by Nathaniel R. Helms |
Thursday, January 12, 2012 | Day Six
Camp Pendleton, Calif. – Former Marine
sergeant Hector Salinas didn’t mince words when he told a
prosecutor Thursday he should have called in airstrikes on a pair of
houses in Haditha, Iraq where fourteen men, women and children were
cowering in their homes after a huge bomb exploded outside their front
“Rounds were impacting on the fourth vehicle. I
went back to render aid to my Marines that were wounded. There was
destruction everywhere. There was a fog, a haze. When the smoke was
clearing out I could see an object. It was LCpl Crossan. He was
missing a couple of fingers. His body armor was obstructing his
“I got as low as I could because I heard rounds
coming. It was the impact of the rounds hitting the high back.I got
low on the deck,” he said.
Salinas was trying to convince a panel of rock-hard combat Marines why
the infantryman on trial wasn’t
guilty of wantonly killing the women and children staring up at them
from the pages of their white loose leaf notebooks. The notebooks are
full of pictures of dead children, women and a corpse with a fire
still smoldering in its chest. For five years, Connecticut native SSgt
Frank D. Wuterich has waited while the government wrangled over his
life. It is finally time to find out what the price.
Wuterich was 24 when he led his squad into
infamy. He is 31 now, a devoted father taking care of three little
girls on his own. If he loses his fight, four more lives will have been
Salinas described an ugly, bitter war, a no-quarter environment
where innocent victims found themselves on
November 19, 2005. Al Anbar Province lived was a
waste land after two bloody years of internecine warfare.
“On the outside of the house, on the east side of
the house, I saw a small silhouette. Things look small that far away.
It was a tall man. There was rounds impacting around me, so I engaged
him. I used my M-16. I shot more than twice but not the entire
magazine,” he told prosecutor LtCol Sean Sullivan.
“Then I took my 203 (M-203 40mm grenade launcher
attached underneath his rifle) and fired rounds on the house – fired
two or three." It was a while trying to find Crossan’s fingers, he
The big Texan’s voice was still filled with the
rage he felt when his buddy, LCpl Miguel Terrazas, died before his eyes
in the ambush. There’s a saying in
the Marine Corps about “getting payback.” Marines get payback. Salinas
wanted payback. The notion is plugged into young Marine’s heads in
boot camp and force fed into them in the School of Infantry at Camp
Pendleton where Wuterich used to teach. They don’t even know it sounds
The year before the battalion had killed by its
own reckoning more than a thousand Iraqis in Fallujah while prying the
ancient City of Mosques away from the insurgency. Thirty-three Marines
from 3/1 died in the process. Al Qaeda had to stage a comeback before
it lost anymore prestige. Everybody who lived there knew Haditha was a
prize al Qaeda was willing to pay any price to keep, and the Marines
would pay in rich American blood to take it away.
Salinas and the other men in 3rd
Platoon who have already testified never mentioned the big picture.
All they talk about is the way Marines are expected to fight; how they
look out for each other even it costs them their lives. They all said
that people and buildings where people shooting at them hide are
“hostile.” In Marine Corps parlance hostile doesn’t mean unfriendly,
it means unlucky. Hostile things can be killed with grenades, rifles,
machine guns, even rockets and bombs.
“That’s the nature of war. Maybe war should be on
trial,” one of witnesses said outside where they are allowed to smoke
as long as they don’t talk to reporters. None of them think they did
anything wrong, not even Sgt Dela Cruz, despised by his squad mates
for turning against his own to testify against Wuterich.
Dela Cruz urinated on a dead man’s head and told
former LCpl Trent D. Graviss, they could kill everybody in a house they
were searching if they wanted to. Graviss testified that he looked at Dela Cruz “like he was an idiot.” The
government says Dela Cruz, who avoided five charges of murder by
testifying against his fellow Marines, is one of the good guys.
It was surreal listening to Salinas
Wednesday afternoon describing how he was looking for his buddy’s
severed fingers while hidden insurgents shot at him. A few feet away
the mangled body of one of his best friends was lying in two parts.
Across the wadi the little girl who told CNN she put her fingers in
her ears before the bomb exploded waited for what was to come. A few
minutes later she would be an orphan.
In the faraway Green Zone the American generals
were seeking a kinder, gentler war, the kind Americans could be proud
of, the kind where nobody bleeds too much. The folks back home were
tired of hearing about rendered corpses and grieving orphans. So the
brass in Baghdad tightened the reins, changed the rules. Somebody
forgot to tell 3/1’s young Marines.
Salinas was a corporal in Kilo, 3/1, the mighty
“Thundering Third” sent to the Haditha, Haqlaniyah and
Barwana Triad to secure the huge pipelines where Iraqi oil
flows into Syrian ports on the way to world markets.
The parade of Marines who have appeared since
testimony began last Monday never mentioned a thing about why they
fought at Haditha. It probably never occurred to them. Their orders
simply stated they should destroy the enemy. None of them could
remember much about being taught restraint. Every Marine who
testified so far said the Rules of Engagement they understood allowed
them to waste anyone, and any place, where the enemy chose to fight – as
long as it was hostile, or showed hostile intent.
Salinas was the 1st Fire Team leader,
a sergeant-in-waiting, champing at the bit to take over the squad as
soon as SSgt Frank D. Wuterich took over 3rd Platoon
Sergeant. That’s a big deal in the Marine Corps. Salinas proudly
told the court he was the patrol leader and convoy commander when the
12-man squad was ambushed by hidden insurgents that triggered and IED
that has just reduced its numbers by three. He said he didn’t remember
Wuterich giving an order the entire day.
While tending the wounded until the Quick
Reaction Force arrived Salinas noticed that Wuterich and two other Marines
were heading south, where Salinas had seen a silhouette at the same
time bullets splattered into the armor of the wrecked Humvee that he
pulled his friends from. He chased after them by a different
route, he said. He was the first Marine in the door, he said, the
first guy to throw a grenade, the first guy to see the product of his
“There were women and children in the house,”
Sullivan exclaimed. Six people died in House One.
“But I didn’t know that,” Salinas responded, “and
I wasn’t going inside that room without throwing in a grenade.“
Afterwards he stayed behind inside the back door
while the others cleared House Two where eight more innocents died.
“I had my back to the house providing security
inside the hallway,” Salinas testified.
“What did you see when you exited the house?”
“The back of the house,” Salinas replied. It went
that way all day.
Several dozen fruitless questions later Sullivan
asked Salinas what he would do different if he could.
“I would have called in an airstrike,” Salinas
[Editor's note: On November 21, 2006,
NPR and other media outlets falsely reported that then-Sgt Salinas
would face charges for the incident in Haditha. The story was based on
a leak from the government.
Despite calls from
this website for a correction or clarification, NPR never bothered and continues to
provide incorrect information (read their story
here). The media's coverage of Haditha has been characterized by a
careless disregard for the facts from start to finish.]
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
12 January 2012
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).