Trial of SSgt Wuterich: LCpl Tatum Testifies

by Nathaniel R. Helms | Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | Day Four

Camp Pendleton, Calif. Former Marine rifleman Stephen Tatum took the stand Tuesday morning in the second day of witness testimony at the General Court Martial of Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, accused of leading his men in the murders of Iraqi citizens in Haditha more than six years ago.

Tatum, a veteran of the battle for Fallujah in 2004, was called by the prosecution to recount his actions after his 12-man squad was ambushed after resupplying a combat outpost south of the city. Tatum was ordered to testify as part of a testimonial immunity agreement his civilian lawyer, Jack B. Zimmerman, struck with Marine prosecutors and the Department of Justice in March 2008. The government said ‘it was done to further the truth seeking function,’ Zimmerman told Defend Our Marines at the time. (See that article.)

Upon reaching the agreement on March 28, 2008, the Marine Corps dropped  charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault in return for Tatum’s future testimony.

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The Oklahoma native, accompanied by Zimmerman, was questioned for three hours by LtCol Sean Sullivan and defense attorney Neal Puckett, the former Marine Corps military judge representing Wuterich.  

Sullivan began his interrogation by asking Tatum to recount the events of November 19, 2005 when an IED hidden in the road destroyed a Humvee in the squad’s four vehicle convoy, killing one Marine and wounding two others. After detailing just how the convoy found itself on Route Chestnut, Sullivan got down to cases. His intention was to prove that Wuterich failed to follow the Rules of Engagement when he ordered Tatum and two other Marines to ‘clear’ two houses suspected of harboring insurgents who were shooting at the decimated squad with small arms. The Chicago reservist was trying to pluck from Tatum evidence that Wuterich had acted in a manner contrary to his training and responsibilities when his Marines stormed two houses that resulted in the deaths of civilians.

Yesterday Wuterich’s co-counsel Haytham Faraj revealed that 30 percent of the expended cartridges found in the second of two houses cleared in the Marines initial attack were apparently fired by insurgents. His revelation is the first evidence that insurgents had used the houses as strong points, as the Marines believed.

When asked to explain why he had voluntarily joined Wuterich’s team ordered to ‘clear South’ by platoon leader Lt William Kallop, Tatum told the court ‘I had served with them for a long time. I proceeded to join the group going toward House 1. The house had been declared hostile. Any individual there was hostile.’

Much of his testimony was familiar; following closely the statements he voluntarily gave to Army investigator Col. Gregory Watt in February 2006 and pried from him during a 12 to 16 hour interrogation by a Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent in the bowels of Haditha Dam the following March.

During cross-examination by Puckett, Tatum repeated several times that he felt neither he nor Wuterich had done anything wrong when they swept through two darkened houses shooting and throwing grenades as they cleared the structures one room at a time. At one point Tatum told Puckett he heard an AK-47 being ‘racked,’ a sound he recognized instantly.

Once I heard that AK-47 racking, I wasn’t going in that room to endanger myself or my Marines. At Fallujah we learned we never went into a room without throwing in a grenade.

“You can barely see anything because of dust and plaster, dust fills the air. You could see targets. Our job was to take out every target,” Tatum testified.

Earlier Tatum had told Sullivan that he was unable to tell age, gender or sex of the people the counter-attacking Marines encountered inside the almost dark houses.

During Puckett’s cross examination Tatum told the court the NCIS special agent had forced him to urinate on the floor of the room where he was questioned during his marathon interrogation rather than allow him to use a latrine. The investigation went on so long he could not remember what he had said or whether or not he had actually signed the statement obtained by the NCIS special agent.

“You spent 12 to 16 hours trying to answer the NCIS the best you could,” Puckett asked toward the end of his examination? “Sitting here today you know you did the right thing don’t you?”

“Yes sir,” Tatum answered emphatically.

After telling Puckett about his encounter with the NCIS special agent, the former military judge moved on to what Tatum and the other Marines knew before they left Firm Base Sparta to resupply the isolated outpost. That drew an immediate objection from lead prosecutor Major Nicholas Gannon. The court recessed for about 20 minutes while the attorneys argued whether any classified information was going to be revealed.

“There is nothing classified that was discussed and if it was it was declassified,” Faraj said with evident anger.

After overcoming the prosecution’s strenuous objections Puckett was allowed to proceed.

The ‘secrets’ Gannon was trying to withhold were revealed in 2007 during the long months of pre-trial Article 32 investigations. Tatum acknowledged the night before the convoy his squad had been briefed to expect trouble,. They were warned to watch out for snipers active everywhere in Haditha and the infamous white cars that insurgents were using as Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices.

“You were told about that because of certain types of complex attacks involved white cars. You were aware of a number of these incidents, is that right?” Puckett asked. “You had been told Iraqis hid weapons and then pulled them out and fired at you after you though things were clear.”

“Yes sir,” Tatum responded.

There will be more in the Weekend Wrap about the testimony of SSgt Justin Laughner, the second witness to be called Tuesday. Laughner was the intelligence expert in the Human Exploitation Team that was attached to 3/1 at Haditha. He was still being interrogated at the time of this writing.


Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
10 January 201

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).