Camp Pendleton, Calif. –
General Court Martial of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Frank D.
Wuterich became a certainty on November 20, 2005, one day after his
squad lost one Marine and killed 24 Iraqis before passing the score of
their bloody encounter up the chain of command.
first glance the events at an obscure place called Haditha, Iraq
seemed routine enough. If noticed at all, the blossoming debacle was
just another soul-numbing calamity among the hundreds of random
tragedies unfolding across the shattering region every week during the
second year of the war.
after the November 19 skirmish, a routine Marine Corps press release
from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported one Marine and 15 Iraqi
civilians were killed by the IED blast. The Marine Corps’ colorless
account noted that "gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire."
When the shooting ended, the announcement said, eight insurgents were
dead and a wounded insurgent was captured.
The report was written by 2nd Marine Division Public
Affairs Officer Captain Jeffrey Pool, a career Marine officer
responsible for briefing the vociferous press in al Anbar Province. In
November 2005 Al Anbar was the hot ticket in Iraq for determined
reporters, the place where they could make a name for themselves
dancing briefly with the terrible danger the Marines faced every day.
Pool was there to accommodate them.
Regrettably, Pool’s account was erroneous. Worse, he knew it at the
time. Capt. Pool later claimed he released the inaccurate report
because he believed the civilian deaths were attributable to the
roadside bombing because “it led the Marines to counter-attack the
hidden insurgents” who set it off.
It was not Pool’s personal opinion. When the Marine Corps wants
captains to have a public opinion they tell them what it is. That’s
what happened to Pool. A colonel named Richard A Sokoloski told him to
write it. Not only was he a colonel, Sokoloski was Chief of Staff of
the 2nd Marine Division and Pool’s boss. In any event,
Pool’s innocuous report wasn’t considered by anyone except the dead to
be earthshaking news.
Marine who died was 20-year old LCpl Miguel Terrazas, the son of a
retired Army staff sergeant. At the time, nobody up the chain knew his
name, they just knew a faceless Marine was dead. Three months after
the IED killed Terrazas a second bomb was remotely detonated by
Time magazine from its Baghdad bureau. Time claimed the
Iraqi citizens who died at Haditha were massacred, the victims of
Marine vengeance. The magazine’s explosive account unleashed a monster
that threatened the soul of the Corps.
written by Tim McGirk, a particularly resourceful and ambitious
Time reporter who claimed the Iraqis were gunned down by merciless
Marines gone berserk. Regrettably, like Capt. Pool, McGirk also got
it wrong, remarkably wrong, but for different reasons. He was never
the Marine Corps could make his specious account right it was too
late. To steal a time-worn phrase, the Marines had landed, but the
situation was entirely out of hand. What happened in that brief
encounter is what this story is all about. It did not happen in a
Wuterich’s court martial has a large number of principle players. Of
course there is Frank and his three little girls, and his defense
attorneys: Neal Puckett, Haytham Faraj and Maj. Meridith Marshall. All
three are Marine lawyers although Puckett and Faraj are retired now.
Then there is the military judge, LtCol David Jones, an even tempered
man with a friendly demeanor and a reputation for being hard as steel.
The prosecution is led by Maj. Nicholas Gannon, a younger man, and
LtCol Sean Sullivan, a fiery Chicago Irishman who has mellowed some in
the four years he has been struggling for a conviction.
other defendants, including three who have already testified, have
been exonerated. The youngest is Justin Sharratt, a baby-faced kid
when all this started. He killed three armed Iraqis in a room smaller
than a lot of bathrooms with his pistol. His buddy Stephen Tatum took
the stand Tuesday. He had Wuterich’s back at Haditha. He had it again
when he testified.
Marines learned how to fight at Fallujah the year before, when the
Thundering Third was stacking up Iraqi corpses like cordwood with
everything from pistols to SMAW-NE shoulder-fired rockets than turned
people into charcoal briquettes. They killed so many Iraqis the deaths
were counted by measuring a lengthening ditch were the dead Iraqis
were buried shoulder to shoulder. Marine reconnaissance aircraft took
pictures of it every day. It eventually stretched for several hundred
oldest and highest ranked Marine charged was LtCol Jeffrey Chessani,
who refused to throw his men under the bus and got to ride in it with
them for his courage. He helped write the plan that helped fill up the
ditch. That is what senior Marine officers do.
other defendants who were charged and subsequently freed have blown
with the four winds. There is Capt. Lucas McConnell, the Kilo Company
commander and Annapolis grad who walked early on. Indicted with him
was Randy Stone, a lawyer so inexperienced he managed to get himself
arrested. Stone was once held up by President George W. Bush as a
poster boy for patriotism.
today … Capt. Randy Stone carries on a proud family tradition," Bush
told Congress in 2005. "Capt. Stone is a Marine officer now serving in
Iraq. He knows that he and his generation are doing the same vital
work in this war on terror that his grandparents did in World War II.
He also knows how this struggle will end."
the mix was a reputedly rebellious intelligence officer named Andrew
Grayson, who has been badmouthed by name along with Sgt Sanick
Dela Cruz. Grayson was blasted Monday by retired US Army Col. Gregory
Watt for being an obstructionist who hid evidence from his
investigation. Dela Cruz was crucified by his squad mates as being an
unpredictable, habitual liar.
Cruz is a snakeshit mean turncoat riflemen despised by the other
enlisted men for turning against them to be a key government witness.
He traded five murder charges for a free ride. The little man from
Chicago admittedly liked to kick Iraqi “detainees” in places where it
wouldn’t show and urinate on a dead person after he shot him. He
called his predilections “emotional” reactions. The government says
Dela Cruz is one of the good guys.
government’s case sounds simple enough. Wuterich is accused of
Voluntary Manslaughter for killing nine people, three counts of
Dereliction of Duty for ordering, in three places, 15 civilians to be killed, and two counts of Assault with a Dangerous Weapon or Other
Means Like to Produce Death or Grievous Injury for shooting various
people in two private residences and exiting a little white car.
the dead were Iraqi men shot down next to the innocuous white car
seconds after the ambush was sprung. Wuterich admits he took a knee
and shot them when they tried to run away. Dela Cruz says Wuterich
shot them while they were standing around with their hands in the air.
Dela Cruz says he shot them again just to make sure they were dead and
then urinated in one of the victim’s empty skull.
didn’t want to get blasted,” he explained on Wednesday.
numbers don’t seem to add up don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. They
don’t. The formula is twenty four murders minus eight legally killed
insurgents plus five questionably innocent dead guys in a white car,
and a random victim still unaccounted for. The illegal deaths have
dropped from 24 to 15 to 12 and now to nine. The rest of them
apparently died of fright.
doubt the panel members – what military jurors are collectively called
– will be scratching their heads during deliberations trying to add it
all up. If that sounds crass it isn’t intended to. The way the victims
are counted merely underscores the complexities of trying to assign
moral imperatives to the immorality of war.
that ambiguity that led to this trial. The government, to prove
Wuterich committed crimes, has to prove he violated the Rules of
Engagement – the Bible if you will – for killing the enemy in modern
American-style warfare. The suspected enemy has to show “hostile
intent,” or just be downright “hostile” to be eligible for killing.
The interpretation is a bit difficult to grasp.
afternoon a Marine major named Maj. Kathryn Navin said she taught the
Rules of Engagement to the Marines before they left for Iraq. The ROE
was written by brilliant lawyers exercising cool reflection in the
sane environment of an office. Unfortunately the situation at Haditha
on November 19, 2005 was insane.
former Marine sergeant named Hector Salinas Wednesday testified for the
government. He is crafty like a fox. Lawyer Kevin McDermott, a
military lawyer who spent several years involved with 3/1 Marines,
says it takes a very smart man to pull off being stupid. Salinas
couldn’t remember anything except he was the squad leader that day,
that he was the first man to see an insurgent by the victims' houses,
and the first Marine into the first house where six of the victims
died. He is also the only guy to say that if he had it to do all over
again he would “have called in an air strike.” That comment made
headlines around the world. Salinas says Wuterich never gave an order
the entire day.
morning Wuterich’s former platoon commander William Kallop testified
he ordered Wuterich to “clear South,” a euphemism for clean out those
houses with rifles and grenades. Kallop said it was alright under the
rules. He says Wuterich was a fine leader and a great Marine. He is
not at all happy about the way things have gone.
Maj. Navin testified Marines should only use
deadly force to clear a structure (like houses) if they are receiving
fire and can positively identify the hostile individual inside. She
says a structure housing hostile forces cannot be hostile — only the
individuals inside. On November 19, a few hundred meters down Route
Chestnut a house suspected of harboring insurgents was flattened by
500-pound retarded gravity bombs dropped from Marine Corps attack jets
– “turned into dust,” LtCol Chessani once said.
court-martial resumes Tuesday morning.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
13 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).