by Nathaniel R. Helms | Thursday, December 29, 2011

“The 400 pages of interrogations [regarding the incident in Haditha], once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents…by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.”–Michael S. Schmidt, “Junkyard Gives Up Secret Accounts of Massacre in Iraq“, The New York Times, December 14, 2011

Three weeks after The New York Times carped about the fellow in Iraq cooking fish with scraps of classified U.S. documents, once closely guarded as secret of war, the long declassified observations of the witnesses detailed in the 400 pages of purloined interrogations are finally going to come out, maybe. That is if the scuttlebutt is dead wrong and no miraculous last minute intervention by someone on high puts a merciful end to arguably the most divisive event to ever test the honor of the United States Marine Corps.

Whether anyone cares enough to notice either way is a much bigger question than why a New York Times reporter wouldn’t bother to actually check the classification status of the documents he was peddling before selling it as fresh fish. He could have found out everything he needed to know just by clicking on Defend Our Marines

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Ultimately, the unfortunate timing of Michael S. Schmidt’s dubious claims, whether intentional or another in the long, calamitous string of coincidences, inferences, and presumptions surrounding the so-called ‘Haditha massacre’, will soon be forgotten. What does matter is that four days into the New Year, SSgt Frank Wuterich will once again be battling for his life in a war that is already over.

Interest in the events at Haditha on November 19, 2005 that cost so many lives have waxed and waned ever since an IED blew up under a Marine Corps Humvee driven by a young guy who was later laid to rest in El Paso, Texas. Most recently the aforementioned cooking account ignited a little brush fire that blazed about as long as it took for the Iraqi to cook his carp.

Nothing was said in the Times of LCpl Miguel ‘T.J.’ Terrazas, the first person to die in the insurgent ambush that ignited the bloody skirmish. T.J. was still a teenager when he earned his Marine Corps moniker for his unauthorized exploits in naughty Tijuana between two tours in Iraq. He wouldn’t live to see 21.

Another Marine who deserves special mention is former LCpl Justin Sharratt, an unlikely prosecution witness. Sharratt twice faced no-quarter death duels with insurgents in Iraq. He was among a handful of young Kilo, 3/1 Marines who already had first-hand experience in close combat when events at Haditha erupted.

The government granted Sharratt testimonial immunity to appear. His statement may be among the 400 pages of ‘secret’ testimony that wound up in the Iraqi’s camp fire. It was obtained in a urine-soaked basement by a tag team of Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents who wouldn’t even stop their hounding to let Sharratt pee.

In November 2004, Sharratt survived the vicious Battle of Fallujah where he distinguished himself at the diabolical Hell House. In that engagement he was in a room-to-room shootout with an unknown number of insurgents that left one Marine dead, 10 Marines seriously wounded, and earned Kilo Company, 3/1 a permanent place in Marine Corps lore.

Sharratt’s deadly encounter with similarly disposed insurgents a year later at Haditha helped ignite allegations in Time magazine that a gang of out-of-control Marines slaughtered old men, women, and children in a revenge killing following the death of a squad mate. It turned out that Sharratt had displayed remarkable courage and combat savvy when he took down several Iraqi men armed with AK-47 assault rifles using only his pistol. In other times and places he would have earned a high award for valor. Instead, the young man from Pennsylvania was charged with murder.

Lt. Col. Paul Ware, the hearing officer who recommended that charges against Sharratt be dropped, said murder charges brought against him were based on unreliable witness accounts, poor forensic evidence and questionable legal theories.

‘The government version is unsupported by independent evidence,’ Ware wrote in an 18-page report. ‘To believe the government version of facts is to disregard clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.’

Nothing has changed.

Sharratt was eventually exonerated by then Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the original convening authority in the Haditha matter. While dismissing the charges one of the Marine Corps greatest living Marines commended Sharratt for his remarkable bravery. It was a portent of things to come.

Eventually seven of the eight defendants were exonerated by a variety of means and three senior Marine officers saw their careers destroyed with Letters of Censure from the Secretary of the Navy. Wuterich is the last Marine standing, still full of fight more than six years after the first one.

If the court-martial of SSgt Wuterich proceeds as scheduled, it will last three weeks or more, the Marine Corps says. Defend Our Marines will be in the court room every day. Each evening it will post a brief accounting of the day’s events, colored by the reflections of other legal proceedings against the seven defendants who have already been exonerated.

The names of many of the witnesses, lawyers, and senior officers who are playing out this drama will appear one last time. If the Fates don’t intervene each weekend DOM will post a longer, more elaborate account of the entire week’s events as they unfold in the remarkably dynamic atmosphere of a Camp Pendleton, California court room.

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
29 December 2011

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).