by Nathaniel R. Helms |
Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | Day Four
Camp Pendleton, Calif. – Former Marine
rifleman Stephen Tatum took the stand Tuesday morning in the second
day of witness testimony at the General Court Martial of Staff
Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, accused of leading his men in the murders
of Iraqi citizens in Haditha more than six years ago.
Tatum, a veteran of the battle for Fallujah in
2004, was called by the prosecution to recount his actions after his
12-man squad was ambushed after resupplying a combat outpost south of the city. Tatum was
ordered to testify as part of a testimonial immunity agreement his
civilian lawyer, Jack B. Zimmerman, struck with Marine prosecutors and
the Department of Justice in March 2008. The government said “it
was done to further the
truth seeking function,” Zimmerman told Defend Our Marines at the
time. (See that
Upon reaching the agreement on March 28, 2008, the
Marine Corps dropped charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless
endangerment and aggravated assault in return for Tatum’s future
The Oklahoma native, accompanied by Zimmerman,
was questioned for three hours by LtCol Sean Sullivan and defense
attorney Neal Puckett, the former Marine Corps military judge
Sullivan began his interrogation by asking Tatum
to recount the events of November 19, 2005 when an IED hidden in the
road destroyed a Humvee in the squad’s four vehicle convoy, killing
one Marine and wounding two others. After detailing just how the
convoy found itself on Route Chestnut, Sullivan got down to cases. His
intention was to prove that Wuterich failed to follow the Rules of
Engagement when he ordered Tatum and two other Marines to “clear” two
houses suspected of harboring insurgents who were shooting at the
decimated squad with small arms. The Chicago reservist was trying to
pluck from Tatum evidence that Wuterich had acted in a manner contrary
to his training and responsibilities when his Marines stormed two
houses that resulted in the deaths of civilians.
Yesterday Wuterich’s co-counsel Haytham Faraj
revealed that 30 percent of the expended cartridges found in the
second of two houses cleared in the Marines initial attack were
apparently fired by insurgents. His revelation is the first evidence
that insurgents had used the houses as strong points, as the Marines
When asked to explain why he had voluntarily
joined Wuterich’s team ordered to “clear South” by platoon
leader Lt William Kallop, Tatum told the court “I had served with them
for a long time. I proceeded to join the group going toward House 1.
The house had been declared hostile. Any individual there was hostile.”
Much of his testimony was familiar; following
closely the statements he voluntarily gave to Army investigator Col.
Gregory Watt in February 2006 and pried from him during a 12 to 16 hour
interrogation by a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent
in the bowels of Haditha Dam the following March.
During cross-examination by Puckett, Tatum
repeated several times that he felt neither he nor Wuterich had done
anything wrong when they swept through two darkened houses shooting
and throwing grenades as they cleared the structures one room at a
time. At one point Tatum told Puckett he heard an AK-47 being
“racked,” a sound he recognized instantly.
“Once I heard that AK-47 racking, I wasn’t going
in that room to endanger myself or my Marines. At Fallujah we learned
we never went into a room without throwing in a grenade.
“You can barely see anything because of dust and
plaster, dust fills the air. You could see targets. Our job was to
take out every target,” Tatum testified.
Earlier Tatum had told Sullivan that he was
unable to tell age, gender or sex of the people the counter-attacking
Marines encountered inside the almost dark houses.
During Puckett’s cross examination Tatum told
the court the NCIS special agent had forced him to urinate on the
floor of the room where he was questioned during his marathon
interrogation rather than allow him to use a latrine.
The investigation went on so long he could not remember what he had
said or whether or not he had actually signed the statement obtained
by the NCIS special agent.
“You spent 12 to 16 hours trying to answer the
NCIS the best you could,” Puckett asked toward the end of his
examination? Sitting here today you know you did the right thing –
“Yes sir,” Tatum answered emphatically.
After telling Puckett about his encounter with
the NCIS special agent, the former military judge moved on to what
Tatum and the other Marines knew before they left Firm Base Sparta to
resupply the isolated outpost. That drew an immediate objection from
lead prosecutor Major Nicholas Gannon. The court recessed for about 20
minutes while the attorneys argued whether any classified information
was going to be revealed.
“There is nothing classified that was discussed and if it was it was declassified,” Faraj said
with evident anger.
After overcoming the prosecution’s strenuous
objections Puckett was allowed to proceed.
The “secrets” Gannon was trying to withhold were
revealed in 2007 during the long months of pre-trial Article 32
investigations. Tatum acknowledged the night before the convoy his
squad had been briefed to expect trouble,. They were warned to watch
out for snipers active everywhere in Haditha and the infamous white
cars that insurgents were using as Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive
“You were told about that because of certain
types of complex attacks involved white cars. You were aware of a
number of these incidents, is that right?” Puckett asked. "You had been
told Iraqis hid weapons and then pulled them out and fired at you
after you though things were clear.”
“Yes sir,” Tatum responded.
There will be more in the Weekend Wrap about the testimony of SSgt Justin Laughner,
the second witness to be called Tuesday. Laughner was the intelligence
expert in the Human Exploitation Team that was attached to 3/1 at
Haditha. He was still being interrogated at the time of this writing.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
10 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).