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by Nathaniel R. Helms | Monday, January 30, 2012

FOR SIX YEARS, Defend Our Marines reported what happened when eight Marines were charged with heinous crimes while they were serving in Iraq. Now the Hadithagate Eight are free. The story ended last week at Camp Pendleton, California in the same courtroom where it all started. Everybody who cares has already heard that one. This story is about what lessons were learned.

On January 23, 2012, SSgt Frank Wuterich admitted to a single count of Negligent Dereliction of Duty, described by the defense as a misdemeanor of sorts because nothing like it exists in the real world.  Wuterich threw in the towel when the offer was right. Defense counsel Haytham Faraj said it was entirely his choice. There was no mention of the last minute appeals for Frank to take it to the finish that drove his mother to tears. So Frank was convicted of using a poor choice of words, “Shoot first and ask questions later.” His brothers in 3rd Squad said he never uttered any such thing. Maybe “let’s go” or something like that.

Down the road that same day some Marine Corps pilots used Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs to shred a hostile building full of surrounded enemy soldiers. In the video one of the insurgents dives over a wall just as a bomb hits the roof. The upper part of him was later found still wearing his chest rig. Nobody was accused of a crime for saying “bomb now and think later” when they started the war.

The outcome was a defense victory. Nobody went to jail for a single day and Frank is free to get on with his life. He used to be charged with 19 murders, lying and cover-up, as if a rookie staff sergeant could pull the wool over the eyes of his Company Gunny, much less the entire Marine Corps. So it definitely wasn’t a bad outcome for Frank Wuterich and his three beautiful little girls.

The precursor to the court martial, Wuterich's Article 32 hearing, was filled with drama. This time – with a few exceptions – everything was different. The court-martial never seemed to really get going. It was like watching an old donkey get flogged until it finally moves along. The defendant was the same of course, and prosecutor LtCol Sean Sullivan was much the same. He is thinner, and he’d received a couple of new gold stars in lieu of second awards for his Legion of Merit and Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals. His younger partner, Maj. Nicholas Gannon, was lead prosecutor, an unenviable position when co-counsel is senior and remembers when Gannon was a junior captain still wet behind the ears when all this started. Gannon is going to Afghanistan soon. We wish him Godspeed.

Wuterich looked older. He remained stoic. He is by nature a friendly, personable fellow and very well spoken. The Marine Corps lost a good man. His Dad and Mom are both aging, spare people with harried looks. Mrs. Rosemarie Wuterich was never comfortable with the attention she generated when she went outside the Legal Center to smoke. Her emotional state was fragile. It was painful to watch her worry. Mrs. Wuterich’s husband is a quiet fellow who taught cooking in happy obscurity for 22 years in Connecticut while raising his son. He never had much to say. Stoic like his son most of the time. They are good people who shared their son with the Marine Corps and got him back broken. Who pays them back?

Both of them deferred to lead defense attorney Neal Puckett, a peacock among the crisp, dour Marines and the usually scowling Haytham Faraj, a brilliant interrogator of infantrymen who intuitively knew what makes grunts tick. Puckett was as smooth as Faraj was rough. He interrogated the gentlemen of the trial. Faraj was there for the rest. He was relentless in cross examination, sparing nothing to get at the truth. His style was the most interesting thing about the trial. The testimony he elicited was old hat, the same malarkey it has always been. Who really understands what it means to have life and death under a finger without ever pulling a  trigger?

The two-story building where everything happened used to be squad bays from enlisted men and still has the rectangular plainness of barracks. The motif is red, white and yellow. Golden oak paneling and functional carpet were the only amenities in the second floor court room. The judge sat at one end and the lawyers at the other. Against one wall was the panel box where the eight members – jurors to civilian pukes – sat in swivel chairs almost as nice as the one the military judge sat in.

The panel was professional Marines, a study of big, tough, hard men with blazes of color over their hearts. The lowest ranking of them was a Gunnery Sergeant, a demi-god to the enlisted defendants. The highest ranking juror was a lieutenant-colonel, an archangel who rarely appears in enlisted Marines daily lives. The panel was the Corps’ version of a jury of the defendant’s peers. In the caste system of the Corps, Wuterich was just over the line into the exclusive club of Marine leadership.

At first the panel asked a bunch of questions, but that passed. The rest of the time they sat impassively, occasionally snorting derisively at the former enlisted men when they testified. They stared at Sgt Sanick Dela Cruz like he was a curious bug. The only one they really seemed to pay attention to was retired Sgt. Maj. Edward Sax. After him they looked like they had already made up their minds. Especially after they heard how the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents abused the Marines in a urine-soaked dungeon. It wasn’t long after that when Sullivan and Puckett started to talk.

Wuterich was convicted of using the wrong words to inspire his men. Just words, nothing else. He should have thought of something more on the lines of “Sighted Sub – Sank Same.” He might have received the Combat Action Ribbon instead of a court-martial.

Suggesting words alone caused a massacre or its aftermath of course is total nonsense. Even prosecutor Lt Col Sean Sullivan didn’t buy that one. SSgt Wuterich’s Marines were so pumped up on excitement and fear and rage and adrenaline – especially adrenalin - they would have mown down everybody they saw had Wuterich uttered “eat your veggies,” or nothing at all. Their platoon leader had already told them “clear South.” That was all they needed to hear. Everyone in the courtroom except the civilians knew that.

During opening arguments the first day Maj. Gannon pretty much set the tone when he told military judge LtCol David Jones “I can’t think of a single witness desiring of being helpful to the government.” His was a startling admission arriving before the court martial had even begun.

The peanut gallery was sparse. There was yours truly, and rumpled Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times, in another world he is high on the pecking order of journalistic credibility. Always around was Mark Walker, an encyclopedic Jack Russell of newsmen from the North County Times, always zipping about scooping everyone. Gidget Fuentes from the Marine Corps Times was there, a lady from the AP who showed up now and then, and a sketch artist hawking her wares from her guaranteed seat in the courtroom. The new guy who showed up every day was Daniel Woolfolk, from a new AOL news engine called Patch. Woolfolk served as a Army cavalryman in Iraq in 2003. He told me about mowing down a charging line of insurgents with his .50 cal machinegun. He still wonders what happened to them. He used his GI Bill to get to Columbia in New York to become a reporter. Good man.

For awhile there was a book writer, several reporters who popped in and out, and three civilian “volunteers” who were there every day busily keeping track of everything. Frontline was there for a bit, and at the end CNN showed up, some guy in a dark suit and no tie asking profundities about the obvious. It was nothing like 2007 when the heavy hitters from the New York Times and Washington Post were pontificating from Camp Pendleton. Once the story went south they all scuttled back to safety and never returned. Kind of like former Time reporter Tim McGirk.

McGirk, who started it all, was nowhere in evidence until the court-martial was over. He came out of the San Francisco fog that often befuddles those at Berkeley to be on a San Diego PBS podcast. He even wrote a note to Defend Our Marines warning us to watch ourselves. He is very sensitive about his failure to actually go to the story he broke. He blamed it on his boss. Kind of pathetic, like the lady who had the wrong leg amputated. After she had the correct one removed she sued. Lost the case of course, she didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Lording over us all was LtCol Joseph Kloppel, a Marine PAO from MARCENT in Florida hamstrung by a broken Media Center and video that never wished to cooperate until the last day. He was polite, helpful and absolutely discrete. He was also impervious to charm except Gidget’s rapid fire patter. She could get him grinning a bit.

Kloppel was aided by several junior Marine “minders” with short timer attitudes and a Master Sergeant back from a round of helping keep the Marine Corps perspective in the television series JAG and a bunch of other Hollywood hoopla. The minders escorted us back and forth across the grinder separating the media center from the court room so we wouldn‘t talk to anyone. All of them had been deployed overseas at least once. Their contribution to each day was friendly discourse about getting out of the Marine Corps. Fact of the matter was none of them had any idea what the trial was about. They were in high school when it happened.

From the gitgo Mark Walker was certain there would be an administrative conclusion. He even picked Negligent Dereliction as the probable charge. Of course he had an in with Puckett. They were exchanging clandestine emails. Walker thought the government would be well into the trial before it ended.

Perry thought the trial should proceed to ensure the unblinking light of public scrutiny could see it all. Of course he doesn’t talk like that, but Perry has a kind of courtly presence that suggests he believes in that kind of stuff. He definitely wasn’t pulling for the defense, although he had softened considerably from when he thought Wuterich should fry. Gidget was non-committal. She shared her thoughts with the other women. I was already wrong; I thought it would end before it started.

So far the government has refused to reveal what it spent trying eight Marines caught up in the transition from “shock and awe” to “shock and uh oh” when the United States changed its military mission from nation destroying to so-called nation building after two bloody years of intense combat. Three million dollars was what the Justice Center cost back in 2007, the Marine Corps said. Since then there has been no mention of price. No doubt 65 criminal investigators flying around the world interviewing everybody and each other probably cost a bit. And so did keeping Sean Sullivan on active duty so long he gets to retire. And there is the judges, and bailiffs, and witness fees, and appeals, and expert witnesses, and witness lodging, and who knows what else. Apparently it is all secret. What is certain is it added up to zilch.

In 2006 there at least seemed to be a reason for the court-martial. America was tearing down an evil empire and replacing it with a new, more beneficent one. Slaughtering innocents was not the way to get it done. The ignoble lie that produced the noble gesture for ridding Iraq of a despot rapidly had turned into a perverse kind of nation building. “Winning the hearts and minds,” a jaded concept dragged out and dusted off from the junk pile of Vietnam was the new mantra. Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington “Old Gimlet Eye” Buckner, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient and author of War Is a Racket would be proud of his prescience.

In pursuit of those elusive hearts and minds was the Thundering Third, there to replace a reserve battalion from Ohio had been beaten pretty badly when it tried to find them. So the Marines sent in the first team. Included was 3rd Platoon, Kilo Co., 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Its teenage riflemen were ordered to realign a culture that was battling Hoplites with bronze spears before their progenitors were gleams in some ancient men’s eyes. They didn’t hesitate, that’s what Marines do.

Because of those young men’s’ loyalty and dedication, along with thousands more like them, the great minds running the war managed to turn Iraq into a smoking hole and America into a pariah in record time. With the insurgents gone along with most of Iraq, the same postulates of political correctness started arresting the young men and women they trained to a razor’s edge for being too aggressive.

The strange dichotomy of war and restraint suddenly pervasive in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, coming from the same folks who declared water boarding was merely an effective enhanced interrogation technique, made the Haditha criminal cases impossible to adjudicate. When is killing all right, when is it a crime, when was it merely a by-product of policy? Trying eight Marines for murder and mayhem at Haditha was intended to answer those questions.

In one respect the seemingly endless investigation did produce some results, but not the ones criminal trials are usually held for, military attorney Kevin McDermott opined the day the court-martial ended.

Nobody was found guilty, Nobody went to jail for a single day. No war criminals were identified, and no victims were assuaged by justice. The only mark the trial left on military jurisprudence was the egg on the faces of the movers and shakers who insisted the court-martial be held.

McDermott represented Maj. Lucas McConnell, the Annapolis grad who was relieved of command of Kilo Company, 3/1 where Wuterich was assigned for being his commanding officer. He was at the trial on the last day without his Combat Action Ribbon on his chest. McConnell testified he doesn’t wear it because Wuterich never received his. His testimony was a bright moment of nobility in an otherwise sordid tale.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service called the Haditha investigation the agency’s biggest effort in its history. That says a lot. The Marine Corps’ top lawyers huddled with Rumsfeld to map out an acceptable outcome before a single trial had commenced. A Justice Center was built at Camp Pendleton to ensure justice was served up quickly and efficiently in decent surroundings. A Media Center was built next door so everybody could watch the show. The only thing left was piling on the defendants and lawyering them into submission. And then it all went poof!

Already the incident at Haditha is irrelevant to everyone but those who lived it. Sooner than later it will be nothing more that another footnote in the grist of history. But it was a grand privilege to watch.


Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
30 January 201

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 2012

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