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New charges arising from action in Fallujah!:

Déjà vu all over again

July 1, 2007

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is probing allegations that eight unarmed Iraqi men were murdered at Fallujah, Iraq in November, 2004. They allegedly died at the hands of Marines once in the same platoon as two Marines already under investigation for murdering 24 civilians in Haditha 18 months ago.

The alleged murders were revealed last year by former Corporal Ryan Weemer, once a Marine rifleman from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, Third Battalion, 1st Marines. Weemer fought valiantly at the Hell House during the Fallujah battle in November 2004 and sustained three gunshot wounds. He was a fire team leader in the same squad that accused murderers Stephen B. Tatum and Justin L. Sharratt were assigned to at Fallujah during 2004 and Haditha in 2005.

Both lance corporals and their squad leader Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich stand accused of killing 24 people. Wuterich – the squad leader - did not fight at Fallujah.

NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said in an email from his Washington, D.C. headquarters that the NCIS "does not comment on ongoing investigations."

The allegations of murder at Fallujah originally came to light about the same time in March 2006 that Time Magazine was trumpeting its charges of murder against the men of 3rd Platoon. The unsettling story was revealed by Weemer to author Nathaniel R. Helms  while he was living near Saint Louis, Missouri. He told Helms that the killings occurred during intense combat in Fallujah in November of 2004 when 3rd Platoon was fighting for its life, Weemer claimed. Helms wrote “My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story” that details the platoon’s fight at the legendary Hell House. Weemer was a fire team leader in 3rd Platoon, according the book.

The alleged killing reportedly occurred on November 10 or 11, 2004 along Phase Line Henry, an imaginary line on a map bisecting the Sunni stronghold north to south. At the time the platoon was engaged in the fiercest fight the Marine Corps has been in since the Vietnam War. Days run together in combat, so do recollections. But Weemer is clear about this one, he told Helms. During the killings the back of one man’s head flew off and his brains spilled out. It was ugly, Weemer said, and never left his mind.

Helms advised the penitent Marine to keep his mouth shut.

The former Marine tried to but his story of murder got out anyway. He revealed it during a polygraph examination for a uniformed Secret Service job in early 2006. He didn’t intend to, he said. The examiner asked if he had ever participated in a “wrongful death” during the polygraph examination.

Weemer isn’t a liar. He is a stand up young man who excelled academically and athletically at his rural Illinois high school. He just wanted to guard the White House, the first step toward a career in Federal law enforcement.

His specialized close combat training made him a front runner, he thought. The question about unlawful killing took him by surprise. The only thing he could answer was “yes,” he said. Shortly after his polygraph examination two NCIS investigators showed up at his workplace at a Starbuck’s coffee shop in Chesterfield, Missouri to question him. Weemer told them his story. It was very brief and went like this:

The Iraqi civilians allegedly gunned down at Fallujah were captured while hiding in an abandoned house in close proximity to a recent firefight, he admitted. It was a common tactic of the insurgents to fire upon advancing Marines from one position, put down their weapons, and then run to another position and take up arms secreted there to resume the fight, he said. At the time the Marine's Rules of Engagement prevented Marines from shooting unarmed Iraqis observed fleeing areas where fire was coming down.

It was a good ploy for the insurgents as long as the Marines played by the rules but even in the beginning that didn’t always happen. Two days before the incident in question a group of four or five Iraqi men disappeared in a bright flash when they stopped to rest too close to a rifle squad from 3rd Platoon instead of running away. They were still catching their breaths when Kilo’s Marines placed a satchel charge against the wall of their hidey hole. The ROE is a guide, not a mandate, one 3/1 Marine adroitly explained.

In this case the eight men were allegedly taken prisoner while unarmed, Weemer revealed to NCIS investigators. They were of military age, dressed in so-called "track suits" favored by the insurgents at Fallujah, and running from a firefight, he claimed. The Iraqi men were placed under guard by squad members while the fight raged around them. After a brief time the squad was ordered to move out. The Marine in charge radioed headquarters for instructions about what to do with the suspected insurgents. The laconic response - "They’re still alive?" - came back on the radio.  

The leader took it to mean kill the Iraqis, Weemer said. Moments later the squad was ordered to move on. Guns were aimed, triggers were pulled, and the Iraqis died. The bodies were left where they lay. Down the road was a nest of murderers and thugs who ran the torture chambers and death houses the foreign fighters of Al Qaeda offered as public services. They had to be taken out. After that fight Marines found photographs of decapitated corpses, torture rooms, and infernal devices in Al Qaeda’s House of Pain. It was the same house where British civilian Kenneth Bigley was decapitated. Inside were pictures showing local insurgents holding up the 62-year-old civilian’s severed head as a trophy. Two days later Weemer was shot three times at point blank range by a lurking foreign fighter and evacuated to Germany. Before seeking medical help he emptied his pistol into an insurgent’s chest until his enemy’s chest rig caught fire. Weemer watched him die in the flames.

The lawyers for the defense in the Haditha case are aware of the investigation. Lt Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani’s attorney Brian Rooney, a former Marine Staff Judge Advocate and combat veteran at Fallujah, called it a “red herring.” He opined that the NCIS investigation could not possibly be brought to courts-martial because of the paucity of evidence.

Attorney Jim Culp, one of Sharratt’s civilian lawyers, believes the whole investigation is nearly valueless. He suggested its only possible value lay as a tool to discredit potential exculpatory witnesses from the Fallujah battle expected to be called by the defense.

NCIS spokesman Ed Buice declined comment.

If the alleged shootings had happened a few days later there might not have been an investigation. Two days after the alleged incident the ROE at Fallujah was "liberalized" to allow fleeing Iraqis to be killed if they refused to stop. It was only the beginning. By the end of the fight the rules for killing insurgents were extremely liberal, Marines who were there agree. Fallujah gave a whole new meaning to the word, one of them said.

Marines openly admit killing every military age male they saw at Fallujah. They used everything in the Marine Corps arsenal to do it; Javelins, TOWs, red phosphorous, white phosphorus, good ol Ma Deuce, and super-futuristic thermobaric warheads that ignite the air. Next year Harrison Ford is reportedly going to star in a movie made from Bing West’s “No True Glory,” a personal study of the battle West characterized by the Marine’s aggressiveness.

Before the Fallujah fight was over Marines fighting there expended the entire stock of 1,000 SMAW-NE rounds in the Corps’ inventory. When that wasn’t enough the Marines resorted to smart bombs, dumb bombs and cluster bombs that turned everything into smoking holes. The ROE allowed for them because that was the only way the Marines were going to win without sustaining worse casualties they did. The hard-pressed Marines actually cheered every time a big bomb went off.  There was a lot of cheering. 3/1 alone claimed more than 1,000 enemy kills in the fight.

None of it is a secret. It is the way of the war, and the war before it, and all the wars before that one, anyone who knows combat agrees. Old Marines from Lebanon, Vietnam, and the wars before can only shrug and shake their heads at the newest turn of events in political correctness. The concept of “humane war” is hard to get one’s head around after being in one, combat veterans say. The young Marines who fought at Fallujah and Haditha agree. They say it is impossible to practice restraint unless they wish to be targets waiting to be taken out by roadside bombs and ambushes.

A study released by the Pentagon two months ago revealed that the majority of contemporary Marines apparently agree with the way the Iraqis at Fallujah were handled. In a survey of U.S. combat troops in Iraq less than half of Marines responding said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. And the closer warriors were to the pointy end of things the more enthusiastic they seem to be about killing the perceived enemy without hesitation. Only 38 percent of Marines polled said noncombatants in Iraq should be treated with dignity and respect.

Such was apparently the case at Haditha as well, some in the Marine Corps believes. The three enlisted Marines are charged with gunning down the innocent Iraqis there in retaliation for the killing of Miguel "T.J." Terrazas, a 20-year old lance corporal who served in 3rd Platoon at Fallujah. With him at Fallujah as well was James Crossan, another 20-year-old Marine grievously wounded in the same ambush. Terrazas was blown in half by a carefully concealed improvised explosive device that smashed Crossan to bits.

A senior Marine officer familiar with both the Fallujah allegations and the Marines under suspicion labeled the investigation a "fishing expedition." All of the Marines being questioned are decorated warriors who have been repeatedly identified as among the finest infantrymen in this country.

The senior Marine officer opined that NCIS is more interested in discrediting potential witnesses for the defense in the Haditha case than determining if multiple murders were committed by 3rd Platoon Marines at Fallujah. The Haditha case is receiving international attention as well as a focal point in the Pentagon’s latest campaign to get American warriors to play by the “new” rules. No doubt the Fallujah allegations will ignite more of the same reaction. The Iraqis who instigated both fights intended it to be that way.

“There is no crime scene, no victims, no bodies, and no witnesses except the unsubstantiated allegations of one and possibly two Marines. Until they told NCIS there wasn't even a report of a crime," the officer said. “Who does this serve?”

The investigation took a startling turn in late May when NCIS investigators contacted Navy Cross recipient Robert J. Mitchell in Phoenix, Arizona. Up until then the story had remained under wraps. Mitchell earned the nation's second highest award for bravery while serving as a squad leader in 3rd Platoon, Kilo, 3/1 at Fallujah saving Marines – lots of Marines. Appreciative Marines who fought with Mitchell thinks NCIS took it too far this time. The story got around.

On two recent occasions NCIS special agents contacted Mitchell at his home, he acknowledged. The first time two agents visited his home and talked to his wife while he was away. That really got him angry, he said. The second time he was contacted Mitchell agreed to meet with NCIS Special Agent Mark Fox at a Phoenix bookstore after Fox strongly urged him to cooperate. Fox is the same NCIS Special Agent who interviewed Weemer.

Fox told Mitchell the nature of the allegations and confirmed who made them. Mitchell said. Mitchell told Fox he first heard about the alleged killings from Helms while he was writing the book. Mitchell is a big player in the Hell House story and earned a Navy Cross there. Helms asked Mitchell whether the allegations were true while he was being interviewed for the book. Mitchell was unaware of them, he said at the time.

Mitchell said he agreed to talk to Fox after hearing about threats of recall to active duty allegedly made by NCIS agents against other Marines for failing to cooperate. Even though NCIS agents never threatened him with anything he feared the possibility of recall anyway after talking to other Marines NCIS has visited. And he was still angry about them scaring his wife. He expected the worst.

"NCIS didn't threaten me," Mitchell said. "It wasn’t what I thought. He (Fox) wanted to know our movements, where we were. Who was with me, that kind of stuff; it is not what you think. I was not being investigated. I think they wanted to know who was on the radio."

With Fox’s knowledge Mitchell recorded the interview for his own protection, he said.

NCIS spokesman Ed Buice told Helms his agency’s special agents are authorized to interrogate both military members and civilians when investigating criminal complaints. Here is his email:

“NCIS is empowered to investigate and arrest both service members and civilians. Our clients are military---we serve, protect and interact with the Navy and Marine Corps but, with very few exceptions, NCIS investigators are not uniformed service members. We do have a small cadre of investigative personnel who are active duty but primarily NCIS investigators are sworn civilian federal Special Agents, just like the FBI, Secret Service, etc. Cases can be tried in both civilian and military court systems.”

Rooney said that is a crock.

Too bad 3/1 is on trial at all, disenchanted Marines said. Known throughout the Corps as the Thundering Third, the battalion is one of the most decorated infantry battalions currently serving in the United States Marine Corps. Now it is the most disgraced as well. In addition to being the home of two Navy Cross recipients and a galaxy of Silver and Bronze Star holders, it is the focus of two separate murder investigations.

Marines exhausted from seeing their own pilloried for what they view as political correctness say the Pentagon’s penchant for prosecuting it own say the latent, specious NCIS investigation of the alleged Fallujah killings are another indication the policy makers who construct the rules want a clean war; a nice, neatly packaged war with heroes and villains of their own invention. Their hope for a military solution to a political problem is being painted with the blood and souls of American warriors.

Military leaders managing the Iraq war say it can’t be won by indiscriminately killing Iraqis. Every time an Iraqi civilian dies the enemy gains another family of recruits. General David H. Petraeus made a point of mentioning both Fallujah and Haditha in a recent speech asking the Soldiers and Marines fighting under his command to make restraint a principle element of their war fighting tactics. Senior Marines attribute the abortive fight for Fallujah in April, 2004 to Army Lt. Gen David Petraeus insisting on a unilateral cease fire to give the newly minted Iraqi National Guard he trained a chance to show their stuff. Petraeus believed minimal force was the way to go. The Iraqis promptly started shooting at the Marines with their brand new weapons. 

What the investigation has done is reinforce the beliefs of those who think the timing and tactics of the NCIS in the Fallujah matter is conveniently related to the Haditha investigation to ensure the appropriate outcome at the criminal trials for the Haditha Marines. Worse, the investigation will undoubtedly create even more doubt in the minds of America’s hard pressed warriors trying to do an almost impossible job in an atmosphere already poisoned by suspicion. Just read the responses to the North County Time’s bare-boned report of last Friday.

Nathaniel Helms
Defend Our Marines
1 July 2007

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Note: Nat Helms is the author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007)

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

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