Defend Our Marines -Spartans Fallujah

Defend Our Marines / August 28, 2007

(Right: Fallujah burning in the distance on D-Day)

Nine days before former Marine Corps Sgt. Jose Luis Nazario Jr. was charged with voluntary manslaughter at Fallujah, Iraq almost three years ago he was publicly disgraced by two Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents in the course of his arrest.

The probationary patrolman on the Riverside Police Department was reportedly lured into his police station August 7 under false pretenses, stripped of his badge and gun, handcuffed by two Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agents, and forced to take a humiliating ‘perp walk’ past his fellow officers for allegedly killing two Iraqi prisoners of war during the heat of battle. Then he was fired within sight of ending his probationary status.

A few days later the Riverside Police Officers’ Association asked that the police department place Nazario back on the force, and put him on paid administrative leave until the investigation is concluded.

“We are concerned that due to a flaw in that process, a new Riverside police officer nearing the end of his probationary period has been dismissed without any evidence of police misconduct,” President Ken Tutwiler said in a statement. “While the Riverside Police Officers’ Association is not in a position to cast judgment, or assess guilt or innocence, we are here to call attention to a police officer’s right to due process.”

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Probationary patrolmen in Riverside can be fired without recourse.

Nazario is accused of ‘unlawfully and intentionally’ killing two unarmed men on Nov. 9, 2004. The complaint was filed in an affidavit by Special Agent Mark Fox, an NCIS investigator.  It was filed in U.S. District Court for Central California because Nazario served eight years active duty and without a reserve obligation is outside the reach of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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Thirty months ago Nazario was the 3rd Squad leader, assigned to 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, which took part in the second battle of Fallujah in November and December 2004. It is the toughest fight the Marine Corps has been in since the Battle of Hue, South Vietnam in February and March, 1968.

To completely understand the disgraceful manner in which Nazario was handled by NCIS, it is useful to revisit Fallujah, when Nazario and his squad stood at the gates of the Pantheon of Heroes in Marine Corps lore. It was a hard fall from hero to alleged felon, one that plenty of people say should never have happened.

From the command chronology, ‘Task Force Brahma,’ After Action Reports, and eye witness accounts of Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Regimental Combat Team -1, Nov. 1, 2004 through Jan 31, 2005 Operation AL FAJR.

Location: Fallujah, Iraq  

3/1 Strength on Nov.1, 2004 – Reinforced rifle battalion approximately 1,250 Marines and sailors.

Situation: In the attack

Mission: Clear Fallujah of insurgents from north to south.

Probability of success: Strong

Intelligence summary of ‘general characteristics’ of combat in al Anbar Province preceding Operation Al Fajr:

  • Multiple 4-8 man cells that had the ability to regenerate and were well paid. 

  • The enemy understood Coalition detention procedures (not afraid).

  • Insurgents had secreted weapons caches throughout Fallujah, i.e.; accessible roads, light to medium vegetation, near canals, in between multiple farm houses, inside empty houses, under floors, in oil filled drums, etc.

  • Intimidation was key, local leaders played both sides. 

  • IED and IDF [indirect fire] were the norm (minimal small arms)

Enemy Strength: Insurgency, Al Qaeda, and foreign fighters, estimate 3,500 active fighters, up to 5,000 logistical supporters and part-time combatants. Enemy combatants from 17 nations captured at Fallujah.

Situation: Fanatical defense.

Mission: Repel attackers for as long as possible, create maximum carnage, instigate and/or heighten distaste and dissatisfaction for war among Iraqi and American civilian populations by creating maximum casualties among Marines, Soldiers,  and non-combatants.

Probability of success: Assured

Weather: Clear, warm days, cool nights, some overcast and rain. Conditions and visibility diminished as battle progressed. Generally good night vision.

(Right: Kilo Co., 3/1, moves into Fallujah 0700, D+2, November 9, 2004)

Kilo Company (Reinforced)  codename ‘Spartans,’ crossed the line of departure at 0700, November 9, 2004 (D+2) on the heels of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, an armor heavy US Army formation that first found glory at Little Big Horn. The armored cavalry battalion’s primary weapons are the M1A2 Main Battle Tanks and M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles that battle planners inserted into the fight to break through the hard shell of the insurgent’s main line of resistance on the outskirts of Fallujah.

The enemy had been preparing its defenses at Fallujah since the abortive fight for the city the preceding April. Largely abandoned by its civilian population of 160,000, Fallujah  had been converted into a Byzantine labyrinth of death traps waiting to be sprung. Before the battle began the ‘Thundering Third’s’ Marines had been instructed to kill every Iraqi insurgent they discovered. It was kill them now, or face them again, they were told.

On the Spartan’s right flank was India Company codenamed, ‘Raider.’ To their rear was Lima, codenamed ‘Warrior’, and elements of Combined Action Platoon India still at the massive Fallujah train station it had captured the night before. On both flanks of Task Force Brahma were other 1st Marine Division rifle battalions also moving south on similar clearing missions.

Overhead Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force fast movers laden with smart bombs, dumb bombs and cluster bombs ‘shaped’ the battlefield in preparation for the coming ground assault. They shared the air with Marine Corps Cobras and Army Apache helicopter gunships. At night Air Force AC-130 Hercules ‘Spectre’ gunships worked over the city with 105mm cannon and high speed rotary cannons.

Outside of town the Army’s massive 120mm ‘Mad Mortars’ were pummeling the city with red phosphorous, and high explosives. Adding to the cacophony of noise was the 105 and 155 millimeter artillery plastering pre-selected targets on the predetermined routes of march the Marines would take. The fall of shot was watched by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with cameras slaved to video receivers showing the war in real time. Fallujah was total war, no quarter was offered and none was given. Pretending now it was something else is simply silly.

(Right: Enemy dead inside fighting position. Letter home from a jihadist.)

The 1st Marine Division’s objective was the total destruction of the insurgent forces in and around Fallujah. Their orders were to destroy the enemy wherever it was encountered. The Marines intended to finish the fight they started the preceding April before the Coalition Provisional Authority called a halt to their imminent conquest of Fallujah.

The Rules of Engagement were fluid and flexible both in spirit and application. By D+5 most of the restraints of D day were gone through expedience to get the job done. The Thundering Third was the guys who actually had to do it. When they got it wrong they died.

The Spartans moved out line abreast with the Raiders against surprisingly light resistance. Behind them was Lima Company, tasked with clearing ‘by passed urban areas’ to ‘back clear’ buildings left unsecured by the attack force.

The weather was surprisingly cool, with a slight overcast. Already the air was chalky with concrete dust and smelled of cordite and fresh death. For 24 hours preceding the Spartan’s attack the nearly abandoned city of 160,000 Sunni Muslims had been pounded unmercifully by every weapon the Coalition juggernaut could bring to bear.

Dead bodies, debris and destroyed buildings filled the narrow streets. The Marines called the deluge of destruction ‘red rain’ for the red phosphorous that poured down from the sky.

The Warriors of India made quick progress against light resistance on Kilo’s east flank. It was a different story for the Spartans.

Almost immediately the ‘light’ resistance small arms fire and the occasional rocket propelled grenades India was receiving, turned into heavy resistance. Light enemy small arms fire exploded into ‘volleys of rocket propelled grenades’ and machine gun fire that  poured into the Spartan’s ranks. The insurgent’s AK-47s joined in when the Spartans encountered ‘significant pockets of enemy’ fighters.

The enemy fought in cells of four to eight fighters who had already pledged their lives in goodbye letters found on their corpses. Conversely the Marines wanted to live. Their letters home were full of hope.

The fight had barely begun when two M-1 Abrams tanks assigned to support the Spartans were ‘significantly degraded’ due to multiple RPG impacts. At the same time the battalion command element ‘traveling in trace’ of Kilo Company came under indirect fire and heavy, close proximity small arms fire along Phase Line Isaac. Marines later reported the battalion commander shooting it out with the attackers from a roof top. At the same time Lima Company started taking heavy small arms fire. In the parlance of war, the battle was joined.

(Right: Army M1A2 takes on insurgents. Notice RPG hit about midway across turret. TwoMarine Corps M1s assigned to support 3/1 were damaged by multiple RPG strikes in the opening hours of the fight.)

In the middle of it all was 3rd Platoon, Kilo, where New York native Sgt Jose Luis Nazario led 3rd Squad. Marines who know him say he was the quietist of the platoon’s squad leaders, a Marine who kept his own counsel.  Among his men were Corporal Ryan Weemer, a former FAST Marine from southern Illinois and Corporal Jermaine Nelson, an assaultman from New Jersey. Today Nelson is a sergeant charged with unpremeditated murder for allegedly killing a prisoner at Fallujah.

Collectively there were 13 men in the 3rd squad, a typical group of Marines trying to survive in a maelstrom of death. None of them suspected on November 9, 2004 they belonged to one of the most celebrated and scandalized units in Marine Corps history.

The Spartans took their first blow at 0730 when Lance Corporal Juan E. Segura, a fire team leader in 3rd Squad, was killed. A sniper shot him between to SAPI plates on his body armor from a concealed sniper position. He was the first of 33 Spartan fatalities during the battle and the first of five fatalities in Kilo. Weemer, the squad’s other fire team leader, was huddled next to Segura holding his hand when he died. It would profoundly affect him. Nazario and Nelson were there as well.

There was no time for mourning on D+2. Soon after Segura’s body was sent to the rear 3rd Squad was ordered to go after a cell of insurgents seen scuttling between two houses. One of them could have been the triggerman who shot Segura. The Iraqi insurgents were hunkered down inside one of the buildings when Nazario’s squad cornered them. A 25-pound satchel charge against the wall erased the threat. It was merely the first among dozens of such contacts Kilo Marines would survive.  

Marines who fought there say Segura’s death inspired the Marines instead of cowering them. They fought mercilessly, efficiently, using cover, explosives, and sheer guts to root out an enemy who didn’t want it any other way.  Sometime after Segura’s death nobody knows for certain – Nazario’s 3rd Squad allegedly encountered another group of Iraqi insurgents slipping away from a fight. They were unarmed and breathless, Weemer later said. They had just run from another fight with Marines a few buildings away. After holding them for a few minutes Nazario allegedly inquired by radio to higher command what to do.

“They are still alive?” was the reported cryptic response. Taking the response as an order to eliminate the insurgents, Nazario allegedly ordered his squad to kill the prisoners. Along with at least two other members of the squad Nazario allegedly carried out the executions of four men, according to the affidavit filed in support of Nazario’s complaint.

Sometime during the encounter the eight Iraqis Weemer claimed were captured was reduced by four. The government did not say what happened to the other four reported captives. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. They don’t know who any of them are. There is no bodies, no location, no complaining witness except the government, and no corroborating physical evidence. Whether it was four or eight victims, the unidentified bodies were left where they died, somewhere in Fallujah.

(Right: Marine riflemen from Kilo Co shoot it out with insurgents)

Then it was time for 3rd Squad to get back in the war. Apparently the incident was quickly forgotten. Only Weemer still remembers it. Before the morning was over the squad would face desperate combat several more time. According to the command chronology the three line companies received ‘significant amounts of enemy rocket, small arms, and mortar fire throughout this portion of the attack.’ By the end of the morning the matter of the dead EPWs was set aside until Weemer revealed his story two years later.

By all accounts Third Platoon, Kilo was full of gung ho hotshots. One 3rd Platoon Marine who later lost his leg said it all with a pair of tattoos that screams ‘Bring The Violence’ when he raises his arms. He was a point man at Fallujah, he got to go first.

Combat savvy Marines say 3rd Platoon’s former platoon leader is one of the finest small unit combat leaders in the Corps. Luckily the Marines got him back as a captain recently. His men proved it every time they got in a fight.  Before Fallujah officially ended on December 23, 2004 one 3rd Platoon member earned the Navy Cross and the entire platoon is enshrined among the Marine’s immortals for their individual performances at the Hell House. A photographic history of 3/1’s magnificent campaign at Fallujah is on permanent display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia. 

At least that was 3/1’s richly deserved legacy for awhile. Then Haditha happened and 3rd Plt, Kilo was plunged under a media microscope it still hasn’t emerged from under.  

(Right: Kilo Co. handling detainees. Detainees at the PUC facility. A defeated and captured enemy.)

Then Ryan Weemer took a polygraph examination for a Secret Service job. He was going to school at the time in Belleville, Illinois and working at a Starbucks restaurant while he got his life in order. He thought he was stepping into high cotton when he was selected for consideration as a uniformed Secret Service officer. It was his first big step into the world of federal law enforcement where he wanted to be, he said at the time.

Then the polygraph examiner asked him if he had ever been involved in a wrongful death during his military service. That is the moment the bottom fell out of his life, dragging with it at least two more of 3rd Platoon’s gallant Marines.

Before Fallujah got back in the news Weemer detailed his allegations during a moment of introspective reflection. In his original story the Iraqis were insurgents fleeing between two houses when they were captured. They had fled from another firefight down the road. Like other Marines who encountered them, Weemer anticipated they would fight again if let go. As a result very few of them survived their ordeals. That is an ugly truth history has already shown.

Then an order came down to kill them and move on. If it happened it is a violation of the laws of land warfare if it even happened, Nazario’s lawyer says.

After that Weemer said he locked his memories away and tried to get on with his life. They stayed hidden, he later said, until he decided to try for the job guarding the White House.

The ripples that spread from the revelations Weemer made at his polygraph examination spread very slowly across the Corps. Unlike the Haditha incident, or the Soldier’s murderous behavior at Mahmoudiya that exploded like a tidal wave across the world’s newspapers, the ripples Weemer made stayed small for a long time. A few Marines knew of the allegations soon after Weemer made them. A few more heard something about them eventually, and still more thought they were a lot of crap. Not a single Marine who fought at Fallujah besides Weemer ever said they were true.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent Mark Fox chose to believe them. So did somebody else in the Corps; or maybe it was in the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense. Nobody who knows is talking, but somebody drove forward the investigation. It certainly can’t help polish the already tarnished image of the Corps in Iraq.

The NCIS had the legal mandate to initiate the investigation on its own, and that is probably the case, the lawyers say. It has a ‘responsibility’ to investigate allegation of war crimes, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice has said.

Current and former Marine Corps lawyers watching the case unfold say that because NCIS chose to reveal its ‘evidence’ in federal court instead of the Marine Corps, NCIS didn’t find a lot of support for investigating the matter inside the Corps. Neither NCIS nor the Marine Corps has revealed a convening authority that wants to look into Weemer’s allegations.

Whatever the reason, SA Mark Fox went to work investigating the case with all the considerable resources he could muster. Fox would pop up to interview an active duty Marine at Pendleton and then unexpectedly show up at a former Marine’s home in a far away state to shake up his life. Some former Marines claim Fox and other NCIS agents told them they could be recalled for not cooperating. One attorney said his client was threatened with recall in his presence by a Marine Corps prosecutor.

In every reported instance he was looking for several things:

  1. Where was 3rd Squad on November 9 or 10, 2004.

  2. Who was talking on the radio?

  3. Did you ever hear about anyone killing enemy prisoners of war?

  4. When did you first hear about the allegations of murder?

  5. Did you murder anyone?

A spokesman at Camp Pendleton said the Marine Corps has a legal responsibility to investigate alleged war crimes and prosecute the offenders. What is still waiting to be answered is whether it has any enthusiasm.

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
28August 2007

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam vet, journalist, combat reporter, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).