July 23, 2010

This is the second in a three-part series. Read part one of the interview here and part three here

It’s hard to believe recently retired LtCol Jeffrey Chessani is the guy the United States Marine Corps spent millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man hours unsuccessfully trying to destroy. He just finished nearly five years in a living hell defending himself from a presumably overwhelming institutional attack–a ‘Frozen Chosin’ in microcosm–with amazing cool aplomb.

Chessani spent most of his time in Marine Corps purgatory, in his case a windowless basement office in the bowels of Camp Pendleton, a pariah of sorts among the Marines who worked there. He was sent there for the infamous ‘Haditha Massacre’ the most inane of labels for an event that never happened.

LtCol Chessani wasn’t shunned during his ordeal, he said. He was received at polite distance and kept there. ‘The officers and staff NCOs were sympathetic. They treated me very well.’

One of the former Marine lawyers who worked the case said Thursday that senior Marines saw him the way whole people see warriors without limbs, a combination of awe and empathy, maybe even a little badly disguised pity.

To be sure Chessani didn’t say that, he’s a Marine through and through.

“I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to be the best,” he said. Chessani joined the infantry because it is the cutting edge, he said, where the action is. Most men can’t run with 18-year-olds while in their forties. Chessani said he always sought the challenge despite the hazards. He loved leading Marines into battle.


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His last deployment to Iraq was his finale. After the Marine Corps saw fit to relieve him the only thing he ever commanded again was his desk. Good Marines don’t complain, however, they do what they are told, he said. Despite twenty years honing his unique craft he was told to stay in the basement and write plans.

‘I had a real job. I wrote plans, developed plans for the base,’ he explained.

Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, one of the greatest Marines of them all, said great Marines always remain stoic in the face of terrible adversity. For that reason alone Chessani stands tall among the Corps many legends. He never said a public word about his situation for almost five years and even now he won’t play the blame game.

Chessani would probably scoff at the notion he deserves any special mention. He calls it being ‘prideful.’ He was decidedly uncomfortable when personal superlatives were tossed his way. He gave credit only to his young Marines. Chessani described himself as a good Marine officer on an ordinary career track toward retirement. By 2005 when he commanded 3/1 his aspirations included making colonel before he retired. He said it was never a sure bet. He still had to be selected and the jump from lieutenant colonel to full bird colonel was a wide, hard one. At best he hoped for an advanced school where he could come home at night to his family for a while.

“I think they considered all that in the winter. Before we got home (March 2006) I had anticipated I would be considered,” he opined. “My Marines had done a fantastic job. We were denying them caches. We had found something like 450 caches that kept weapons away from them. My job was paying attention to the lives and welfare of my Marines. My goal was to bring all of them home.”

We took away the enemies ability to attack my Marines and civilians

The battalion suffered four dead during his combat command. He reeled off the names of the decedents without hesitation, starting with 20-year old Lance Corporal Miguel ‘T.J.’ Terrazas, the grinning kid in the Humvee that got blown in half at the start of the day-long fight on Routes Chestnut and Viper. He was the first to die.

Two other young Marines died when they approached a seemingly abandoned vehicle that turned out to be a car bomb. Three times Chessani said they made a terrible mistake. He thought he should have trained them better. In another incident a sergeant died. It was evident he still grieved their losses. The year before at Fallujah the battalion suffered 33 deaths.

“There was so much going on all the time and it was so hard to keep track of the details,” Chessani said. He had almost 2,000 Marines, soldiers and Iraqi units flung over an area bigger than Rhode Island. He said it was my responsibility to keep track of them all.

“We worked closely with our Human Exploitation Teams (HET) and my S-2 (Captain, later Major Jeffrey Dinsmore) was a bulldog. I was so lucky to have him. He knew what was going on. We got those weapons. We took away the enemies’ ability to attack my Marines and civilians. The people were safer. Not even the insurgents wanted to kill civilians if they didn’t have to. We took away the means.”

That was about as verbose as the professional infantry officer ever got.

Major General Richard Huck and Colonel Stephen Davis, his commanding general and regimental commander respectively, rated Chessani among the best officers they had ever commanded. They said things like he “Leads Marines from front in every operation. Demonstrates moral courage every day. Doesn’t hesitate to report bad news fast or contest unrealistic plans/poor concepts,” etc. etc. Both of them recommended him for a colonelcy and advanced schools.

One could almost hear Chessani shrugging through the phone when his efficiency report was mentioned. He dismissed the superlatives Huck and Davis used as ordinary hyperbole for end of tour officers. He said so in a soft, reasoned voice bereft of guile. When explaining complicated matters he often referred to spiritual examples; he had plenty of time to contemplate them. When Chessani said I learned to trust God instead of men it was a telling moment, the only flash of pain he revealed.

Chessani he prefers Jeff now told his story calmly. His stoicism reminded this observer of stories about Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Lockwood; a brilliant, unassuming infantry officer who led Two-Seven Marines at Toktong Pass in Korea. It was the key to the 20,000 man reinforced 1st Marine Division surviving the onslaught of 250,000 screaming Chinamen. Lockwood managed to complete his mission without any histrionics. Like Lockwood, Chessani said his first priority was completing the mission. Saving his men’s lives was second; sparing the enemy was never even mentioned. That is what Marines do, he added without apology. It was an important insight into understanding Chessani’s thinking in the aftermath of the Haditha debacle.

I was humbled to command these men

Chessani’s career path before the Haditha debacle was a primer for successful Marines. Now 46, he was raised in the small town of Rangely, Colorado, where he graduated from high school in 1982. He went on to receive a B.A. from the University of Northern Colorado in 1988. During his military career he participated in the 1989 Operation Just Cause (Invasion of Panama), the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Chessani did three deployments to Iraq, the first time as a major and Executive Officer of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the second as the operations officer of Regimental Combat Team One, RCT-1. As such he helped plan both operations into Fallujah in 2004 where 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines made a big name for itself. He didn’t anticipate he would one day command it, he said.

The second foray in Fallujah was the most desperate fight Marines had been in since Hue, South Vietnam in 68. The Thundering Third, arguably the most ferocious infantry battalion in the fight, led the way.

I knew what 3/1 did at Fallujah, especially the second time. When I put in my package for a battalion I didn’t know I would get it. I was humbled to command these men. Sometimes I didn’t feel adequate for the task, he said.

Chessani continued that narrative with words like remarkable and profound. He said the young Marines he commanded were the best and bravest in the world. He was unabashed about it.

What Chessani said of his personal life was sparse. He married his wife Alisa 17 years ago and their union has produced seven children. The oldest is now 12 and the youngest an infant. Their mother home schools them. Chessani says they “started their family late.” He intends to get to know them better on a motor trip in the one-ton van pulling a RV from California to Florida. Some of his children have never known a time without stress.

Most of the time Chessani talked about the mechanics of his last fateful command. He emphasized that during MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) training and desert combat training at 29 Palms, California in the winter and spring of 2005 his men were taught to be extremely aggressive. His Marines repeatedly practiced the lessons learned from the Battle of Fallujah the preceding year. At Fallujah a Kilo Company platoon leader named Lt. Jesse Grapes had coined a phrase during the December 2004 battle that still resonated when 3/1’s replacements were preparing to go back to Iraq in 2005.

“Don’t go in a room without throwing in something that goes boom,” Grapes said. It became a mantra for Marines assaulting buildings.

Nothing had changed since, Chessani said. He didn’t know what his Marines would find when they returned to Iraq in 2005 so he had to assume the worst. Chessani was adamant that there was never any emphasis placed on restraint, or practicing Rules of Engagement that said to ask questions first and shoot later after being attacked. He called the very notion a perfect prescription for getting killed. His Marines were trained to be aggressive, to strike hard and fast. He had witnessed what happened when they didn’t. Failure filled American body bags. He wasn’t going to let that happen on his watch.

“You have to let Marines have the inherent right to self defense,” he explained.

Wuterich and his men did exactly what they were trained for

A year later Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich told Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents what happened when their training was put into practice. Wuterich is scheduled to be tried by General Court Martial at Camp Pendleton on September 13th for 12 counts of involuntary manslaughter after leading his squad in a counterattack at Haditha after it was ambushed and suffered three casualties. His attack resulted in the deaths of a dozen civilians. Wuterich is the last Haditha defendant awaiting trial. The rest have all been exonerated.

“The four of us aggressively advanced on the house and on approach I advised the team something like shoot first and ask questions later or don’t hesitate to shoot. I can’t remember my exact words but I wanted them to understand that hesitation to shoot would only result in the four of us being killed. This was the first time we would employ MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) training tactics since we had been in Iraq.”

Wuterich and his men did exactly what they were trained for, Chessani said. “It’s not like you can make that experience go away. The Iraqi soldiers, the people in Haditha, they knew what 3/1 had done at Fallujah. They didn’t want any part of it. It saved lives.”

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and his team of investigators focused on 3/1s MOUT training when it came to Haditha Dam to investigate what happened. Bargewell zeroed in on the Marines Stateside training to discover if the Marines had been poorly trained, thereby identifying a root problem to hang the alleged unlawful killings on.

Bargewell discovered that the Thundering Third had received its fair dose of training both before and after arriving in Iraq. It included MOUT and house clearing operations at Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms and March AFB from January to late July, 2005, his report said.

This training occurred primarily at the SASO [support and stability operations] exercise but was also taught at the home station MOUT facility at Camp Pendleton, California. Several of the Marines involved in the incident had combat experience and had participated in house clearing and MOUT operations during previous combat operation in Fallujah. Several also had received specialized training in urban operations.

Several young Kilo Marines who attended the training at 29 Palms said that 3/1’s Marines were chastised at both 20 Palms and March AFB for being too aggressive in their responses and their behavior. Former Weapons Plt. Corporal Joe Haman recalls a fight between some 3/1 Marines and a group of reservists at MOUT on March AFB who wanted to ‘do it right.’ At the end of a day the combat veterans told their less experienced charges that using restraint was a good way to get killed. Never give them an opportunity to hurt you was an often repeated mantra in the battalion in the months preceding 3/1’s redeployment to Iraq in the summer of 2005. Thirty-three dead men from a single battalion make for a lot of dangerous Marines.

The men who had fought at Fallujah, once considered a bonus, became somewhat of a liability after the incident at Haditha erupted. Bargewell found that their input, while useful for bucking up the spirits of the unblooded Marines, probably cast a bigger shadow on their subsequent behavior than the Baghdad brass preferred from the safety of the Green Zone.

Bargewell used Kilo Company to make his point:

The point that “this is a different ballgame,” from Fallujah was also frequently emphasized. The platoon leadership stressed PIDing of a target “before Marines engaged.” Company K and the battalion had specific ROE during the deployment and the rules never changed with respect to Company K . Each time Marines left the base, they were reminded of the ROE by their leadership, usually a squad leader.

On page 70 of his report Bargewell presents evidence from the “Deputy Director for Current Operations, Tactical Training and Exercise Group,” a Marine who trained 3/l at the 29 Palms, California training area. Melded into his review was a barely noticed backhand slap that 3/l “was an excellent unit that did many things well but needed to work on ROE and escalation of force.” His observation was another one of those tiny little factors that collectively became a major problem for 3/1’s Marines

Chessani denied that was ever the case before the Haditha incident happened. Before it happened his men were cited for their spirited aggressiveness, Chessani recalled.

Read part one of the interview here and part three here