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Letters of Censure for Top Commanders
at Haditha a Double-Edged Sword

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

Defend Our Marines / September 7, 2007

Letter of Censures for Top Commanders at Haditha a Double-Edged Sword

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The Secretary of the Navy’s decision to issued letters of censure to the three senior officers commanding the Marines fighting at Haditha, Iraq is a double-edged sword that both mitigates and exacerbates Lt Col Jeffrey Chessani’s legal situation, one of his lawyers said.

Chessani, the former battalion commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, faces five counts of dereliction duty for failing to adequately investigate and report what happened at Haditha, Iraq more than 30 months ago.

Attorney and Marine veteran Brian Rooney says that when Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter delivered the letters to Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, formerly the 2nd Marine Division Commanding General, his chief of staff Col. R. Gary Sokoloski, and Col. Stephen W. Davis, the Regimental Combat Team-2 commander, it showed that the Marine brass believes Chessani told his superiors everything he knew of the incident in a timely fashion. At the same time censuring the most senior officers in the division before Chessani’s fate is determined “corrupts” the potential jury pool of senior officers who may be called upon to judge his command decisions, Rooney said

“On the positive side, from day one we have said Lt. Col. Chessani sent up the chain of command all the facts. And it was already established by witnesses that higher headquarters had the responsibility to decide what to investigate. I kind of think these senior officers believed this was a difficult battle they fought and won,” Rooney said. “On the other hand, the colonels and brigadier generals who will have to be on his [jury] panel now think he (Chessani) must have done something wrong. The timing is terrible.”

Three of the charges against Chessani stem from his alleged failure to investigate and report 24 civilian deaths at Haditha on November 19, 2005 after a squad of  3/1 marines was ambushed in an IED attack. The ambush triggered a city-wide all-day fight that left 24 Iraqis and one Marine dead, and 11 Marines wounded. Testimony at Chessani’s Article 32 hearing almost three months ago by retired Marine Col. W. Hays Parks clearly showed in was the senior commander’s duty and responsibility to order any subsequent investigation.

The Navy Secretary’s action was a career ending move for the three senior Marines. Not only will they be forced to retire, they could lose both rank and retirement privileges and benefits as well. Lt Gen. J. N. Mattis, the convening authority and final arbiter it the mater, made the recommendations to Winter to censure the officers.

Conversely, his recommendation to punish Chessani’s commanders leaves Chessani exposed to all the legal responsibility for what happened at Haditha in the event the prosecution convinces Mattis to send Chessani to courts-martial.

Davis and Sokoloski avoided any such possibility by standing on their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to testify. Huck blames them and Chessani for keeping him in the dark about the civilian deaths. Huck was reportedly punished because he failed to look into the matter until Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk repeatedly questioned Davis and Sokoloski about the alleged murders.

In a sworn statement before he took the Fifth, Sokoloski said he kept the information from Huck for two weeks before advising him of McGirk’s allegations. He said he did so because he thought they were baseless. All of the censured officers watched and listened to the battle unfold through a variety of intelligence gather means including Predator, Scan Eagle, and Dragon Eye Unmanned Aerial Vehicles videotaping the entire battlefield. This information was available to the entire command staff in real time as the battle progressed.

“We had Scan Eagle from about 0830 until 1700.  Predator joined in from about 1030-1400 or so.  Scan Eagle was used to maintain continuous PID [Positive Identification] on human targets as they fled from neighborhood to neighborhood.  We used Predator's IR [Infra Red] camera to identify them within the palm grove (hotspots) where they were attempting to hide and to get the bombs on target.  Both were used to guide helos and fixed wing air support on to the targets,” one intelligence officer explained.

The announcement of the punishment against the three officers came on the third day of a hearing for Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the last enlisted man to face murder charges in connection with the Haditha killings. Wuterich, 27, is charged with killing 17 people, including a group of seven women and children hiding in a house, in the hours after a roadside bomb killed a Marine lance corporal named Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas. The young Marine was on his second deployment in Iraq when a mine artfully concealed under fresh asphalt exploded under his Humvee and blew him in half. Two other Marines were grievously injured in the attack.

Fallujah investigation

Meanwhile the investigation against Marines suspected of murdering at least four Iraqi prisoners of war more than three years ago grinds on. On Friday the US Attorney for Central California announced former Marine Sergeant Jose Nazario, a squad leader in Kilo Company, 3/1, has been indicted on two counts of voluntary manslaughter at Fallujah on November 9, 2004.  Nazario was fired from his job as a probationary police officer on the Riverside, California police department when he was arrested.

Also charged with unpremeditated murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for the same incident is Sgt. Jermaine Nelson, currently stationed at Camp Pendleton. Nazario was Nelson’s squad leader. At Fallujah Nelson was an assaultman. His statement is reportedly the most self-incriminating among the statements given to investigators.

Noticeable by its absence was any statement from former Cpl. Ryan Weemer, the Marine who originally brought the allegations to light. There is, however, at least one statement that implicates him as a shooter in the alleged incident.

In addition, at least five 3rd Platoon, Kilo Co. enlisted men and one officer have given statements to Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Mark Fox about the events that allegedly happened in Fallujah. Their sworn and unsworn statements run the gamut from suggesting Iraqi prisoners were killed in cold blood to statements emphatically denying the incident ever took place at all, despite the fact all the Marines were concentrated together in a very small area.

The officer who provided a statement, a highly respected and decorated former lieutenant in Kilo Co, reportedly refused to take a polygraph examination when asked by NCIS Special Agent Mark Fox, sources said. The former lieutenant – now recalled as a captain - said that if his word as an officer and his reputation as a warrior wasn’t good enough nobody would believe him anyway.

Fox is the investigator who filed the affidavit in U.S. District Court for Central California alleging that Nazario killed two Iraqi prisoners in the heat of combat. The lieutenant, who led the platoon for more than two years, dismissed the entire incident as a fabrication. He said there was never any mention of any prisoner being captured that day.

Two other enlisted Marine, however, loosely corroborated Nelson’s statement, sources said. The NCIS is still investigating to determine who the Marine was that allegedly gave the order over the radio to Nazario to kill the prisoners, None of the Marines interviewed by Fox were aware to either the radio conversation at the time or who made it, sources said. Two of the Marines interviewed – one the former platoon radio operator – said they never heard any such conversation take place during the entire Fallujah battle.

 

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
7 September 2007

 

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam vet, journalist, combat reporter, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

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