investigators and a host of lesser offenses. Instead of taking the offer for a slap on the hand so the Marine Corps could “throw them under a bus”, Chessani chose to close ranks with them.

It was not a tough decision to make, Chessani said. By then he knew that the brotherhood which ostensibly binds all Marines together apparently didn’t include the generals and colonels who were supposed to watch out for the welfare of their men. Major General Richard Huck, Chessani’s immediate superior, 2nd Regimental Combat Team commander Colonel Stephen Davis and 2nd Marine Division Chief of Staff Colonel Richard Sokoloski were already looking for alibis.

The most devastating day of my life

Ultimately both colonels “took the 5th” to avoid prosecution and Huck chose to claim ignorance, ensuring Chessani and his men were going to become unwilling speed bumps in the Marine Corps’ futile attempts to put its best face forward. Eventually all three officers received letters of censure from the Secretary of the Navy before they were allowed to retire with full rank and benefits. Chessani knew what that meant for him and so did his wife. It crushed her to see him and his brave Marines pilloried, Chessani said.

Instead of promotions and honors Chessani, now 46, and his eight subordinates were accused of participating in the unprovoked massacre of 15 innocents and the suspicious killings of at least nine suspected insurgents and then conspiring to cover the incident up. A few months after the charges were leveled on December 19, 2006, one enlisted Marine indicted for murder and assault accepted immunity to testify against his squad mates. Another enlisted Marine, never charged but frequently named as a possible suspect, ended up working in a cushy billet for the prosecution. As expected, he later surfaced long enough to testify against his fellow Marines. It was a dirty business. In the end their rambling, disconnected testimony was soundly discredited.

Now, more than four and a half years later one enlisted Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad leader who led the counterattack against the two houses where the civilians died, still faces 12 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Wuterich’s court martial is scheduled to begin September 13th at Camp Pendleton.

The charges initially surfaced in an inflammatory March 2006 Time magazine report claiming Chessani’s Marines executed an unprovoked assault on two houses harboring sleeping women and children in revenge for the IED explosion near their homes. Relying primarily on the word and video provided by two known insurgent operatives to make the charge, Time reporter Tim McGirk painted a blood spattered scene full of cold blooded Marine killers bent of revenge for the death of their comrade. Privately, in a long stream of e-mails to various senior commanders and public affairs officers in Baghdad McGirk claimed Chessani’s young Marines had literally executed the victims after hunting them down like rabbits. In the subsequent furor Chessani and his men were singled out for more than three years of accusations, innuendo and character assassination by the world press. Through it all Chessani never uttered a public word.

“We heard McGirk wanted to talk to us, to visit Haditha. I didn’t want to talk to the guy but we invited him. After an ABC reporter--I believe Bob Woodruff--was wounded by an IED (January 29, 2006) he said he wasn’t going to come. We received an email that said he had no more interest in coming. He never did.”

Apparently it didn’t matter. McGirk wrote his specious stories anyway. They stirred up a political firestorm. Taking their cue from the late Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha and a vociferous press, former President George Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took a special interest in seeing the Marines were prosecuted. Chessani said he knew he was going to be relieved and probably court-martialed for “something” when he got the word President Bush had asked for a command briefing while the battalion was standing down at Haditha Dam in February or March, 2006.

“When I was in theater I heard they [the Marine Corps] were briefing the President of the United States. I knew I was going to be relieved and probably charged. I even told my X.O. [executive officer] to be standing by if I was relieved. But I didn’t expect what happened. Some things I heard second-hand, like: 'Don’t do anything to the Marines until after we (senior Marine Corps commanders) have briefed Congress.’ I thought, ‘What does that have to do with the Marine Corps? They are not in my chain of command.'"

In late March, soon after the battalion returned to Camp Pendleton from Iraq, 1st Marine Division Major  General Richard F. Natonski summoned Chessani and several members of the battalion staff to his office. Chessani said he was expecting the call.

“They called me and told me to bring Captain [Lucas] McConnell, the C.O. of Kilo Company with me. Then they called again and told me to bring Captain [James] Kimber, commander of India. I thought that was too much. I wondered what they wanted him for. [When] I asked and they said they didn’t know. I was also told to bring my X.O. and the Sergeant Major.”

The next morning after a terse meeting with Natonski the three officers were relieved of their commands. On April 7, 2006 the Marine Corps issued a press release stating they were relieved "due to lack of confidence in their leadership abilities stemming from their performance during a recent deployment to Iraq."

“It was the most devastating day of my life,” Chessani recalled.

After a time, Chessani obtained civilian counsel to support his appointed Marine Corps defense team. The Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the urging of law center associate and former Marine Corps lawyer Brian Rooney, agreed to represent Chessani pro bono. Its website (www.thomasmore.org) says the advocacy law firm “defends and promotes America’s Christian heritage and moral values, including the religious freedom of Christians, time-honored family values, and the sanctity of human life.” Rooney, a fellow Marine who served with Chessani at the battle of Fallujah in 2004, said he was determined to find justice for the brilliant Marine officer. Thomas More Law Center provided a possible solution.

“It really was a Godsend,” Chessani said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t know Brian was at Thomas More. The letter saying they wanted to represent me didn’t mention him; it just said it wanted to represent me. I was grateful to accept their help. After that I didn’t talk to anybody. I learned to trust God more than men.”

Rooney has repeatedly said the pressure to prosecute Chessani and the other Marines came from on high, at the level of the Commandant or higher. In his view there is no other explanation for Natonski cashiering one of the most experience infantry officers in the Marine Corps when they are so desperately needed to fight the war. Chessani had spent almost three years fighting in Iraq by the time he was dropped in the grease.

“I don’t know and I probably never will know why,” Chessani said. “That was too far above my pay grade.”

Rooney, now running for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Michigan, believed that the pressure to prosecute the Haditha Marines came from a Defense Department so consumed by fears of bad press that it allowed it warriors to be sacrificed on the altar of public relations. Later revelations would prove his suspicions correct.

“It is like playing a pickup basketball game with your big brother,” Rooney reasoned. “You win so he says you have to play another game or he will beat you up. You keep playing and winning until he finally wins. The same thing happened to Chessani.”

 

 

Read part two of the interview here and part three here.
 

 

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Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
21 July 20
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Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

 

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© Nathaniel R. Helms 2010

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