Camp Pendleton, California – U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant
Colonel Jeffrey R. Chessani and Lance Corporal Stephen B. Tatum will
face general court-martial for their roles in a controversial
firefight following an al Qaeda-led insurgent ambush in Haditha, Iraq
almost two years ago in which 24 Iraqi citizens died.
Also on trial is whether combatants caught in a no-quarter duel can be
successfully prosecuted for the life or death decisions they make in
the white-hot crucible of combat.
The decision to bring the two Marines to courts-martial was made by
Lieutenant General James N. Mattis, the convening authority in the
case and its final arbiter. He upheld the recommendation of the
investigating officer in Chessani’s case to charge him with
dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order. Mattis overrode
the decision of the investigating officer in Tatum’s case to dismiss
all the charges – including multiple counts of unpremeditated murder -
against the veteran enlisted Marine.
Instead, Mattis referred charges against Tatum for involuntary
manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault. He
dismissed charges of murder and negligent homicide against the
survivor of the horrific “Hell House” fight at Fallujah, Iraq in
The general’s decision brought an immediate reaction from the defense
“Referring this case to trial imperils every young Marine and soldier
who faces a split second decision in combat,” according to a statement
from veteran Marines Jack Zimmerman and Kyle R. Sampson, the Houston,
Texas attorneys who represent Tatum. Zimmerman, a former infantryman,
was decorated for valor twice while serving in Vietnam.
Chessani, a career Marine infantryman, is the former commanding
officer of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Chessani
is charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order
for failing to accurately report and investigate the incident.
His battalion was attacked in a coordinated al Qaeda-led “complex
ambush” on November 19, 2005, the Marine Corps says. During the
engagement one Marine was killed and 11 others were wounded. According
to intelligence information gleaned from Iraqi informants and captured
insurgents the insurgent’s plan was to attack the battalion in several
locations simultaneously to cause maximum carnage among Iraqi
Chessani’s attorneys at the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, said they are particularly disappointed with the decision to
bring their client to trial because of the “chilling effect” the case
has on the military’s sacrosanct chain of command.
Attorney Brian Rooney, himself a Marine combat veteran and one of the
attorneys representing Chessani said second-guessing the actions of
combatants is tantamount to the Soviet “commissar” theory of command.
During the Communist era of the former Soviet Union political officers
called commissars could countermand the orders of combat leaders in
the name of political expediency.
“You might as well have a political officer in every battalion to make
sure every order is politically correct,” Rooney said.
Both Marines had been in combat in Iraq in al Anbar Province during
two deployments when the Haditha incident occurred. The incident began
when a squad from Kilo Company, 3/1 was ambushed November 19, 2005 on
a road at the outskirts of Haditha. In the ensuing day-long fight 24
Iraqi citizens were killed in the cross-fire between insurgents and
Three months later the attack was brought to light in a series of
inaccurate and highly inflammatory reports initiated by a March 6,
2006 article in Time Magazine by reporter Tim McGirk. His
report and those that followed claimed the Marines had killed the
Iraqis in cold-blood in retaliation for the death of Lance Corporal
Miguel Terrazas. The story was picked up by Pennsylvania Congressman
John Murtha, who went on international television to claim the Marines
had killed the Iraqis for revenge.
The furor generated by the reports and Murtha’s outlandish rhetoric
sparked two separate investigations of the battalion’s actions. Last
December those investigations resulted in the charging of eight
Marines with murder, assault, and dereliction of duty for allegedly
covering up the crimes. Subsequently four of those Marines were
During the summer-long Article 32 investigatory hearings at Camp
Pendleton the hearing officers charged with looking into the matter
determined no murders had been committed.
So far Chessani and Tatum are the only 3/1 Marine ordered to
courts-martial in the incident. Two other Marines, including Staff
Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad leader of the ambushed squad, still
face the possibility of general court-martial.
Wuterich is waiting to discover whether he will be charged with 17
counts of unpremeditated murder and uttering a false statement. Lt.
Col. Paul Ware, the investigating officer in his case, recommended
that the murder charges be reduced to seven counts of negligent
homicide. Mattis can accept the investigating officer’s
recommendations, ignore them, or charge him with other offenses.
One source close to the investigation said Friday afternoon that
Wuterich is expected to learn his fate sometime next week. In
addition, a junior officer, Lieutenant Andrew Grayson, must still
undergo ab Article 32 investigation to determine whether there is
enough evidence to bring him to trial for dereliction of duty.
Despite Mattis’ decision to bring the two Marines to trial their
lawyers remain confident they will be exonerated.
“We are very disappointed that the Commanding General did not follow
the recommendation to withdraw and dismiss all charges made by the
experienced trial judge who heard all the evidence during the Article
32 Investigation,” Tatum’s attorneys said. “However, Lance Corporal
Tatum did not commit any crime, and we will take the fight to the
courtroom. We will vigorously challenge the government's case, and
nothing will be left undone in defense of this fine young Marine.
“We remain convinced that the military justice system eventually will
reach the right result,” they concluded.
Rooney offered similar sentiments.
“We expect that Lieutenant Colonel Chessani will be fully exonerated
when this goes to trial. While we are disappointed with the decision
we look forward to going to court-martial to show that no stone was
left unturned and nothing was swept under the rug in an effort to
discover the truth of what happened at Haditha,” Rooney said.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
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).