Week One Report: Of Numbers and ROE

Sunday, January 15, 2012  

Camp Pendleton, Calif. The General Court Martial of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich became a certainty on November 20, 2005, one day after his squad lost one Marine and killed 24 Iraqis before passing the score of their bloody encounter up the chain of command.

At first glance the events at an obscure place called Haditha, Iraq seemed routine enough. If noticed at all, the blossoming debacle was just another soul-numbing calamity among the hundreds of random tragedies unfolding across the shattering region every week during the second year of the war.

The day after the November 19 skirmish, a routine Marine Corps press release from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the IED blast. The Marine Corps colorless account noted that “gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire.”  When the shooting ended, the announcement said, eight insurgents were dead and a wounded insurgent was captured.

The report was written by 2nd Marine Division Public Affairs Officer Captain Jeffrey Pool, a career Marine officer responsible for briefing the vociferous press in al Anbar Province. In November 2005 Al Anbar was the hot ticket in Iraq for determined reporters, the place where they could make a name for themselves dancing briefly with the terrible danger the Marines faced every day. Pool was there to accommodate them.

Regrettably, Pool’s account was erroneous. Worse, he knew it at the time. Capt. Pool later claimed he released the inaccurate report because he believed the civilian deaths were attributable to the roadside bombing because it led the Marines to counter-attack the hidden insurgents who set it off.

It was not Pool’s personal opinion. When the Marine Corps wants captains to have a public opinion they tell them what it is. That’s what happened to Pool. A colonel named Richard A Sokoloski told him to write it. Not only was he a colonel, Sokoloski was Chief of Staff of the 2nd Marine Division and Pool’s boss. In any event, Pool’s innocuous report wasn’t considered by anyone except the dead to be earth shaking news.

The Marine who died was 20-year old LCpl Miguel Terrazas, the son of a retired Army staff sergeant. At the time, nobody up the chain knew his name, they just knew a faceless Marine was dead. Three months after the IED killed Terrazas a second bomb was remotely detonated by Time magazine from its Baghdad bureau. Time claimed the Iraqi citizens who died at Haditha were massacred, the victims of Marine vengeance. The magazine’s explosive account unleashed a monster that threatened the soul of the Corps.

It was written by Tim McGirk, a particularly resourceful and ambitious Time reporter who claimed the Iraqis were gunned down by merciless Marines gone berserk.  Regrettably, like Capt. Pool, McGirk also got it wrong, remarkably wrong, but for different reasons. He was never there.

Before the Marine Corps could make his specious account right it was too late. To steal a time-worn phrase, the Marines had landed, but the situation was entirely out of hand. What happened in that brief encounter is what this story is all about. It did not happen in a vacuum.

Wuterich’s court martial has a large number of principle players. Of course there is Frank and his three little girls, and his defense attorneys: Neal Puckett, Haytham Faraj and Maj. Meridith Marshall. All three are Marine lawyers although Puckett and Faraj are retired now.  Then there is the military judge, LtCol David Jones, an even tempered man with a friendly demeanor and a reputation for being hard as steel. The prosecution is led by Maj. Nicholas Gannon, a younger man, and LtCol Sean Sullivan, a fiery Chicago Irishman who has mellowed some in the four years he has been struggling for a conviction.


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Seven other defendants, including three who have already testified, have been exonerated. The youngest is Justin Sharratt, a baby-faced kid when all this started. He killed three armed Iraqis in a room smaller than a lot of bathrooms with his pistol. His buddy Stephen Tatum took the stand Tuesday. He had Wuterich’s back at Haditha. He had it again when he testified.

Both Marines learned how to fight at Fallujah the year before, when the Thundering Third was stacking up Iraqi corpses like cordwood with everything from pistols to SMAW-NE shoulder-fired rockets than turned people into charcoal briquettes. They killed so many Iraqis the deaths were counted by measuring a lengthening ditch were the dead Iraqis were buried shoulder to shoulder. Marine reconnaissance aircraft took pictures of it every day. It eventually stretched for several hundred yards.

The oldest and highest ranked Marine charged was LtCol Jeffrey Chessani, who refused to throw his men under the bus and got to ride in it with them for his courage. He helped write the plan that helped fill up the ditch. That is what senior Marine officers do.

The other defendants who were charged and subsequently freed have blown with the four winds. There is Capt. Lucas McConnell, the Kilo Company commander and Annapolis grad who walked early on. Indicted with him was Randy Stone, a lawyer so inexperienced he managed to get himself arrested. Stone was once held up by President George W. Bush as a poster boy for patriotism.

“And today, Capt. Randy Stone carries on a proud family tradition,” Bush told Congress in 2005. “Capt. Stone is a Marine officer now serving in Iraq. He knows that he and his generation are doing the same vital work in this war on terror that his grandparents did in World War II. He also knows how this struggle will end.”

Also in the mix was a reputedly rebellious intelligence officer named Andrew Grayson, who has been badmouthed by name along with Sgt Sanick Dela Cruz. Grayson was blasted Monday by retired US Army Col. Gregory Watt for being an obstructionist who hid evidence from his investigation. Dela Cruz was crucified by his squad mates as being an unpredictable, habitual liar. 

Dela Cruz is a snakeshit mean turncoat riflemen despised by the other enlisted men for turning against them to be a key government witness. He traded five murder charges for a free ride. The little man from Chicago admittedly liked to kick Iraqi ‘detainees’ in places where it wouldn’t show and urinate on a dead person after he shot him. He called his predilections ’emotional’ reactions. The government says Dela Cruz is one of the good guys.

The government’s case sounds simple enough. Wuterich is accused of Voluntary Manslaughter for killing nine people, three counts of Dereliction of Duty for ordering, in three places, 15 civilians to be killed, and two counts of Assault with a Dangerous Weapon or Other Means Like to Produce Death or Grievous Injury for shooting various people in two private residences and exiting a little white car.

Five of the dead were Iraqi men shot down next to the innocuous white car seconds after the ambush was sprung. Wuterich admits he took a knee and shot them when they tried to run away. Dela Cruz says Wuterich shot them while they were standing around with their hands in the air. Dela Cruz says he shot them again just to make sure they were dead and then urinated in one of the victim’s empty skull.

“I didn’t want to get blasted,” he explained on Wednesday.

If the numbers don’t seem to add up don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. They don’t. The formula is twenty four murders minus eight legally killed insurgents plus five questionably innocent dead guys in a white car, and a random victim still unaccounted for. The illegal deaths have dropped from 24 to 15 to 12 and now to nine. The rest of them apparently died of fright.

No doubt the panel members ‘what military jurors are collectively called’ will be scratching their heads during deliberations trying to add it all up. If that sounds crass it isn’t intended to. The way the victims are counted merely underscores the complexities of trying to assign moral imperatives to the immorality of war.

It is that ambiguity that led to this trial. The government, to prove Wuterich committed crimes, has to prove he violated the Rules of Engagement ‘the Bible if you will’ for killing the enemy in modern American-style warfare. The suspected enemy has to show ‘hostile intent,’ or just be downright ‘hostile’ to be eligible for killing.  The interpretation is a bit difficult to grasp.

Friday afternoon a Marine major named Maj. Kathryn Navin said she taught the Rules of Engagement to the Marines before they left for Iraq. The ROE was written by brilliant lawyers exercising cool reflection in the sane environment of an office. Unfortunately the situation at Haditha on November 19, 2005 was insane.

A former Marine sergeant named Hector Salinas Wednesday testified for the government. He is crafty like a fox. Lawyer Kevin McDermott, a military lawyer who spent several years involved with 3/1 Marines, says it takes a very smart man to pull off being stupid. Salinas couldn’t remember anything except he was the squad leader that day, that he was the first man to see an insurgent by the victims’ houses, and the first Marine into the first house where six of the victims died. He is also the only guy to say that if he had it to do all over again he would ‘have called in an air strike.’ That comment made headlines around the world. Salinas says Wuterich never gave an order the entire day.

Friday morning Wuterich’s former platoon commander William Kallop testified he ordered Wuterich to ‘clear South,’ a euphemism for clean out those houses with rifles and grenades. Kallop said it was alright under the rules. He says Wuterich was a fine leader and a great Marine. He is not at all happy about the way things have gone.

Maj. Navin testified  Marines should only use deadly force to clear a structure (like houses) if they are receiving fire and can positively identify the hostile individual inside. She says a structure housing hostile forces cannot be hostile — only the individuals inside. On November 19, a few hundred meters down Route Chestnut a house suspected of harboring insurgents was flattened by 500-pound retarded gravity bombs dropped from Marine Corps attack jets, ‘turned into dust,’ LtCol Chessani once said.

Nobody was charged.

The court-martial resumes Tuesday morning.