Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Camp Pendleton, Calif.  The long, lonely journey of Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich ended today when military judge LtCol David Jones sentenced the father of three to 90 days confinement and reduction in grade to Private (E-1), the lowest rank in the Marine Corps.

However, the convening authority Lieutenant General Thomas D. Waldhauser had stipulated that Wuterich will not be confined so the incarceration order was immediately vacated. Wuterich will be reduced in rank in 14 days unless Waldhauser ‘the convening authority’ overrules the judge’s sentence and restores Wuterich to his current rank or some other lower rank of his choosing. Waldhauser is the Commanding General,1st Marine Expeditionary Force ; and Commander, U. S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command. At the time of this writing, the type of discharge Wuterich will receive is still undecided.

On Monday, Wuterich agreed to a plea deal in which he admitted guilt to one count of Negligent Dereliction of Duty in return for the government dropping 13 other charges, including nine counts of Voluntary Manslaughter, two counts of Aggravated Assault, and two other charges of willful dereliction of duty.

Negligent dereliction is a lesser included offense in Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although a misdemeanor, it still carried possible jail time.

‘Lieutenant General Waldhauser believes SSgt Wuterich did not kill anyone in House Number One or House Number 2,’ lead defense attorney Neal Puckett told the military judge during his closing argument. “His integrity is unfaltering. Capt (now Major) McConnell doesn’t wear his Combat Action Ribbon because SSgt Wuterich didn’t receive his.”


Share your soldiers story with us like hundreds of soldiers have already done.

McConnell was relieved of command of Kilo, 3/1 soon after the battalion returned to Camp Pendleton in March, 2006. He has since been exonerated of any charges and restored to his chosen career. The burley infantry officer, who Wuterich claims is the best Marine he ever met, sat impassively in the visitor’s gallery while Puckett was speaking. 

Wuterich, now 31, was originally charged with 18 counts of unpremeditated murder, two counts of soliciting others to make a false statement, and making a false statement himself. Since then a six-year long inquiry revealed there was never any evidence to support the original charges.

His only offense is telling the three Marines following him to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ an order the government says led his tiny command to believe they could kill whomever they found. When their  vicious counterattack was over, some number of Iraqi civilians were dead. Fourteen of them, including 10 women and children, were civilians cowering in their homes while the battle outside raged.

Five Iraqi men died beside a white car that appeared inside the Marine’s security zone seconds before the IED decimated the squad. The government never said who the other victims were.

Although Sullivan insisted there was 16 dead Iraqis to account for after the skirmish was over, McConnell said he was only aware of 15 civilians that died, the number he reported up the chain of command the same day, he testified. In the final analysis it didn’t matter. The government withdrew all those charges during the marathon settlement negotiations that reportedly lasted from last Wednesday until Sunday night.

“The truth of this case is complex…”

“At worst, SSgt Wuterich may have failed in keeping better control of his squad, a negligent dereliction of duty. But the failure to control must be considered in the context of the combat record that took place that day. The truth of this case is complex with many facts and nuances that must be included in retelling an accurate narrative of the events in Haditha,” the defense said in a prepared statement.

When the smoke cleared from a huge IED embedded in the concrete road, LCpl Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas was dead and two other Marines were seriously wounded. Almost immediately the decimated squad began receiving automatic weapons fire from insurgents hiding among houses that lined both sides of the road, several Marines testified last week.

During the sentencing hearing today, McConnell, Maj. Jeffrey Dinsmore, the battalion intelligence officer at Haditha, and Sgt Maj Ed Sax, the battalion sergeant major at Haditha who testified on Wuterich’s behalf while a prosecution witness, were among the witnesses. They told the court Wuterich was an exceptional Marine they would accept back in their commands without hesitation.

McConnell, an Annapolis graduate, was relieved of command along with former 3/1 battalion commander LtCol Jeffrey Chessani in early 2006 after Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk wrote a specious story claiming both officers had conspired with others to cover up the civilian deaths at Haditha. Like McConnell, Chessani was ultimately exonerated after a four year court fight.

Wuterich was a 24-year old infantry squad leader on his first deployment to Iraq when the hidden roadside bomb was detonated under the last Humvee in the tiny unit’s four-vehicle convoy. It  was a tough situation for a Marine who had been an instructor at the School of Infantry-West at Camp Pendleton.

He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines after a tour teaching young Marines how to fight. Now it was time for him to practice what he preached. The Thundering Third had a well deserved reputation for fierceness earned during the battle to recapture Fallujah the year before and at An Nasiriyah, in 2003, when the light infantry battalion held open a road between two critical bridges during a battle later immortalized as the ‘Bridge Fights.’

During the two weeks of testimony proceeding today’s sentencing, witness after witness testified Wuterich did his job well, even admirably, although most of them had been called as prosecution witnesses to incriminate him.

Those witnesses testified that after tending to the wounded and calling for reinforcements, Wuterich briefed  his platoon leader about what he knew. Wuterich was then ordered by Lt. William Kallop to ‘clear South,’ a euphemism for attacking a house with rifles and grenades where his Marines said they were receiving automatic weapons fire, Kallop testified. 

When the bloody deed was done, civilians were dead. It was the beginning of what is now known at the  ‘Haditha Massacre,’ arguably the most divisive incident the Marine Corps has been forced to endure since the Vietnam War.

“I went to Iraq to do my duty, to serve my country, and do the best that I could do. When my Marines and I cleared those houses that day, I responded to what I perceived as a threat and my intention was to eliminate that threat in order to keep the rest of my Marines alive. So when I told my team to shoot first and ask questions later, the intent wasn’t that they would shoot civilians. It was that they would not hesitate in the face of the enemy,” Wuterich told the court.

Today’s hearing merely put the stamp of officialdom on what the participants in the court-martial have known since Sunday. All the evidence was in, the jurors were out, and the court room was packed. Behind Wuterich were David and Rosemarie Wuterich, who have been sitting behind their son since testimony began two weeks ago.

Sitting to his left was detailed Marine Corps lawyer Maj. Meridith Marshall. On his other side was defense Haytham Faraj and Neal Puckett. Both men, former Marines, have been defending Wuterich since he was charged in 2006.  

On the other side of the aisle were lead prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon and his co-counsel LtCol Sean Sullivan, who has been prosecuting Haditha defendants  for so long he managed to turn a reserve commission into a military career. Today, Sullivan was doing most of the heavy lifting. It was his job to inflict some vengeance into a renowned criminal case that has already seen seven defendants walk free. Sullivan came out swinging.

“The evidence clearly articulates the negligence of this order,” he said. Sullivan used the opportunity to once again address how fate and modern weapons combined to killed innocent women and children. Although Wuterich was not being sentenced for manslaughter or assault Sullivan kept the ‘horrific’ demise of the victims central to his theme that the government deserved its pound of flesh, even if it was only a 90 day sentence. He urged the military judge to sentence Wuterich to the maximum allowed by the stipulated agreement.

McGirk responds

Tim McGirk, who has not been heard from by the Marine Corps since he wrote his sensational March 19, 2006 article accusing the Marines of massacre and cover-up, and helped prepare an equally specious follow-up report called ‘The Ghosts of Haditha,’ finally surfaced.

Today, McGirk answered a request for an interview with Defend Our Marines by ‘declining our request, but I’d like to set you straight on a few points in your note.’

According to McGirk it was his New York editor Jim Kelly who forbade him from going to Haditha after another journalist was seriously wounded in Baghdad.

A photographer, an Iraqi translator and myself had made arrangements through the military to go to the Marine base at Haditha. Two days before we were supposed to leave on the embed, an ABC reporter was shot in the head by a sniper in Baghdad, and there was a general lock-down on press movements by media organizations in Iraq. My editor in NY, Jim Kelly, ordered me not to go to Haditha. It was as simple as that. As the ace investigative reporter you say you are, you can easily check this.

In fact, that particular fact was confirmed in 2007 by several sources who told Defend Our Marines McGirk had been forbidden by Time magazine from seeking to discover for himself what he so grandiloquently attributed to two known insurgents who had pulled the wool over his eyes.

In my Monday missive, I asked McGirk  to ‘please help me understand’ why he never bothered to look for himself, a fundamental journalistic endeavor as cherished by reporters as much as the Marine Corps cherishes it own customs and traditions. Until McGirk declined to travel to Haditha this reporter had never heard of an instance where a reporter, particularly one who works for such an august journal as Time magazine, wrote a report based on sources he didn’t know and could scarcely understand.

Had McGirk bothered to simply send an e-mail to the Thundering Third, he would have received a briefing the battalion staff had prepared for his inquisition, according to Maj Dinsmore, who helped prepare it.

“I have no doubt, Mr. Helms,” McGirk wrote, “that in combat you may have found yourself in situations similar to Haditha, facing an invisible enemy who uses IEDs and then hides behind the civilian population. I’ve been on plenty of embeds with the army and with the Marines, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 99 percent of the  time these men handled terrible, confusing situations as professionals who never broke the rules of engagement and kept their cool. Wuterich, and the men under his command were the exception but, to my mind, that doesn’t excuse them from being the subject of a thorough military investigation. Good luck with your book, Mr. Helms. I’ll be reading it very carefully.”

And thank you, Mr. McGirk. We hope you do.