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Thanksgiving is No Time
of Joy for Families of
Marines Charged with Crimes

© 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.

In the 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.

On this 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.

Four 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

On the 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.

Before 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 debacle.

Working 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 brothers-in-arms.

Somehow 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.

Now, 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

The 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.

The 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 but issued an apology to the Kilo Co. Marines. 

Murtha 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 FrankWuterich.com. 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 says.

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 for free.

Even 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 ground on.

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 seeking justice.

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 Lt. Col. 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 motions."

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, Rooney acknowledges.

“As a non-profit we represent Lt. Col. 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 Lt. Col. 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 Lt. Col. 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 donations.”

The donation page on the Thomas More Law Center site for the lieutenant colonel's defense is at this link

Our government stacks the deck

The 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.”

Still, 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.

The Sharratts

Theresa 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 financed attackers.

Two 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.

His 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.

"This 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.  

"Even 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 families.

"I do 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.

We will get through this, God willing...

"As a 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).

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

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