Camp Pendleton, Calif. – The long, lonely
journey of Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich ended today when
military judge LtCol David Jones sentenced the father of three to 90
days confinement and reduction in grade to Private (E-1), the lowest
rank in the Marine Corps.
However, the convening authority Lieutenant
General Thomas D. Waldhauser had stipulated that Wuterich will not be
confined so the incarceration order was immediately vacated. Wuterich
will be reduced in rank in 14 days unless Waldhauser – the convening
authority – overrules the judge’s sentence and restores Wuterich to
his current rank or some other lower rank of his choosing. Waldhauser
is the Commanding General,1st Marine Expeditionary Force ; and
Commander, U. S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command. At the time of
this writing, the type of discharge Wuterich will receive is still
On Monday, Wuterich agreed to a plea deal in
which he admitted guilt to one count of Negligent Dereliction of Duty
in return for the government dropping 13 other charges, including nine
counts of Voluntary Manslaughter, two counts of Aggravated Assault,
and two other charges of willful dereliction of duty.
Negligent dereliction is a lesser included
offense in Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Although a misdemeanor, it still carried possible jail time.
“Lieutenant General Waldhauser believes SSgt
Wuterich did not kill anyone in House Number One or House Number 2,”
lead defense attorney Neal Puckett told the military judge during his
closing argument. “His integrity is unfaltering. Capt (now Major)
McConnell doesn’t wear his Combat Action Ribbon because SSgt Wuterich
didn’t receive his.”
McConnell was relieved of command of Kilo, 3/1
soon after the battalion returned to Camp Pendleton in March, 2006. He
has since been exonerated of any charges and restored to his chosen
career. The burley infantry officer, who Wuterich claims is the best
Marine he ever met, sat impassively in the visitor’s gallery while
Puckett was speaking.
Wuterich, now 31, was originally charged with 18
counts of unpremeditated murder, two counts of soliciting others to
make a false statement, and making a false statement himself. Since
then a six-year long inquiry revealed there was never any evidence to
support the original charges.
His only offense is telling the three Marines
following him to “shoot first and ask questions later,” an order the
government says led his tiny command to believe they could kill
whomever they found. When their vicious counterattack was over, some
number of Iraqi civilians were dead. Fourteen of them – including 10
women and children – were civilians cowering in their homes while the
battle outside raged.
Five Iraqi men died beside a white car that
appeared inside the Marine’s security zone seconds before the IED
decimated the squad. The government never said who the other victims
Although Sullivan insisted there was 16 dead
Iraqis to account for after the skirmish was over, McConnell said he
was only aware of 15 civilians that died, the number he reported up
the chain of command the same day, he testified. In the final analysis
it didn’t matter. The government withdrew all those charges during the
marathon settlement negotiations that reportedly lasted from last
Wednesday until Sunday night.
"The truth of this case is complex..."
“At worst, SSgt Wuterich may have failed in
keeping better control of his squad, a negligent dereliction of duty.
But the failure to control must be considered in the context of the
combat record that took place that day. The truth of this case is
complex with many facts and nuances that must be included in retelling
an accurate narrative of the events in Haditha,” the defense said in a
When the smoke cleared from a huge IED embedded
in the concrete road, LCpl Miguel “T.J." Terrazas was dead and two
other Marines were seriously wounded. Almost immediately the decimated
squad began receiving automatic weapons fire from insurgents hiding
among houses that lined both sides of the road, several
Marines testified last week.
During the sentencing hearing today, McConnell,
Maj. Jeffrey Dinsmore, the battalion intelligence officer at Haditha,
and Sgt Maj Ed Sax, the battalion sergeant major at Haditha who
testified on Wuterich’s behalf while a prosecution witness, were among
the witnesses. They told the court Wuterich was an exceptional Marine
they would accept back in their commands without hesitation.
McConnell, an Annapolis graduate, was relieved of
command along with former 3/1 battalion commander LtCol Jeffrey
Chessani in early 2006 after Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk
wrote a specious story claiming both officers had conspired with
others to cover up the civilian deaths at Haditha. Like McConnell,
Chessani was ultimately exonerated after a four year court fight.
Wuterich was a 24-year old infantry squad leader
on his first deployment to Iraq when the hidden roadside bomb was
detonated under the last Humvee in the tiny unit’s four-vehicle
convoy. It was a tough situation for a Marine who had been an
instructor at the School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton.
He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines
after a tour teaching young Marines how to fight. Now it was time for
him to practice what he preached. The Thundering Third had a well
deserved reputation for fierceness earned during the battle to
recapture Fallujah the year before and at An Nasiriyah, in 2003, when
the light infantry battalion held open a road between two critical
bridges during a battle later immortalized as the “Bridge Fights.”
During the two weeks of testimony proceeding
today’s sentencing, witness after witness testified Wuterich did his
job well, even admirably, although most of them had been called as
prosecution witnesses to incriminate him.
Those witnesses testified that after tending to
the wounded and calling for reinforcements, Wuterich briefed his
platoon leader about what he knew. Wuterich was then ordered by Lt.
William Kallop to “clear South,” a euphemism for attacking a house
with rifles and grenades where his Marines said they were receiving
automatic weapons fire, Kallop testified.
When the bloody deed was done, civilians were
dead. It was the beginning of what is now known at the “Haditha
Massacre,” arguably the most divisive incident the Marine Corps has
been forced to endure since the Vietnam War.
“I went to Iraq to do my duty, to serve my
country, and do the best that I could do. When my Marines and I
cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a
threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep
the rest of my Marines alive. So when I told my team to shoot first
and ask questions later, the intent wasn’t that they would shoot
civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the
enemy,” Wuterich told the court.
Today’s hearing merely put the stamp of
officialdom on what the participants in the court-martial have known
since Sunday. All the evidence was in, the jurors were out, and the
court room was packed. Behind Wuterich were David and Rosemarie
Wuterich, who have been sitting behind their son since testimony began
two weeks ago.
Sitting to his left was detailed Marine Corps
lawyer Maj. Meridith Marshall. On his other side was defense Haytham
Faraj and Neal Puckett. Both men, former Marines, have been defending
Wuterich since he was charged in 2006.
On the other side of the aisle were lead
prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon and his co-counsel LtCol Sean
Sullivan, who has been prosecuting Haditha defendants for so long he
managed to turn a reserve commission into a military career. Today,
Sullivan was doing most of the heavy lifting. It was his job to
inflict some vengeance into a renowned criminal case that has already
seen seven defendants walk free. Sullivan came out swinging.
“The evidence clearly articulates the negligence
of this order,” he said. Sullivan used the opportunity to once again
address how fate and modern weapons combined to killed innocent women
and children. Although Wuterich was not being sentenced for
manslaughter or assault Sullivan kept the “horrific” demise of the
victims central to his theme that the government deserved its pound of
flesh, even if it was only a 90 day sentence. He urged the military
judge to sentence Wuterich to the maximum allowed by the stipulated
Tim McGirk, who has not been heard from by the
Marine Corps since he wrote his sensational March 19, 2006 article
accusing the Marines of massacre and cover-up, and helped prepare an
equally specious follow-up report called “The Ghosts of Haditha,”
Today, McGirk answered a request for an interview
with Defend Our Marines by “declining our request, but I'd like
to set you straight on a few points in your note.”
According to McGirk it was his New York editor
Jim Kelly who forbade him from going to Haditha after another
journalist was seriously wounded in Baghdad.
“A photographer, an Iraqi translator and myself
had made arrangements through the military to go to the Marine base at
Haditha. Two days before we were supposed to leave on the embed, an
ABC reporter was shot in the head by a sniper in Baghdad, and there
was a general lock-down on press movements by media organizations in
Iraq. My editor in NY, Jim Kelly, ordered me not to go to Haditha. It
was as simple as that. As the ace investigative reporter you say you
are, you can easily check this.”
In fact, that particular fact was confirmed in
2007 by several sources who told Defend Our Marines McGirk had
been forbidden by Time magazine from seeking to discover for
himself what he so grandiloquently attributed to two known insurgents
who had pulled the wool over his eyes.
In my Monday missive, I asked McGirk to “please
help me understand” why he never bothered to look for himself, a
fundamental journalistic endeavor as cherished by reporters as much as
the Marine Corps cherishes it own customs and traditions. Until McGirk
declined to travel to Haditha this reporter had never heard of an
instance where a reporter – particularly one who works for such an
august journal as Time magazine – wrote a report based on
sources he didn’t know and could scarcely understand.
bothered to simply send an e-mail to the Thundering Third, he would
have received a briefing the battalion staff had prepared for his
inquisition, according to Maj Dinsmore, who helped prepare it.
“I have no doubt, Mr. Helms," McGirk wrote, "that
in combat you may have found yourself in situations similar to
Haditha, facing an invisible enemy who uses IEDs and then hides behind
the civilian population. I've been on plenty of embeds with the army
and with the Marines, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 99 percent of the
time these men handled terrible, confusing situations as professionals
who never broke the rules of engagement and kept their cool. Wuterich,
and the men under his command were the exception but, to my mind, that
doesn't excuse them from being the subject of a thorough military
investigation. Good luck with your book, Mr. Helms. I'll be reading it
And thank you, Mr. McGirk. We hope you do.