Defend Our Marines / July 17, 2007
The media got it wrong from the start. The action in Haditha on
November 19, 2005 began as a ambush and escalated into a complex
engagement with insurgents. Defend Our Marines Contributing
Editor Nathaniel R. Helms gets the story from one man who was there.
Firefight in Haditha:
An eyewitness account
by Nathaniel R. Helms
Left: LCpl Ghent, currently deployed in 3/1 in Iraq; right: former Cpl
Joe Haman; center: Former Cpl Josh Karlen, an assaultman.
All three men were wounded during the grenade fight following the
Wuterich's squad on November 19, 2005.
Click below for a larger image:
Marine who witnessed the battle at Haditha, Iraq (that led to
accusations of murder and malfeasance by seven Marine officers and
enlisted men) claims that the Marines were ambushed. Former Corporal
Joe Haman says the Marines were attacked by a large group of Iraqi
insurgents immediately after an Improvised Explosive Device killed
Lance Corporal Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas and wounded two others.
22, from Saint Louis, Missouri, was in another squad of Kilo Company
Marines who saw, heard, and later participated in the fight at Haditha
that morning. He says the Iraqis ambushed SSgt Frank Wuterich and his
squad from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, Third Battalion, 1st
Marines from a cluster of houses where most of the Iraqis would later
is charged with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder associated with the
deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha on November 19, 2005
following the IED attack on the 12-man squad he commanded. Two members
of his squad, Lance Corporal’s Stephen B. Tatum and Justin L. Sharratt
also face courts-martial for multiple counts of unpremeditated murder.
Four officers, including battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani,
face criminal charges for failing to adequately investigate the
was in the battalion when it fought at Fallujah in 2004 and served
with Sharratt, Tatum, Terrazas and several other Kilo Company Marine
enlisted men who fought in both engagements. He says that until now
nobody had asked him what his squad encountered during and after the
described the fight during an interview in Saint Charles, Missouri
last Thursday. He said it was about 0700 (7am) when Terrazas and the
rest of his squad delivered breakfast and supplies to the C.O.P. in
four HUMVEEs. They stayed about 30 minutes, just long enough for
Terrazas to smoke a cigarette and share a few jokes with Haman. T.J.’s
brief visit was the last conversation he would have before he died,
said he “knew it was bad as soon as he heard the explosion.” His
suspicions were confirmed seconds after the blast when a full fledged
firefight erupted around a group of four houses about 150 feet from
the IED blast. The firing didn’t build up gradually the way meeting
engagements do, Haman explained. It was a full fledged ambush from the
start. Immediately radio chatter picked up as the besieged Marines
down the road called for help.
soon as it [IED] went off Sgt. (later SSgt.) Raphael - our squad
leader - told us to gear up and standby. Our squad was on React
because we already had another squad on patrol from the C.O.P.,” Hamas
is shorthand for Reaction Force. Haman’s job that day was to be ready
to deploy immediately for backup if called. They didn’t have long to
wait, Haman said.
Down the road Terrazas
was already dead, killed by an IED hidden under the road with fresh
asphalt that had been artfully applied to hide the insurgent’s bomb.
Wuterich and the surviving members immediately began receiving intense
small arms fire from the group of four or five houses on their flank,
Haman said. In addition to killing Terrazas the IED critically wounded
20-year old LCpl James Crossan and painfully injured LCpl Salvador A.
Guzman. Seconds into the fight Wuterich had lost a quarter of his
strength, Haman said.
There were so many
weapons firing Haman couldn’t distinguish between the sharp cracking
of the enemy’s AK-47 assault rifles, their Russian-designed RPD light
machine guns, and the faster popping of the M-16s and ripping roar of
the Marines’ Squad Automatic Weapons - called SAWs, he said. All Haman
could hear was the loud, sustained roar of gunfire and grenade
explosions, the signature of an ambush, he said.
A few minutes after the
Iraqi bomb exploded the first dreaded radio message went out from
Wuterich’s position reporting a casualty, Haman said. Every Marine in
Iraq is assigned a number used to identify them to higher headquarters
in case they are killed, wounded, or captured. Haman didn’t know who
the Marine was, but he knew Marines were down, he recalled.
“Somebody said his [Terrazas]
number, but we didn’t know who it was. We just knew somebody had been
killed or wounded,” Haman said.
About 30 minutes before
Haman’s squad was called into action, he said. Meanwhile the sounds of
battle ebbed and flowed when Wuterich’s squad fighting 600 meters away
counter-attacked. Orbiting helicopters and ground commanders filled
the airwaves with urgent messages. The Marines in the C.O.P. were
anxious to get into the fight. They couldn’t understand what the delay
was all about, Haman said.
Then a nearby helicopter
reported to headquarters that a large group of insurgents were fleeing
out the back of the small cluster of houses now under counter-attack
by Wuterich’s squad. The pilot spotted the insurgents when they
abandoned the houses where the civilians died, Haman said.
The pilot reported that
some of the insurgents had peeled off from main body and fled into
another house situated by a palm grove about 100 or 200 meters south
of where Wuterich was engaged, Haman says.
“Air - helos - saw
insurgents that split into groups. One of the groups ran into another
house in a palm grove. Air picked them up going in,” Haman said.
That put the fleeing
insurgent only 600 feet from the C.O.P. Haman’s squad was ordered to
hunt them down, he added.
Led by Lt. Zall, the
platoon leader, and Sgt. Raphael, the Marines ran toward the enemy
position. It was only a two minute run to reach the houses where the
insurgents had disappeared, he said.
squad consisted of 12 Marines. Among them they had two 5.56mm SAW
light machine guns, two M-203 40mm grenade launchers mounted under
M-16s, and eight riflemen. Haman was armed with an M-203- equipped
rifle, he said. It is a lot of firepower. In most places it would be
an overwhelming amount of firepower. In Haditha on November 19, 2005
it wasn’t nearly enough, Haman said.
one of the helos shot two missiles into the house. It blew out the
roof, put a big hole in the roof, smoke was coming out,” Haman said.
“We were told to go into a house by a blue car. The car was parked
between two houses. We didn’t know which house was the right one.”
squad chose the first one they came to, he said. When they got to the
front door it was eerily still. Except for the orbiting helicopters
and the sustained firefight going on to the north where Wuterich was
fighting it was relatively quiet, Haman said.
point man kicked in the door. LCpl Blankenship was on point. Cpl.
Bautista, my fire team leader, told us to stack up [a tightly grouped
combat formation] and go in. I was the second man to the door. I
wanted to throw a frag. I had never thrown a frag into a house
before,” Haman said.
grenade blast filled the house with smoke. Plaster and other debris
rained down inside. It was almost impossible to see inside the
building, Haman said.
squad leader Sgt Raphael told us to wait for the smoke to clear but
our adrenaline was pumped up so we just rushed in. We couldn’t see
anything so we turned our flashlights on. Nobody was in the house, the
house was clear,” Haman continued. “We were at the wrong house.
“Somebody said it was the house to the south west - catty corner. Lt.
Zall said to clear the other house but don’t frag it this time.
Blankenship tried to kick the door down. It knocked him down, he
couldn’t do it. So LCpl Ghent bashed into it a couple of times. He
couldn’t do it either.”
the danger the Marines couldn’t help laughing, Haman said.
“Everybody was laughing. The third time he [Ghent] knocked it in and
fell down. I jumped over him. I saw a room to the right and one way in
the back corner. The door was almost closed. Then a grenade came out
the door. It bounced off my foot and went off,” Haman said.
don’t remember anything after that for awhile. I was hit but I didn’t
know it,” Haman added. “Somehow I was inside the room to my right. I
don’t know how I got there.”
“Bautista called my name. I guess I woke up. I got up and started
shooting at the door. We backed out of the house. It was one of the
lessons we learned at Fallujah. When there is somebody inside just
back out and call in air strikes.”
groggy, Haman backed out the door, firing his weapon down the hallway
where the grenade came from, he said. For the moment there was no
return fire and everybody made it safely back outside. But it was only
a momentary respite, Haman said.
Garcia and LCpl Vetor went to the side of the house. I saw them so I
went with them. I was still real groggy. It was an American grenade
and it really rang my bell,” Haman added with a laugh. “I thought I
Vetor looked back and yelled ‘grenade.’ One blew up behind me. I got
hit in my right back triceps and in the back shoulder I knew it had
hit and it burned a little. It didn’t hurt until hours later. Then the
hole in my underarm swelled up as big as a golf ball and I was
bleeding out of it. Lt. Zall got hit real bad. Zall got hit in the
legs. He was evacuated and “Doc,” our [U.S. Navy Medical] Corpsmen
was wounded. LCpl Garcia got hit as well.”
and the corpsman were out of the fight. Haman and Garcia stayed in.
Iraqi grenades were dropping off of the roof of the house they had
just retreated from. Meanwhile the rest of Haman’s squad backfilled
into the house Haman’s fire team had just cleared. They charged up
onto the roof and started throwing grenades at the insurgents
attacking Haman’s group. Insurgent and Marine grenades were flying
back and forth. Some of the grenades seemed to be coming from the
windows and some from the roof of the house occupied by the
insurgents. Nobody could see the attackers, Haman said.
checked Garcia and me and said we were both good. Then an AK burst
came in and sprayed in front of us in an arc. We thought it came out
of the window so we started lighting up this window. Then we heard an
explosion go off, maybe on top of the roof.”
explosion was a Marine’s grenade bursting among the Iraqi insurgents.
LCpl Garcia, wounded and groggy, wanted to throw a fragmentation
grenade at the window of the house they were taking fire from. The
dazed Marine didn’t realize it was covered with steel bars. Haman told
him to put the grenade away, he said.
Garcia started complaining about his arm. He couldn’t lift it. Then we
heard explosions going off inside,” Haman added.
was getting alarmed, he said. He still didn’t know where several
members of the squad were and grenades and automatic weapons fire from
the insurgents who had fled Wuterich’s position was flooding the area.
It was getting very dangerous to be outside. But it wasn’t any better
kept yelling for LCpl Ghent, Cpl. Bautista and Sgt. Raphael. We
couldn’t get a response from them. We could see the helos flying
around. We didn’t want to get a rocket. We didn’t know where anyone
was. Vetor said to pop the white flare to let them know where we
were,” Haman said.
then they heard an M-240 Golf machine gun, the successor to the
Vietnam-era M-60 machine gun that shoots 7.62mm rounds at about 650
rounds a minute. The welcome sound told him reinforcements were
arriving, Haman said.
“Somebody started lighting up the house with the two-forty. We popped
a red star cluster (pop-up flare). Then Bautista popped a green
flare,” Haman recalled.
everybody knew where all the members of the squad were located. It was
time to get out of Dodge, Haman said. The Marines decided to make a
run for a dirt berm on the other side of the road.
popped his head around the corner to see if he would get shot at.
There was no more firing so he started running down the street, Haman
took off running first. I went second and then Garcia came. We wanted
to run across the road to where there was some cover,” Haman said.
“Then a seven-tonner (cargo truck) or two pulled up and Marines
started popping out. As soon as they saw us Sgt Raphael [on the roof
of the house next door to the insurgents] started yelling for cover
Marine reinforcements jumped out of the trucks at a curve on the road
where a dirt mound gave them cover, Haman said.
were in enfilade. They had cover about 50 meters (150 feet) away on
the berm from where we were at.”
and the rest of his fire team ran to the reinforcement’s location. So
did the rest of his squad, he said.
regrouped and found out where everybody was. We saw the Docs putting
Lt Zall and our Doc into either a 7-tonner or HUMVEE to medivac out.
Then we ran back to a house across the street from the one the
insurgents were throwing grenades from,” Haman said.
“Marines went to top of the roof on the house and started shooting
M-203 grenades at the insurgents. I stayed inside the house with LCpl.
Stefinitis watching over the civilians who lived there. There were
eight people. We got them all in one room while everybody else went on
the roof to engage. I smoked a cigarette. I still didn’t know [how
bad] I was hit. Stefinitis was bleeding from grenade hits to his nose
Marines on the roof, Haman said. They included LCpl Josh Karlen, from
Colorado, LCpl Bury, a Texan who was usually a radio operator in the
headquarters section, Cpl. Bautista., Sgt Raphael, the squad leader,
and two other Kilo Co. Marines.
got into another grenade fight. Grenades were flying all over the
place. I think everyone on the roof got wounded. I know we had nine
guys wounded in my squad,” Haman said. He had been wound twice.
then everything went to [expletive deleted]. We called for air. I
stayed downstairs. I think I smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. They
were up there 15 to 20 minutes,” Haman said.
we all took off, jumped about a four-foot wall, ran down to the palm
grove, climbed the hill and went back to the house we used for the
C.O.P. and waited for the air to hit. We waited fifteen to 20 minutes
for air to get there. I think they dropped two 500-pounders, but it
could have been thousand-pounders. They blew the house all to hell,”
The house after it was bombed.
This picture was taken by Haman several weeks
after the incident.
for a larger image:
the bombing other Marines returned to the demolished house. Overhead a
Boeing Scan Eye unmanned aerial vehicle was watching and recording the
scene as well. Inside the demolished house the Marines found five dead
insurgents and a large arms cache. Two more Iraqis who survived the
bombing were captured. One of the insurgents was tracked to a house
down the street from the bombed building. He quickly reappeared
carrying a baby, Marines reported. Searchers directed to his position
discovered the man still bleeding from his ears and nose from the
concussion of the bomb. Both Iraqis later admitted being insurgents,
the Marine Corps says.
the fight was over Haman discovered he was hit multiple times by
grenade shrapnel. He got a few days off to tend to his wounds and then
he went back in the fight.
is the way they do it in the Corps,” he said.
then until about the middle of March 2006 – about three months - no
one in Kilo Company knew there was a scandal brewing. All they had
heard were accolades for a job well done, Haman says. Chessani came
around to congratulate the men. So did other brass. Nobody even
suggested there was any impropriety, Haman said. Eventually Lt. Zall
returned and was reassigned to another rifle company. The wounded Navy
corpsmen never returned, Haman said.
“Everyone knew about the dead civilians. They regretted them,” Haman
explained, “but it was a fight.”
later we found out about the trouble over the cleared houses. About a
couple of months later all these majors and captains were coming to
the company. Usually we didn’t see anyone,” Haman said. “I talked to (LCpl
Justin) Sharratt a lot of times after the fight and he never said too
much. He sure didn’t say anything about murder. None of us thought
anything had happened. We would see reporters every once in a while so
we didn’t think too much about it.”
the fight was over 1st Sgt. Albert Espinosa - Kilo’s First Sergeant -
came around to congratulate Haman and the other wounded Marines. He
came to the Forward Operating Base – called a FOB - to congratulate
the men on a job well done, Haman said. Later Espinosa would testify
that he had immediately called for an investigation of the deaths
caused by the Wuterich firefight.
then,” Haman said. “The First Sergeant never said anything to us. The
only time he talked about it was the next day at the FOB. He said to
me, ‘Hey, good job out there, Haman.’ Then he asked me if I had ever
got to fire my M-203 (grenade launcher) during the firefight.”
in mid-March Kilo Company was scheduled to rotate, the hammer fell,
two weeks before we left we found out about it. We found out that the
guys in the squad (Wuterich’s squad) had to stay there. We heard they
were in trouble but we didn’t know why. They came home a couple of
tell you Wuterich was a standout guy and a great Marine. He came out
of the School of Infantry. He is a good man.”
Currently Haman attends a private university in Saint Charles and
works part-time as a security guard while he pursues a degree in
criminal justice. He intends to be a police officer, he says. Haman’s
brother is a former Marine combat veteran of Iraq and his father is a
retired Saint Louis police officer.
Defend Our Marines
17 July 2007
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).