“We took away the enemies' ability to attack
my Marines and civilians .”
– LtCol Jeffrey Chessani, USMC (Ret.)
Speaks Out for the First Time
by Nathaniel R. Helms |
July 23, 2010
This is the second in a three-part series.
Read part one of the interview
here and part three here.
It’s hard to believe recently retired LtCol Jeffrey Chessani is
the guy the United States Marine Corps spent millions of dollars and
hundreds of thousands of man hours unsuccessfully trying to destroy.
He just finished nearly five years in a living hell defending himself
from a presumably overwhelming institutional attack--a “Frozen Chosin”
in microcosm--with amazing cool aplomb.
Chessani spent most of his time in Marine Corps purgatory, in his case
a windowless basement office in the bowels of Camp Pendleton, a pariah
of sorts among the Marines who worked there. He was sent there for the
infamous “Haditha Massacre” – the most inane of labels for an event
that never happened.
LtCol Chessani wasn’t shunned during his ordeal, he said. He was
received at polite distance and kept there. “The officers and staff
NCOs were sympathetic. They treated me very well.”
One of the former Marine lawyers who worked the case said Thursday
that senior Marines saw him the way whole people “see warriors without
limbs, a combination of awe and empathy, maybe even a little badly
To be sure Chessani didn’t say that, he’s a Marine through and
“I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to be the best,” he said.
Chessani joined the infantry because it is the cutting edge, he said,
where the action is. Most men can’t run with 18-year-olds while in
their forties. Chessani said he always sought the challenge despite
the hazards. He loved leading Marines into battle.
His last deployment to Iraq was his finale. After the Marine Corps saw
fit to relieve him the only thing he ever commanded again was his
desk. Good Marines don’t complain, however, they do what they are
told, he said. Despite twenty years honing his unique craft he was
told to stay in the basement and write plans.
“I had a real job. I wrote plans, developed plans for the base,” he
Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell "Chesty" Puller, one of the greatest
Marines of them all, said great Marines always remain stoic in the
face of terrible adversity. For that reason alone Chessani stands tall
among the Corps’ many legends. He never said a public word about his
situation for almost five years and even now he won’t play the blame
Chessani would probably scoff at the notion he deserves any special
mention. He calls it being “prideful.” He was decidedly uncomfortable
when personal superlatives were tossed his way. He gave credit only to
his young Marines. Chessani described himself as a good Marine officer
on an ordinary career track toward retirement. By 2005 when he
commanded 3/1 his aspirations included making colonel before he
retired. He said it was never a sure bet. He still had to be selected
and the jump from lieutenant colonel to full bird colonel was a wide,
hard one. At best he hoped for an advanced school where he could come
home at night to his family for a while.
“I think they considered all that in the winter. Before we got home
(March 2006) I had anticipated I would be considered,” he opined. “My
Marines had done a fantastic job. We were denying them caches. We had
found something like 450 caches that kept weapons away from them. My
job was paying attention to the lives and welfare of my Marines. My
goal was to bring all of them home.”
took away the enemies’ ability to attack my Marines and civilians
The battalion suffered four dead during his combat command. He reeled
off the names of the decedents without hesitation, starting with
20-year old Lance Corporal Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, the grinning kid in
the Humvee that got blown in half at the start of the day-long fight
on Routes Chestnut and Viper. He was the first to die.
other young Marines died when they approached a seemingly abandoned
vehicle that turned out to be a car bomb. Three times Chessani said
they made a terrible mistake. He thought he should have trained them
better. In another incident a sergeant died. It was evident he still
grieved their losses. The year before at Fallujah the battalion
suffered 33 deaths.
“There was so much going on all the time and it was so hard to keep
track of the details,” Chessani said. He had almost 2,000 Marines,
soldiers and Iraqi units flung over an area bigger than Rhode Island.
He said “it was my responsibility” to keep track of them all.
“We worked closely with our Human Exploitation Teams (HET) and my S-2
(Captain, later Major Jeffrey Dinsmore) was a bulldog. I was so lucky
to have him. He knew what was going on. We got those weapons. We took
away the enemies’ ability to attack my Marines and civilians. The
people were safer. Not even the insurgents wanted to kill civilians if
they didn’t have to. We took away the means.”
That was about as verbose as the professional infantry officer ever
Major General Richard Huck and Colonel Stephen Davis, his commanding
general and regimental commander respectively, rated Chessani among
the best officers they had ever commanded. They said things like he
“Leads Marines from front in every operation. Demonstrates moral
courage every day. Doesn’t hesitate to report bad news fast or contest
unrealistic plans/poor concepts,” etc. etc. Both of them recommended
him for a colonelcy and advanced schools.
One could almost hear Chessani shrugging through the phone when his
efficiency report was mentioned. He dismissed the superlatives Huck
and Davis used as ordinary hyperbole for end of tour officers. He said
so in a soft, reasoned voice bereft of guile. When explaining
complicated matters he often referred to spiritual examples; he had
plenty of time to contemplate them. When Chessani said “I learned to
trust God instead of men” it was a telling moment, the only flash of
pain he revealed.
Chessani – he prefers Jeff now – told his story calmly. His stoicism
reminded this observer of stories about Lieutenant Colonel Randolph
Lockwood; a brilliant, unassuming infantry officer who led Two-Seven
Marines at Toktong Pass in Korea. It was the key to the 20,000 man
reinforced 1st Marine Division surviving the onslaught of 250,000
screaming Chinamen. Lockwood managed to complete his mission without
any histrionics. Like Lockwood, Chessani said his first priority was
completing the mission. Saving his men’s lives was second; sparing the
enemy was never even mentioned. That is what Marines do, he added
without apology. It was an important insight into understanding
Chessani’s thinking in the aftermath of the Haditha debacle.
was humbled to command these men
Chessani’s career path before the Haditha debacle was a primer for
successful Marines. Now 46, he was raised in the small town of Rangely,
Colorado, where he graduated from high school in 1982. He went on to
receive a B.A. from the University of Northern Colorado in 1988.
During his military career he participated in the 1989 Operation Just
Cause (Invasion of Panama), the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm)
as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Chessani did three deployments to Iraq, the first time as a major and
Executive Officer of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the second as the
operations officer of Regimental Combat Team One, RCT-1. As such he
helped plan both operations into Fallujah in 2004 where 3rd Battalion,
1st Marines made a big name for itself. He didn’t anticipate he would
one day command it, he said.
The second foray in Fallujah was the most desperate fight Marines had
been in since Hue, South Vietnam in ’68. The Thundering Third,
arguably the most ferocious infantry battalion in the fight, led the
“I knew what 3/1 did at Fallujah, especially the second time. When I
put in my package for a battalion I didn’t know I would get it. I was
humbled to command these men. Sometimes I didn’t feel adequate for the
task,” he said.
Chessani continued that narrative with words like remarkable and
profound. He said the young Marines he commanded were the best and
bravest in the world. He was unabashed about it.
What Chessani said of his personal life was sparse. He married his
wife Alisa 17 years ago and their union has produced seven children.
The oldest is now 12 and the youngest an infant. Their mother home
schools them. Chessani says they “started their family late.” He
intends to get to know them better on a motor trip in the one-ton van
pulling a RV from California to Florida. Some of his children have
never known a time without stress.
Most of the time Chessani talked about the mechanics of his last
fateful command. He emphasized that during MOUT (Military Operations
in Urban Terrain) training and desert combat training at 29 Palms,
California in the winter and spring of 2005 his men were taught to be
extremely aggressive. His Marines repeatedly practiced the lessons
learned from the Battle of Fallujah the preceding year. At Fallujah a
Kilo Company platoon leader named Lt. Jesse Grapes had coined a phrase
during the December 2004 battle that still resonated when 3/1’s
replacements were preparing to go back to Iraq in 2005.
“Don’t go in a room without throwing in something that goes boom,”
Grapes said. It became a mantra for Marines assaulting buildings.
Nothing had changed since, Chessani said. He didn’t know what his
Marines would find when they returned to Iraq in 2005 so he had to
assume the worst. Chessani was adamant that there was never any
emphasis placed on restraint, or practicing Rules of Engagement that
said to ask questions first and shoot later after being attacked. He
called the very notion a perfect prescription for getting killed. His
Marines were trained to be aggressive,
to strike hard and fast.
He had witnessed what happened when they didn’t. Failure filled
American body bags. He wasn’t going to let that happen on his watch.
“You have to let Marines have the inherent right to self defense,” he
Wuterich and his men did exactly what they were trained for
year later Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich told Naval Criminal
Investigative Service special agents what happened when their training
was put into practice. Wuterich is scheduled to be tried by General
Court Martial at Camp Pendleton on September 13th for 12 counts of
involuntary manslaughter after leading his squad in a counterattack at
Haditha after it was ambushed and suffered three casualties. His
attack resulted in the deaths of a dozen civilians. Wuterich is the
last Haditha defendant awaiting trial. The rest have all been
“The four of us aggressively advanced on the house and on approach I
advised the team something like shoot first and ask questions later or
don't hesitate to shoot. I can't remember my exact words but I wanted
them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the
four of us being killed. This was the first time we would employ MOUT
(Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) training tactics since we
had been in Iraq.”
Wuterich and his men did exactly what they were trained for, Chessani
said. “It’s not like you can make that experience go away. The Iraqi
soldiers, the people in Haditha, they knew what 3/1 had done at
Fallujah. They didn’t want any part of it. It saved lives.”
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and his team of investigators
focused on 3/1s MOUT training when it came to Haditha Dam to
investigate what happened. Bargewell zeroed in on the Marines’
Stateside training to discover if the Marines had been poorly trained,
thereby identifying a root problem to hang the alleged unlawful
Bargewell discovered that the Thundering Third had received its fair
dose of training both before and after arriving in Iraq. It included
MOUT and house clearing operations at Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms and
March AFB from January to late July, 2005,
his report said.
training occurred primarily at the SASO [support and stability
operations] exercise but was also taught at the home station MOUT
facility at Camp Pendleton, California. Several of the Marines
involved in the incident had combat experience and had participated in
house clearing and MOUT operations during previous combat operation in
Fallujah. Several also had received specialized training in urban
Several young Kilo Marines who attended the training at 29 Palms said
that 3/1’s Marines were chastised at both 20 Palms and March AFB for
being too aggressive in their responses and their behavior. Former
Weapons Plt. Corporal Joe Haman recalls a fight between some 3/1
Marines and a group of reservists at MOUT on March AFB who wanted to
“do it right.” At the end of a day the combat veterans told their less
experienced charges that using restraint was a good way to get killed.
Never give them an opportunity to hurt you was an often repeated
mantra in the battalion in the months preceding 3/1’s redeployment to
Iraq in the summer of 2005. Thirty-three dead men from a single
battalion make for a lot of dangerous Marines.
The men who had fought at Fallujah, once considered a bonus, became
somewhat of a liability after the incident at Haditha erupted.
Bargewell found that their input, while useful for bucking up the
spirits of the unblooded Marines, probably cast a bigger shadow on
their subsequent behavior than the Baghdad brass preferred from the
safety of the Green Zone.
Bargewell used Kilo Company to make his point:
point that "this is a different ballgame," from Fallujah was also
frequently emphasized. The platoon leadership stressed PIDing of a
target “before Marines engaged." Company K and the battalion had
specific ROE during the deployment and the rules never changed with
respect to Company K . Each time Marines left the base, they were
reminded of the ROE by their leadership, usually a squad leader.
page 70 of his report Bargewell presents evidence from the “Deputy
Director for Current Operations, Tactical Training and Exercise
Group,” a Marine who trained 3/l at the 29 Palms, California training
area. Melded into his review was a barely noticed backhand slap that
3/l “was an excellent unit that did many things well but needed to
work on ROE and escalation of force.” His observation was another one
of those tiny little factors that collectively became a major problem
for 3/1’s Marines
Chessani denied that was ever the case before the Haditha incident
happened. Before it happened his men were cited for their spirited
aggressiveness, Chessani recalled.
Read part one of the interview
here and part three here.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
23 July 2010
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).