by Nathaniel R. Helms

November 15, 2007 In letters of censure, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter said senior officers (who led the 2nd Marine Division when news emerged regarding the now discredited ‘Haditha massacre’) had ‘betrayed the trust’ of the Marine Corps for not investigating and reporting the Haditha matter appropriately.

Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, formerly the Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq, Col. Richard G. Sokoloski, former Chief of Staff of the division and later the CoS of Multi-National Forces-West, and Col. Stephen W. Davis, the former commander of Regimental Combat Team-2, the senior commander in the Haditha tactical area of operations, all received a Secretarial Letter of Censure from Winter on September 5, 2007 instead of being charged with criminal behavior.

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The contents of those letters were secret until they were obtained by Defend Our Marines .

Winter was particularly critical of the three senior Marines apparent reluctance to respond to multiple requests by Time magazine to reveal what happened at Haditha. The magazine’s sensational reports claimed a squad of Marines under Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani’s command murdered 24 innocent civilians in retaliation for an IED attack that killed one of their number and wounded two others. Afterwards Chessani and his officers covered up the action to avoid recrimination, the Time magazine reporter claimed.

!Even when made aware of the serious allegations raised by the Time magazine journalist, your response to higher headquarters was to forward incomplete, inaccurate, and inconsistent materials provided by a subordinate unit, rather than to initiate a thorough inquiry into the incident,” Winter rebuked Col. Davis.

On Wednesday a spokesperson for Secretary Winter said in response to a written question that “Time magazine was mentioned as an example of an incident which garnered significant, national media interest; and yet–initially–was not thoroughly investigated. The Secretary was not giving Time magazine special consideration, nor was he suggesting that media have a specific right and/or need to know.”

The Haditha prosecution slithers on

On Friday, November 19, the second anniversary of the Haditha affair, Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani, will be arraigned on three criminal charges for his alleged role in the incident. Chessani reported to the three censured officers and is the highest ranking officer to face criminal prosecution. His lawyers say he will plead not guilty.

Chessani, 44, was the commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines when one of his Kilo Company rifle squads was attacked in an al Qaeda financed and led IED ambush at Haditha that caused the casualties. Chessani is charged with two counts of dereliction of duty for failing to investigate and report the circumstances of the affair and violation of a lawful order for not completing a combat journal entry after the incident happened.

The ambush triggered a day long fight. The inflammatory news accounts of the incident that began appearing in late March 2006 polarized American political and public opinion and sent morale in the Marine Corps plummeting.

The damage to the Marine Corps image and mission was so injurious that Marine General William W. Hagee, at the time the Commandant of the Marine Corps, felt compelled to travel to Iraq in late May, 2006 to personally take charge of damage control.  He cautioned Marines fighting there on the dangers of becoming “indifferent to the loss of a human life,” contemporary news accounts said.

During hearings at Camp Pendleton, California this past summer, Huck testified that he had told senior commanders in Iraq that he believed the civilian’s deaths was “collateral damage” resulting from the engagement. Davis and Sokoloski, a Marine lawyer, both stood on their constitutional right against self-incrimination and refused to testify at the hearings.

Huck testified that his initial understanding of what happened didn’t change until a Time magazine reporter named Tim McGirk began making incriminating allegations to senior Army commanders in January 2006. Huck further testified that he was the victim of Col. Sokowski who failed to inform him what was happening in his command. 

Media and politics

Winter is apparently very sensitive about media inquiries and made the senior Marines failure to adequately inform the press the central theme of his criticism. He told all three senior officers that their failure to submit to media interrogation was indicative of their inability to understand and fight a counter-insurgency war. Time magazine’s subsequent, unanswered stories sparked world-wide condemnation of the Marine Corps’ war fighting methods in Iraq and a frenzy of self-flagellation by senior military commanders in Iraq seeking to reverse the damning allegations.

Critics of the charges against eight Marines initially accused of murder and cover-up at Haditha say the prosecution of the Marines was inspired and fueled by reporters who compared the incident at Haditha to the infamous My Lai massacre to garner support for opposition to the war from a generation unfamiliar with the vast difference in circumstances between the two incidents.

The massacre in South Vietnam by American soldiers in 1969 claimed the lives of between 347 and 504 civilians with ages ranging from one to eighty-two years depending on whether the US government or the Vietnamese government is providing the casualty figures. Despite the differences, politicians and pundits, who did know better, used the Haditha affair as an occasion to rally opposition against the Iraq war and the Republican Administration that started it. 

“There is no comparison between two events,” said Gary Meyers, who, as a 27-year-old Army JAG lawyer, defended an officer accused of war crimes at My Lai. Meyers also successfully represented Marine LCpl Justin Sharratt–exonerated of murder charges by Gen. James N. Mattis, formerly the convening authority in the Haditha case.

“The difference between My Lai and Haditha was that Haditha was a kinetic event, a day long combat in different areas. There was no combat at My Lai,” Meyers said.

The critic’s complaints were underscored when opportunistic Democratic politicians used Time’s specious allegations to attack President George W. Bush’s contentious handling of the war and gain political traction at the same time. Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, himself a retired Marine Corps colonel, blew the clarion call when claiming in the international press that the Marines murdered the Iraqi citizens in cold blood because they were too stressed out and tired from multiple deployments to fight honorably.

Murtha, who chairs the powerful House Defense Appropriations Committee, initially claimed Gen. Hagee personally briefed him about the details of the massacre while still Commandant. When Hagee denied he offered the revelations Murtha was trumpeting the congressman backpedaled by claiming he was misunderstood. Murtha then claimed that the fallacious Time magazine report of March 19, 2006 was the source of his ‘evidence.’

Unfortunately for the young Marine enlisted men and officers Pandora’s Box was already opened by the Pennsylvania politician. The cost incurred by the Marines, their families, and the Marines Corps is devastating. In addition, civilian lawyers hired by the defendants and/or offering their services pro bono have already spent more than a million dollars and at least two of the cases are now going to trial, they said

So far the Marine Corps has already spent more than $3 million dollars prosecuting and defending the Marines, according to spokesman Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a public affairs officer at Camp Pendleton, California. That amount does not include the undisclosed millions of dollars the Pentagon spent sending a legion of investigators to Iraq during its 18-month inquiry to discover what actually happened, Brian Rooney, a member of the Thomas More Law Firm who is representing Lt. Col. Chessani, pointed out.

Winter singled out Colonel Sokoloski for failing to append the erroneous news release that instigated the furor that still hasn’t died down. The press report written by a public affairs officer far away from the scene inaccurately claimed that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed by the same roadside bomb that killed Marine Lance Corporal Miguel ‘T.J.’ Terrazas and wounded two others infantrymen during an IED ambush. Winter said Sokoloski intentionally withheld the error from Huck, thereby undermining his ability ‘to respond to the incident.’

In fact, Marines from a squad of 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3/1 storming two homes held by armed insurgents killed 15 civilians and at least nine insurgents hiding among them, including five Iraqi men who inexplicably appeared at the ambush site in a taxi almost simultaneously with the IED blast.

Winter repeatedly mentioned the efforts of the unnamed Time magazine reporter in his condemnation of the Marine officers. McGirk first brought tales of massacre to the Marines in late December 2005 when making allegations the attacking Marines shoved four men into a closet and shot them, and then lined up an unknown number of innocent old men, women and children outside their homes and mowed them down execution style in retaliation for the attack.

McGirk claimed that raging infantrymen from Kilo Company ultimately slaughtered the 24 innocent civilians, including women, children and four college students and a cab driver on their way to a technical college.  The five men in the taxi were later identified as suspected insurgents.

McGirk eventually toned down his initial allegations, offering instead videotaped ‘evidence’ of dead bodies, blood spattered rooms and unsubstantiated civilian testimony he obtained from two Iraqi insurgent operatives to Army officers in Baghdad. McGirk told the Army officers that the Marines had refused to answer his questions, the investigation revealed.

Maj Jeffrey Dinsmore, then a captain and the S-2 (Intelligence Officer) of 3/1, later testified about McGirk’s involvement in revealing the fictional allegations.

“In late Dec05, we also heard a reporter identified as Tim MCGIRK was scheduled to visit our Battalion,” Dinsmore wrote in an official statement to investigators. “Based on what I was told I believed he was going to visit us to refute the press release that attributed all the deaths on 19 Nov 05 to the IED blast that killed LCPL TERRAZAS. I and the rest of the Battalion staff had been puzzled by the inaccurate press release but did not formally protest the inaccuracies because we were busy and it did not seem important. I was tasked by COL CHESSANI to develop an unclassified brief for Tim MCGIRK regarding the events of that day. Tim MCGIRK did not show up and I never gave my brief to him. I do not know the reason he did not show up, my assumption at the time was he had found another source of information which gave him the story he wanted to report. I did not give his visit anymore thought until I read the article in a Mar06 issue of Time magazine.”

Winter chastised Col. Davis for failing to adequately investigate the deaths of the 15 civilians whose families later received solatia payments the Coalition government pays when it mistakenly kills Iraqi civilians. The money is intended to be an apology of sorts for the loss of innocent family members. In total the Marines at Haditha paid about $38,000 in solatia payments authorized by Col. Davis. Solatia payments to seven Iraqi families who lost family members were denied because the decedents were known insurgents, the Marine Corps says.

Winter told Davis “you approved an unusually large payment of $38,000 to the victims families, yet failed to recognize the seriousness of this incident and direct an adequate investigation.”  He also rebuked the hard-charging former regimental combat team commander for failing to respond to media requests for information. Winter characterized Davis failure to cooperate with the press as being indicative of his lack of understanding for fighting counter-insurgency warfare. He leveled similar charges against Huck and Sokoloski.

Evidence subsequently revealed during the summer-long investigation shows that everyone in the battalion’s chain of command from squad leader to Chessani reported the number of civilian deaths up the chain of command almost immediately after they were discovered. Two Marine officers accused failing to do so have already been exonerated.

Winter’s critics call his decision not to intervene of behalf of Chessani and the other junior Marines after he knew the charges were flawed a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage over the specious charges brought early on by big news organizations. Why Huck and his senior subordinates were later deemed to be immune from prosecution after failing to act and the line officers and enlisted men who were getting shot at almost daily were not is a paradox that the defense hopes the prosecution will explain when Chessani goes before a general court-martial next April.  

Winter also blasted Huck for failing to provide leadership because despite the high numbers of civilian deaths in Haditha, subsequent inquiries about the nature of the incident from news media and your commander [Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli], and the likely counterproductive effects these deaths would have on your mission.

Huck testified he told Chiarelli and Army General George W. Casey — the overall commander of Multinational Force Iraq from June 2004 to February 2007 — that he was satisfied the civilians died as a result of collateral damage incurred during a firefight between ambushed Marines and insurgent fighters. Huck testified his impressions didn’t change until McGirk began asking damning questions in January 2006. The resulting pressure from senior commanders in Baghdad then led to his belated decision to more thoroughly investigate the allegations of murder and misconduct, Huck said.

Winter apparently wasn’t satisfied with the speed Huck’s decision to bow to media pressure. He tongue-lashed Huck for failing to ensure that the circumstances surrounding the Haditha engagement were investigated thoroughly.Your advice to your immediate commander, Lieutenant General Chiarelli, regarding no necessity for further investigation conveyed a cavalier attitude towards the gravity of these allegations…

Ironically, that is the same complaint Chessani is now being court-martialed for. Winter went on to tell Huck he should have ordered the investigation at least to ensure the rules of engagement and the rules of land warfare had been followed.

Later intelligence operations by a Marine Corps counter-intelligence unit identified as ‘HET03’ (Human Exploitation Team 03) located, killed or captured eleven al Qaeda-paid and led insurgents who perpetrated the attack during January and February, 2006. The informant who initially fingered them, as well as the captured insurgents, told their interrogators al Qaeda’s mission was to discredit the Marine Corps by creating maximum carnage among both the Marines and local civilians to improve their political position vis-à-vis the Coalition central government.   

The ambush triggered an all-day fight that left 24 Iraqi citizens and one Marine dead and 11 Marines wounded. A videotape of the duel made by a Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle showed insurgents gathering arms and heading into action all morning long.

Winter was apparently very sensitive to the media inquiries and made the senior Marines failure to adequately inform the press the central theme of his criticism despite the indisputable evidence that the so-called ‘evidence’ revealed by Time magazine is the fabrication of two Iraqi insurgent operatives who duped McGirk into believing they were presenting the unvarnished truth.

Two exhaustive investigations and a summer-long inquiry that called upon dozens of witnesses who were there something McGirk never managed – revealed the only ‘truth’ in Time’s heart-wrenching account was that 24 Iraqi citizens were killed during the day-long insurgent offensive.

Despite the flawed allegations ticked off in Time magazine, eight Marines from 3/1  four officers including Chessani – and four enlisted men once commanded by Huck and Davis were charged with dereliction of duty, murder and assault for wrongfully killing the 24 Iraqi citizens. Huck, Sokoloski and Davis, however, escaped criminal charges, although the letters of censure from the Secretary of the Navy effectively destroyed their careers.

Marine Corps Maj. Eric Dent, a spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon said Wednesday that the Secretary’s letters of censure do not prevent the Marine Corps from taking punitive or administrative action against the three censured Marines.

That will bring little comfort to Chessani, the father of five children and expecting a sixth. If Chessani is convicted by general court-martial he faces the possible loss of all pay, benefits and retirement privileges as well as 42 months in prison. The brilliant 20-year career of the professional infantryman was expected to blossom for his command performance in Iraq. Both Huck and Davis gave Chessani exceptionally high marks on his fitness reports and strongly recommended him for the professional schools that would one day propel him to high command.

Two separate inquiries–a ‘secret’ inquiry led by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and a Naval Criminal Investigative Service inquisition that lasted 18 months–failed to discover any evidence of criminal behavior by the senior Marine officers. Bargewells report said at worst the senior Marines were guilty of bad attitudes and poor judgment for not taking the deaths of the Iraqi citizens seriously enough.

What’s ahead

Meanwhile Chessani and Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum, accused of two counts of involuntary manslaughter, one of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and one of reckless endangerment, face general courts-martial. Tatum recently refused to enter a plea in advance of his general court-martial, scheduled for late March 2008 at Camp Pendleton. A third Marine enlisted man, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the 26-year old squad leader in command of the ambushed Marines, also faces possible court-martial for 17 counts of unpremeditated murder and lying to cover up his alleged crimes.

Last month the investigating officer who heard the evidence against Wuterich recommended to the convening authority–now Lt. Gen. Samuel T. Helland–that the charges be reduced to seven counts of negligent homicide and one count of making a false statement. The convening authority is the final arbiter in the matter.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware concluded his investigative report by disclosing that he didn’t believe the government could prove its case against the veteran Marine infantryman at a court-martial.

No decision has been made in Wuterich’s case.  


Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
15 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).