Nathaniel R. Helms 2007
Thanksgiving, the uniquely American holiday that heralds the
beginning of the joyous Yuletide season, also marks the beginning of
another year in the Twilight Zone for the families of a diminishing
handful of Marines accused of murder and cover-up in Iraq.
dawn of November 19, 2005, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich and a small
band of infantrymen under his command set out on a routine mission. In
Marine Corps parlance Wuterich’s 12-man squad was on a resupply run, a
daily occurrence in every combat operation. An hour into it they were
hit with an ambush that left one of their number dead and two wounded.
In the year that followed, eight of the Marines became casualties of
lies and distortions so extraordinary they reshaped the way military
justice is perceived.
Thanksgiving day, four Marines, two officers and two enlisted Marines
are the last untreated casualties of the attack. Lt. Col. Jeffrey
Chessani, 44, soon to be the father of six children, Staff Sergeant
Frank Wuterich, 27, the father of three little girls, 1st
Lt. Andrew Grayson, 26, a feisty Ohioan denied a Bronze Star for his
alleged role in covering up the incident, and Lance Corporal Stephen
Tatum, 26, a quiet Marine from Oklahoma who distinguished himself
repeatedly during two combat tours in Iraq, all face prison time, huge
legal expenses, and emotional scars that may never completely heal.
other Marines, including former Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, from
Pennsylvania, Captain Lucas McConnell, a rugged Annapolis grad and
brilliant company commander, Captain Randy Stone, a promising Marine
Corps lawyer personally recognized by President George W. Bush for his
exemplary service, and Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz, a Marine who felt
compelled to turn on his brothers, have been either exonerated or had
their charges dismissed.
Forces of darkness enjoy selves
other side of the battle line is Congressman John Murtha, the king of
pork from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a retired Marine reservist and
chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. The 16-term
Democratic Congressman is the vocal opponent of Bush’s Iraq policies
who publicly accused the Marines of cold blooded murder.
he quit condemning the Marines in public Murtha variously said he
learned of the alleged murders from former Marine Corps Commandant
General William W. Hagee, command debriefings, and/or Time magazine
reports. The reports Time cited were written by Tim McGirk, an
ambitious reporter who now runs the Jerusalem bureau of Time Magazine.
McGirk wrote the inflammatory March 19, 2006 report that accused the
Marines of murdering 24 innocent Iraqi citizens that triggered the
to prove Murtha’s allegations of behalf of the aroused media is the
Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as uncovered by
Chickenhawk Express, the former-employer of Murtha’s policy
director, Gabrielle Carruth) as well as a platoon of Marine Corps
reserve lawyers called to active duty to prosecute their
or other, the 40,000-page confidential NCIS investigation found its
way into the hands of the Washington media before it was received by
the attorneys preparing to defend the Marines. So did the names, ages,
and hometowns of Marines "about
to be accused" just before the Thanksgiving holiday last year.
after two years of accusations, denials, legal motions, unchecked
human emotion, and endless drama, the costs are mounting to
unimaginable heights while the public generosity that paid much of the
defendant’s endless expenses is waning.
Costs are soaring, Marines go deeper in debt
trend, while expected, is a dangerous development for the Marines who
still face general courts-martials that could take away their freedom,
says Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and co-counsel of
retired Marine Corps law judge, Neal Puckett. The two attorneys are
the civilian law team representing Frank Wuterich.
staff sergeant's team depends on public contributions to pay for his
defense. So far the cost of defending Wuterich is almost half a
million dollars and the attorneys are still waiting to discover if he
will stand courts-martial or not, Zaid notes.
Attorneys Puckett and Zaid represent Wuterich in both his criminal
case and in a civil action. The action was filed on Wuterich's behalf
in Federal Court against Murtha for defaming him by declaring the
combat Marine a cold blooded killer. All Wuterich wanted to dismiss
the lawsuit was an apology. Another congressman, John Kline of
Minnesota, had misguidedly jumped on the Murtha bandwagon initially
issued an apology to the Kilo Co. Marines.
fought to have the case dismissed by claiming Wuterich was a public
figure. A federal judge ruled against him and Murtha was ordered to
appear. His appearance was scheduled for deposition on November 27 but
he would have none of that. Last week Murtha filed
a Notice of Appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals for the District of Columbia to stall the case even longer,
attorney Zaid says. The appeal is being paid for by taxpayers who pay the
salary of the U.S. Attorney appointed to represent him, a luxury Wuterich is ineligible to receive.
“We would very much appreciate spreading the
word about what is taking place, and particularly directing attention
to Staff Sergeant Wuterich's website at
The costs of defense in both the civil and criminal cases are
mounting, and we could use all the help and support we can get!” Zaid
Already the combined cases involving
Wuterich, Tatum, Chessani, Grayson and the four exonerated Marines
have cost the government more than $3 million to adjudicate, according
to the Marine Corps. These figures do not take into account the
undisclosed millions the government spent sending NCIS investigators
around the world to discover what happened at Haditha. In addition,
the cost of the investigation conducted by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon
Bargewell and his team of investigators that was subsequently leaked
to the Washington Post has never been disclosed.
Add to that the cost of the so-called “Media
Center” specifically built at Camp Pendleton, California to
accommodate the international press corps, the Marines recalled to
active duty from civilian life that staff it, “and we are talking
about some real money,” notes Brian Rooney, an associate of the Thomas
More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan that is representing Chessani
the exonerated struggle to restore their lives
Kevin McDermott, who represented former Kilo
Company commander Captain Lucas McConnell, says his client is slowly
putting his career back together after being exonerated of charges of
dereliction of duty for allegedly helping to cover up the deaths of 24
Iraqi citizens who died at Haditha.
Captain McConnell, the Annapolis graduate
and distinguished company commander was on the fast track to promotion
and greater responsibility when the Haditha incident erupted. In
addition to incurring as much as $125,000 in legal expenses, McConnell
was passed over for promotion to major while the wheels of justice
Attorney McDermott says friends and
neighbors from his hometown who raised thousands of dollars to defend
their favorite son. Capt. McConnell, married and the father of two,
said he is looking forward to getting this situation behind him and
continuing his Marine Corps career. He also added that he regrets the
loss of life on November 19, 2005 but noted that the fight was taken
to the insurgents who dictated circumstances of the battlefield.
Attorney Brian Rooney, a former Marine who
represents Lt. Col. Chessani, said that his client’s unfortunate
circumstances have much more to do with political ambition than
Callous greed and ambition
“It’s clear that Rep Murtha made these
statements surrounding the mid-term elections and his zeal for a
leadership position in the House based upon his correct belief that
the Democrats were going to take control of the House for many reasons
not least of which was the war at the time," Rooney says.
“Once we exonerate
Chessani in the criminal realm, we will address possible civil
remedies against Congressman Murtha (and possibly others) for his
statements in regards to the Marines and their officers in Haditha
(“cold blooded murder” and “cover-up”). The civil process can be
long. There is also a two-year statute of limitations on filing it so
we have to be mindful of that as well," Rooney adds. "First things
first though. Rep Murtha will also be a witness (if we can get him
there) in the court-martial in our unlawful command influence
The price of bringing Murtha before the bar
of justice is steep. He is a powerful, influential politician who can
call in lots of political markers to keep himself out of hot-water,
“As a non-profit we represent
Chessani at no charge," Brian Rooney says. "We are dependent upon
donations to offset our costs. We have set up a defense fund for the
Chessani defense, and we have raised close to $500,000. We expect the
cost of the rest of the trial will be another $500,000 that we will
have to raise. This case has resonated with the American people and
they have been generous.”
Another element in the case that Rooney and
the other defense attorneys rely on to ensure their clients receive
fair play despite the influence peddling of politicians and pundits
with an agenda to fulfill is common sense, he said.
“One of the jury instructions jurors receive
is that you are supposed to use your common sense and your knowledge
of the ways of the world when you evaluate things," Rooney says. "I
think that speaks for itself in regards to Representative Murtha and
Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter."
Secretary of the Navy Winter, author of
letters of censure to three Haditha Marine commanders, has no
military background. Instead, Winter was a corporate vice president at Northrup
Grumman and, like every defense contractor, executives' personal
fortunes rise and fall based on Murtha's distribution of
appropriations. In brief, Murtha is the hand that feeds the same
individuals persecuting the Marines.
“We took the case because defending
Chessani is a righteous cause and we at the Thomas More Law Center
worried about Marines going over in harms way hesitating because they
are afraid of being criminally charged for their legitimate combat
actions. Hesitation means death in combat", attorney Rooney says.
“We also worried about recruitment and how
that would be affected. Just read Lone Survivor and you’ll see
how a Navy enlisted SEAL feels about this very aspect of being charged
for doing his duty. If the donations dry up we will make due one way
or the other, but we have faith that the American people will not
forget Lt. Col. Chessani, his wife, and his five--soon to be
six--young children and his 20 years of service and four years worth of
deployments and recruiting duty. People wonder if they can do
something tangible to help the service member and the war effort"
Rooney suggests, "They can do both by supporting Lt.
Col. Chessani through prayers and
The donation page
on the Thomas More Law Center
colonel's defense is at this
Our government stacks
deck has been stacked against the Haditha Marines by both the judicial
process and politics since Day One, Rooney notes. If there is a saving
grace in the government’s unprecedented
effort it is the unanticipated strain it has placed on Marine Corps
jurisprudence, Rooney says.
“The criminal justice system has been
extremely burdened by these prosecutions. An entire office has been
set up full of prosecutors and NCIS agents specifically just to
prosecute these Marines. Military defense counsel has been
overburdened by these cases and their normal case load,” Rooney adds.
“Millions of dollars have been spent by the government not to find the
truth about Haditha, but to prosecute these Marines.
“The fact that so many of the Marines have
been exonerated should have signaled an end to this," Rooney says. "The fact that we
are moving forward on some of the Marines to include Lt. Col. Chessani is
a sad indictment on our military justice system.”
The Wuterich family
The military justice system is not the only
institution feeling the terrible strain caused by the prosecution of
the Haditha Marines. The emotional, physical, and financial costs
suffered by the families of them are virtually incalculable. The
current situation of David and Rosemarie Wuterich is a case in point.
“Since March 2006, our family has had to
deal with the emotional and financial repercussions of the false
allegations by Time magazine and
Congressman John Murtha. And all the while, we knew that our son, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich and his fellow Marines,
were innocent and were following their
Rules of Engagement," Rosemarie Wuterich, the sergeant's mother, says.
"We pray, we cry, we jump every time the
phone rings (my God, what’s happening now), we cringe when a strange
car is in our neighborhood (perhaps it’s the media, again!) and we
wonder how our son and his family are coping and how we will get the
strength to continue.
"We spend many sleepless nights wondering
how our son and his family (wife and three young daughters) will be
able to afford the staggering civilian attorneys fees, how much we
will be able to help financially, how we will be able to afford the
expenses of traveling to California for the hearings, and how we will
be able to raise more money for his defense fund.”
the family has hope that justice will be served.
"It's an endless emotional roller coaster
but we will get through this!” Mrs. Wuterich adds.
Sharratt, mother of exonerated Marine, Justin Sharratt, echoes the
Wuterich’s feelings. Her son was charged with unpremeditated murder
for his actions after his squad was attacked at Haditha. At the time,
Sharratt manned a machine gun to effectively suppress automatic
weapons fire coming from
Al Qaeda led and
months ago General James N. Mattis, at the time the convening
authority charged with deciding Sharratt’s fate,
exonerated the young Marine so he could go home to his family
after two difficult combat tours in Iraq.
family and his civilian attorneys Gary Meyers and James Culp,
encountered more than $250,000 in expenses defending young Sharratt.
Both lawyers are Army veterans. Meyers was a 27-year old JAG attorney
when he successfully represented one of the soldiers charged with
murder in the infamous My Lai massacre. Culp, a former airborne
infantryman, served in Desert Storm I before attending law school.
Without the generous donations from sympathetic supporters they could
not have mounted such an effective defense, Theresa Sharratt says.
holiday season will be an exciting and happy time for our family,"
Theresa Sharratt says. "We are about to experience our first cheerful
Christmas we have had in four years. During the holiday season of 2004
and 2005, Justin was deployed to Iraq; however, our family did receive
our Christmas wish, and we were all able to talk to Justin via Webcam.
Last year was extremely stressful with the charges being announced and
the trip to and from California for the press conference and countless
number of interviews. So this year, all I am asking for is that our
Christmas follows in the traditions and happiness that we have missed
out on over the past few years.
with all of the upcoming festivities, in the back of my mind, I will
be thinking and praying for Steve, Frank, Lt. Col. Chessani, Lt.
Grayson, and their families. They are still going through HELL. I know
how they are feeling, and I can relate to their hurt, and I can feel
their pain. I pray to God everyday for these Marines and their
not understand how Tim McGirk and John Murtha can sleep at night. If
they only knew the pain and suffering they caused our Haditha Marines,
our INNOCENT Haditha Marines, and their families. This is something
that Justin and our family will have to cope with for the rest of our
lives. How do you ever forgive people like that, people that caused so
much heartache?" Mrs. Sharratt asks.
will get through this, God willing...
mother of a Marine who was charged with murder and cleared," Mrs.
Sharratt continued, "I now have new worries to think about. I worry
how all of this will affect him in days to come. I worry how ALL of
our innocent Haditha Marines will be affected by this. As Rosemarie
Wuterich said, it’s an endless emotional roller coaster, but we will
get through this! God willing, we will, they will…”
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
22 November 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).