Times | July 22, 2007
left, Mark O’Reilly, Patrick Barnes and Thomas Bolinder of the
Military Combat Defense Fund support servicemen accused of crimes.
(Erik Jacobs for The New York Times)
Web Sites Rally Support for G.I.’s in Legal Trouble
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
and military veterans are part an emerging group of Americans who say
they are upset by the recent prosecutions of soldiers and marines
based in Iraq on war crimes charges, and are coming to their defense
with words, Web sites and money.
In the past year, more
than a dozen Web sites have been developed to solicit donations to
hire private lawyers for service members who have been charged with
violent crimes for actions taken in the confusion of combat or
counterinsurgency operations. They have raised more than $600,000,
organizers say, from grandparents, business executives and college
students, among others. The average donation is for $25 to $50.
Virtually all donations
come with handwritten or e-mail messages full of encouragement for the
troops in Iraq and laced with frustration at the government and the
“I wonder if you are
supposed to check out each enemy to see if they have a gun or wait for
them to shoot first,” wrote a 98-year-old woman from Grand Junction,
Colo., who recently sent $25 to the Military Combat Defense Fund, a
group outside Boston that has provided more than $85,000 to smaller
funds set up for individual marines accused of murder and other crimes
in Haditha and Hamdaniya, Iraq. “Bible says that the country will
always be fighting. We have been praying for all you boys and girls.”
In interviews, organizers
and contributors said they believed that many of the prosecutions were
based on feeble evidence and gauzy recollections of Iraqis sympathetic
to the insurgency and hostile to the American military mission in
They point to the case
against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, who was charged with killing
three unarmed Iraqi men at point-blank range in Haditha in 2005. This
month, a Marine lawyer investigating the charges recommended
dismissing them, for lack of evidence, and warned that pressing flimsy
cases against combat troops “sets a dangerous precedent” that eroded
public support for the war and could cause infantrymen to hesitate
when fighting a determined enemy.
There is no denying that
some American troops have committed violent crimes against Iraqi
civilians during more than four years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military prosecutors have won convictions against soldiers and marines
in more than 200 cases of violent crimes, including murder, rape and
assault, military records show. One the most heinous episodes occurred
last year, when a group of soldiers from Company B of the First
Battalion, 502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne Division raped a 14-year-old
Iraqi girl and killed her and her family, Army prosecutors said.
Two soldiers, Specialist
James P. Barker and Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, pleaded guilty to rape and
murder; Specialist Barker was sentenced to 90 years in prison and
Sergeant Cortez was sentenced to 100 years. A third soldier pleaded
guilty to being an accessory. Federal prosecutors announced this month
that they would seek the death penalty against the former soldier
described as the ringleader, Steven D. Green. But in more than a dozen
interviews, organizers and contributors said they were motivated by
anger at the Bush administration and the military for prosecuting
combat troops and commanders just for doing their jobs, they say, in
life or death circumstances, as they were trained.
“The insurgency has found
a new weapon, besides the bomb, and that’s to accuse these young men
of wrongdoing, because we throw the book at them,” said Maralee Jones,
45, a mortgage loan officer in Utah who taught herself how to build a
www.marinedefensefund.com, to raise money to help several accused
marines pay for civilian lawyers, who are generally regarded as more
experienced and aggressive than military defense lawyers.
“We all feel like the big
brass have eaten their young here,” said Ms. Jones, whose son is
serving with the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, the same unit as the
marines accused in the Hamdaniya case. “You just can’t put people
under a microscope when the lines of combat are so blurred.”
So far the fund has
raised $78,000, she said.
Outside Boston, a group
of Vietnam War veterans — retired police officials, postal workers,
lawyers and others — established the Military Combat Defense Fund and
recently surpassed $152,000 in donations to their Web site, said
Patrick Barnes, a former radio reporter who is the group’s treasurer.
plays a role in much of the giving, Mr. Barnes said.
“They believe the
military’s work is God’s work,” he said. “That’s what’s been indicated
in the letters.”
The movement to defend
accused marines and soldiers generally does not embrace cases that
appear to be premeditated atrocities. The board of directors for at
least one large fund recently voted to stop contributing to marines
who pleaded guilty to violent crimes. Two widely discussed cases are
the killing of 24 Iraqis in Haditha in 2005, which led to murder
charges against three low-ranking marines and dereliction of duty
charges against four officers, and the abduction and killing of an
Iraqi in Hamdaniya last year, for which the Marine Corps has charged
seven marines and a Navy corpsman.
On Wednesday, a military
jury convicted Cpl. Trent D. Thomas of kidnapping and conspiracy to
murder in the Hamdaniya case. The jury’s sentence, announced Friday,
called for a demotion and a bad-conduct discharge but no prison time.
Four other marines and the corpsman have pleaded guilty to lesser
charges in exchange for reduced sentences.
Terry Pennington, a
former Air Force technician whose son, Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington,
was among the Hamdaniya marines who pleaded guilty, said in an
interview: “Many of these people see this country as not having the
guts anymore to fight a war. They’re outraged really all the way up to
the White House.”
Mr. Pennington said the
Web site for his son,
www.defendrob.com, has collected about 1,000 contributions, many
for $5 and $10. The wife of Corporal Thomas has raised $14,000,
according to her Web site.
Much of the strongest
criticism from many defense funds is directed toward mainstream news
organizations, which they say portray the concerns of Iraqis more
sympathetically than the plight of American troops.
“From the magazines and
newspapers that I read, it seems that many of them are too condemning
of our own guys,” said Jacqueline Batcha, 44, of Atlantis, Fla., who
sent $100 to the Web site for Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who is
charged with 13 counts of murder in the Haditha case.
Other parents of
active-duty marines and soldiers are doing whatever they can to
publicly support troops facing charges.
In Seattle, Don Dinsmore,
the father of a marine infantry officer currently on duty in Falluja,
led a group of motorcycle riders on a
Coast road trip to the gates of Camp Pendleton, Calif., on June
28, where hearings and trials in the Haditha and Hamdaniya cases are
being held. Along the way the group collected enough cash donations to
fill 10 bank-deposit bags, Mr. Dinsmore said.
Not all marines facing
criminal charges receive the same amount of attention, or cash
Wuterich’s defense fund has received only a few thousand dollars, the
Thomas More Law Center, a Christian firm representing his battalion
commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, who is charged with
dereliction of duty, has collected about $300,000, said one of Colonel
Chessani’s lawyers, Brian J. Rooney.
One difference, it seems,
is Michael Savage, a popular conservative talk-radio host who has
discussed Colonel Chessani’s case on his syndicated program.
Mr. Rooney’s law center
received $50,000 in contributions in just three days this month, after
Mr. Rooney’s latest interview with Mr. Savage.
“He’s all over this
case,” Mr. Rooney said of Mr. Savage. “He really is a big supporter of
us and the Marines.”