Defend Our Marines – Fire Fight In Haditha

Defend Our Marines / July 17, 2007

The media got it wrong from the start. The action in Haditha on November 19, 2005 began as a ambush and escalated into a complex engagement with insurgents. Defend Our Marines Contributing Editor Nathaniel R. Helms gets the story from one man who was there.


Firefight in Haditha: An eyewitness account

by Nathaniel R. Helms

A Marine who witnessed the battle at Haditha, Iraq (that led to accusations of murder and malfeasance by seven Marine officers and enlisted men) claims that the Marines were ambushed. Former Corporal Joe Haman says the Marines were attacked by a large group of Iraqi insurgents immediately after an Improvised Explosive Device killed Lance Corporal Miguel ‘T.J.’ Terrazas and wounded two others.

Haman, 22, from Saint Louis, Missouri, was in another squad of Kilo Company Marines who saw, heard, and later participated in the fight at Haditha that morning. He says the Iraqis ambushed SSgt Frank Wuterich and his squad from 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, Third Battalion, 1st Marines from a cluster of houses where most of the Iraqis would later die.

Wuterich is charged with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder associated with the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians killed in Haditha on November 19, 2005 following the IED attack on the 12-man squad he commanded. Two members of his squad, Lance Corporal’s Stephen B. Tatum and Justin L. Sharratt also face courts-martial for multiple counts of unpremeditated murder. Four officers, including battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, face criminal charges for failing to adequately investigate the incident.

Haman was in the battalion when it fought at Fallujah in 2004 and served with Sharratt, Tatum, Terrazas and several other Kilo Company Marine enlisted men who fought in both engagements. He says that until now nobody had asked him what his squad encountered during and after the ambush.

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Haman described the fight during an interview in Saint Charles, Missouri last Thursday. He said it was about 0700 (7am) when Terrazas and the rest of his squad delivered breakfast and supplies to the C.O.P. in four HUMVEEs. They stayed about 30 minutes, just long enough for Terrazas to smoke a cigarette and share a few jokes with Haman. T.J.’s brief visit was the last conversation he would have before he died, Haman said.

Haman said he ‘knew it was bad as soon as he heard the explosion.’ His suspicions were confirmed seconds after the blast when a full fledged firefight erupted around a group of four houses about 150 feet from the IED blast. The firing didn’t build up gradually the way meeting engagements do, Haman explained. It was a full fledged ambush from the start. Immediately radio chatter picked up as the besieged Marines down the road called for help.

“As soon as it [IED] went off Sgt. (later SSgt.) Raphael – our squad leader – told us to gear up and standby. Our squad was on React because we already had another squad on patrol from the C.O.P.,” Hamas said.

‘React’ is shorthand for Reaction Force. Haman’s job that day was to be ready to deploy immediately for backup if called. They didn’t have long to wait, Haman said.

Down the road Terrazas was already dead, killed by an IED hidden under the road with fresh asphalt that had been artfully applied to hide the insurgent’s bomb. Wuterich and the surviving members immediately began receiving intense small arms fire from the group of four or five houses on their flank, Haman said. In addition to killing Terrazas the IED critically wounded 20-year old LCpl James Crossan and painfully injured LCpl Salvador A. Guzman. Seconds into the fight Wuterich had lost a quarter of his strength, Haman said.

There were so many weapons firing Haman couldn’t distinguish between the sharp cracking of the enemy’s AK-47 assault rifles, their Russian-designed RPD light machine guns, and the faster popping of the M-16s and ripping roar of the Marines Squad Automatic Weapons – called SAWs, he said. All Haman could hear was the loud, sustained roar of gunfire and grenade explosions, the signature of an ambush, he said.

A few minutes after the Iraqi bomb exploded the first dreaded radio message went out from Wuterich’s position reporting a casualty, Haman said. Every Marine in Iraq is assigned a number used to identify them to higher headquarters in case they are killed, wounded, or captured. Haman didn’t know who the Marine was, but he knew Marines were down, he recalled.

“Somebody said his [Terrazas] number, but we didn’t know who it was. We just knew somebody had been killed or wounded,” Haman said.

About 30 minutes before Haman’s squad was called into action, he said. Meanwhile the sounds of battle ebbed and flowed when Wuterich’s squad fighting 600 meters away counter-attacked. Orbiting helicopters and ground commanders filled the airwaves with urgent messages. The Marines in the C.O.P. were anxious to get into the fight. They couldn’t understand what the delay was all about, Haman said.

Then a nearby helicopter reported to headquarters that a large group of insurgents were fleeing out the back of the small cluster of houses now under counter-attack by Wuterich’s squad. The pilot spotted the insurgents when they abandoned the houses where the civilians died, Haman said.

The pilot reported that some of the insurgents had peeled off from main body and fled into another house situated by a palm grove about 100 or 200 meters south of where Wuterich was engaged, Haman says.

 “Air – helos – saw insurgents that split into groups. One of the groups ran into another house in a palm grove. Air picked them up going in,” Haman said.

That put the fleeing insurgent only 600 feet from the C.O.P. Haman’s squad was ordered to hunt them down, he added.  

Led by Lt. Zall, the platoon leader, and Sgt. Raphael, the Marines ran toward the enemy position. It was only a two minute run to reach the houses where the insurgents had disappeared, he said.

Haman’s squad consisted of 12 Marines. Among them they had two 5.56mm SAW light machine guns, two M-203 40mm grenade launchers mounted under M-16s, and eight riflemen. Haman was armed with an M-203- equipped rifle, he said. It is a lot of firepower. In most places it would be an overwhelming amount of firepower. In Haditha on November 19, 2005 it wasn’t nearly enough, Haman said.

“Then one of the helos shot two missiles into the house. It blew out the roof, put a big hole in the roof, smoke was coming out,” Haman said. “We were told to go into a house by a blue car. The car was parked between two houses. We didn’t know which house was the right one.”

Haman’s squad chose the first one they came to, he said. When they got to the front door it was eerily still. Except for the orbiting helicopters and the sustained firefight going on to the north where Wuterich was fighting it was relatively quiet, Haman said.

“The point man kicked in the door. LCpl Blankenship was on point. Cpl. Bautista, my fire team leader, told us to stack up [a tightly grouped combat formation] and go in. I was the second man to the door. I wanted to throw a frag. I had never thrown a frag into a house before,” Haman said.

The grenade blast filled the house with smoke. Plaster and other debris rained down inside. It was almost impossible to see inside the building, Haman said.

“Our squad leader Sgt Raphael told us to wait for the smoke to clear but our adrenaline was pumped up so we just rushed in. We couldn’t see anything so we turned our flashlights on. Nobody was in the house, the house was clear,” Haman continued. “We were at the wrong house.”

“Somebody said it was the house to the south west – catty corner. Lt. Zall said to clear the other house but don’t frag it this time. Blankenship tried to kick the door down. It knocked him down, he couldn’t do it. So LCpl Ghent bashed into it a couple of times. He couldn’t do it either.”

Despite the danger the Marines couldn’t help laughing, Haman said.

“Everybody was laughing. The third time he [Ghent] knocked it in and fell down. I jumped over him. I saw a room to the right and one way in the back corner. The door was almost closed. Then a grenade came out the door. It bounced off my foot and went off,” Haman said.

“I don’t remember anything after that for awhile. I was hit but I didn’t know it,! Haman added. “Somehow I was inside the room to my right. I don’t know how I got there.”

“Bautista called my name. I guess I woke up. I got up and started shooting at the door. We backed out of the house. It was one of the lessons we learned at Fallujah. When there is somebody inside just back out and call in air strikes.”

Still groggy, Haman backed out the door, firing his weapon down the hallway where the grenade came from, he said. For the moment there was no return fire and everybody made it safely back outside. But it was only a momentary respite, Haman said.

“LCpl Garcia and LCpl Vetor went to the side of the house. I saw them so I went with them. I was still real groggy. It was an American grenade and it really rang my bell,” Haman added with a laugh. “I thought I was okay.”

“Then Vetor looked back and yelled ‘grenade.’ One blew up behind me. I got hit in my right back triceps and in the back shoulder I knew it had hit and it burned a little. It didn’t hurt until hours later. Then the hole in my underarm swelled up as big as a golf ball and I was bleeding out of it. Lt. Zall got hit real bad. Zall got hit in the legs.  He was evacuated and ‘Doc,’ our [U.S. Navy Medical] Corpsmen was wounded. LCpl Garcia got hit as well.”

Zall and the corpsman were out of the fight. Haman and Garcia stayed in. Iraqi grenades were dropping off of the roof of the house they had just retreated from. Meanwhile the rest of Haman’s squad backfilled into the house Haman’s fire team had just cleared. They charged up onto the roof and started throwing grenades at the insurgents attacking Haman’s group. Insurgent and Marine grenades were flying back and forth. Some of the grenades seemed to be coming from the windows and some from the roof of the house occupied by the insurgents. Nobody could see the attackers, Haman said.

“Vetor checked Garcia and me and said we were both good. Then an AK burst came in and sprayed in front of us in an arc. We thought it came out of the window so we started lighting up this window. Then we heard an explosion go off, maybe on top of the roof.”

“The explosion was a Marine’s grenade bursting among the Iraqi insurgents. LCpl Garcia, wounded and groggy, wanted to throw a fragmentation grenade at the window of the house they were taking fire from. The dazed Marine didn’t realize it was covered with steel bars. Haman told him to put the grenade away,” he said.

“Then Garcia started complaining about his arm. He couldn’t lift it. Then we heard explosions going off inside,” Haman added.

Haman was getting alarmed, he said. He still didn’t know where several members of the squad were and grenades and automatic weapons fire from the insurgents who had fled Wuterich’s position was flooding the area. It was getting very dangerous to be outside. But it wasn’t any better indoors.

“We kept yelling for LCpl Ghent, Cpl. Bautista and Sgt. Raphael. We couldn’t get a response from them. We could see the helos flying around. We didn’t want to get a rocket. We didn’t know where anyone was. Vetor said to pop the white flare to let them know where we were,” Haman said.

About then they heard an M-240 Golf machine gun, the successor to the Vietnam-era M-60 machine gun that shoots 7.62mm rounds at about 650 rounds a minute. The welcome sound told him reinforcements were arriving, Haman said.

“Somebody started lighting up the house with the two-forty. We popped a red star cluster (pop-up flare). Then Bautista popped a green flare,” Haman recalled.

Now everybody knew where all the members of the squad were located. It was time to get out of Dodge, Haman said. The Marines decided to make a run for a dirt berm on the other side of the road.

Vetor popped his head around the corner to see if he would get shot at. There was no more firing so he started running down the street, Haman said

“He took off running first. I went second and then Garcia came. We wanted to run across the road to where there was some cover,” Haman said. “Then a seven-tonner (cargo truck) or two pulled up and Marines started popping out. As soon as they saw us Sgt Raphael [on the roof of the house next door to the insurgents] started yelling for cover fire.”

The Marine reinforcements jumped out of the trucks at a curve on the road where a dirt mound gave them cover, Haman said.

“They were in enfilade. They had cover about 50 meters (150 feet) away on the berm from where we were at.”

“Haman and the rest of his fire team ran to the reinforcement’s location. So did the rest of his squad”, he said.

“We regrouped and found out where everybody was. We saw the Docs putting Lt Zall and our Doc into either a 7-tonner or HUMVEE to medivac out. Then we ran back to a house across the street from the one the insurgents were throwing grenades from,” Haman said.

“Marines went to top of the roof on the house and started shooting M-203 grenades at the insurgents. I stayed inside the house with LCpl. Stefinitis watching over the civilians who lived there. There were eight people. We got them all in one room while everybody else went on the roof to engage. I smoked a cigarette. I still didn’t know [how bad] I was hit. Stefinitis was bleeding from grenade hits to his nose and face.”

Six Marines on the roof, Haman said. They included LCpl Josh Karlen, from Colorado, LCpl Bury, a Texan who was usually a radio operator in the headquarters section, Cpl. Bautista., Sgt Raphael, the squad leader, and two other Kilo Co. Marines.

“They got into another grenade fight. Grenades were flying all over the place. I think everyone on the roof got wounded. I know we had nine guys wounded in my squad,” Haman said. He had been wound twice.

 “From then everything went to [expletive deleted]. We called for air. I stayed downstairs. I think I smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. They were up there 15 to 20 minutes,” Haman said.

“Then we all took off, jumped about a four-foot wall,  ran down to the palm grove, climbed the hill and went back to the house we used for the C.O.P. and waited for the air to hit. We waited fifteen to 20 minutes for air to get there. I think they dropped two 500-pounders, but it could have been thousand-pounders. They blew the house all to hell,” Haman added.

After the bombing other Marines returned to the demolished house. Overhead a Boeing Scan Eye unmanned aerial vehicle was watching and recording the scene as well. Inside the demolished house the Marines found five dead insurgents and a large arms cache. Two more Iraqis who survived the bombing were captured. One of the insurgents was tracked to a house down the street from the bombed building. He quickly reappeared carrying a baby, Marines reported. Searchers directed to his position discovered the man still bleeding from his ears and nose from the concussion of the bomb. Both Iraqis later admitted being insurgents, the Marine Corps says.

After the fight was over Haman discovered he was hit multiple times by grenade shrapnel. He got a few days off to tend to his wounds and then he went back in the fight.

“That is the way they do it in the Corps,” he said.

From then until about the middle of March 2006, about three months – no one in Kilo Company knew there was a scandal brewing. All they had heard were accolades for a job well done, Haman says. Chessani came around to congratulate the men. So did other brass. Nobody even suggested there was any impropriety, Haman said. Eventually Lt. Zall returned and was reassigned to another rifle company. The wounded Navy corpsmen never returned, Haman said.

“Everyone knew about the dead civilians. They regretted them,” Haman explained, “but it was a fight.”

“Only later we found out about the trouble over the cleared houses. About a couple of months later all these majors and captains were coming to the company. Usually we didn’t see anyone,” Haman said. “I talked to (LCpl Justin) Sharratt a lot of times after the fight and he never said too much. He sure didn’t say anything about murder. None of us thought anything had happened. We would see reporters every once in a while so we didn’t think too much about it.”

After the fight was over 1st Sgt. Albert Espinosa – Kilo’s First Sergeant – came around to congratulate Haman and the other wounded Marines. He came to the Forward Operating Base  called a FOB – to congratulate the men on a job well done, Haman said. Later Espinosa would testify that he had immediately called for an investigation of the deaths caused by the Wuterich firefight.

“Not then,” Haman said. “The First Sergeant never said anything to us. The only time he talked about it was the next day at the FOB. He said to me, ‘Hey, good job out there, Haman.’ Then he asked me if I had ever got to fire my M-203 (grenade launcher) during the firefight.”

Later, in mid-March Kilo Company was scheduled to rotate, the hammer fell, Haman said.

“About two weeks before we left we found out about it. We found out that the guys in the squad (Wuterich’s squad) had to stay there. We heard they were in trouble but we didn’t know why. They came home a couple of days later.”

“I will tell you Wuterich was a standout guy and a great Marine. He came out of the School of Infantry. He is a good man.”

Currently Haman attends a private university in Saint Charles and works part-time as a security guard while he pursues a degree in criminal justice. He intends to be a police officer, he says. Haman’s brother is a former Marine combat veteran of Iraq and his father is a retired Saint Louis police officer.

Nathaniel Helms
Defend Our Marines
17 July 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).