19 October 2007

Camp Pendleton, California, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey R. Chessani and Lance Corporal Stephen B. Tatum will face general court-martial for their roles in a controversial firefight following an al Qaeda-led insurgent ambush in Haditha, Iraq almost two years ago in which 24 Iraqi citizens died.

Also on trial is whether combatants caught in a no-quarter duel can be successfully prosecuted for the life or death decisions they make in the white-hot crucible of combat.

The decision to bring the two Marines to courts-martial was made by Lieutenant General James N. Mattis, the convening authority in the case and its final arbiter. He upheld the recommendation of the investigating officer in Chessani’s case to charge him with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order. Mattis overrode the decision of the investigating officer in Tatum’s case to dismiss all the charges including multiple counts of unpremeditated murder – against the veteran enlisted Marine.

Instead, Mattis referred charges against Tatum for involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault. He dismissed charges of murder and negligent homicide against the survivor of the horrific ‘Hell House’ fight at Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004.

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The general’s decision brought an immediate reaction from the defense lawyers.

“Referring this case to trial imperils every young Marine and soldier who faces a split second decision in combat,” according to a statement from veteran Marines Jack Zimmerman and Kyle R. Sampson, the Houston, Texas attorneys who represent Tatum. Zimmerman, a former infantryman, was decorated for valor twice while serving in Vietnam.

Chessani, a career Marine infantryman, is the former commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Chessani is charged with dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order for failing to accurately report and investigate the incident.

His battalion was attacked in a coordinated al Qaeda-led ‘complex ambush’ on November 19, 2005, the Marine Corps says. During the engagement one Marine was killed and 11 others were wounded. According to intelligence information gleaned from Iraqi informants and captured insurgents the insurgent’s plan was to attack the battalion in several locations simultaneously to cause maximum carnage among Iraqi civilians.

Chessani’s attorneys at the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said they are particularly disappointed with the decision to bring their client to trial because of the ‘chilling effect’ the case has on the military’s sacrosanct chain of command.

Attorney Brian Rooney, himself a Marine combat veteran and one of the attorneys representing Chessani said second-guessing the actions of combatants is tantamount to the Soviet ‘commissar’ theory of command. During the Communist era of the former Soviet Union political officers called commissars could countermand the orders of combat leaders in the name of political expediency.

“You might as well have a political officer in every battalion to make sure every order is politically correct,” Rooney said.

Both Marines had been in combat in Iraq in al Anbar Province during two deployments when the Haditha incident occurred. The incident began when a squad from Kilo Company, 3/1 was ambushed November 19, 2005 on a road at the outskirts of Haditha. In the ensuing day-long fight 24 Iraqi citizens were killed in the cross-fire between insurgents and counter-attacking Marines.

Three months later the attack was brought to light in a series of inaccurate and highly inflammatory reports initiated by a March 6, 2006 article in Time Magazine by reporter Tim McGirk. His report and those that followed claimed the Marines had killed the Iraqis in cold-blood in retaliation for the death of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. The story was picked up by Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, who went on international television to claim the Marines had killed the Iraqis for revenge.

The furor generated by the reports and Murtha’s outlandish rhetoric sparked two separate investigations of the battalion’s actions. Last December those investigations resulted in the charging of eight Marines with murder, assault, and dereliction of duty for allegedly covering up the crimes. Subsequently four of those Marines were exonerated.

During the summer-long Article 32 investigatory hearings at Camp Pendleton the hearing officers charged with looking into the matter determined no murders had been committed.

So far Chessani and Tatum are the only 3/1 Marine ordered to courts-martial in the incident. Two other Marines, including Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad leader of the ambushed squad, still face the possibility of general court-martial.

Wuterich is waiting to discover whether he will be charged with 17 counts of unpremeditated murder and uttering a false statement. Lt. Col. Paul Ware, the investigating officer in his case, recommended that the murder charges be reduced to seven counts of negligent homicide. Mattis can accept the investigating officer’s recommendations, ignore them, or charge him with other offenses.

One source close to the investigation said Friday afternoon that Wuterich is expected to learn his fate sometime next week. In addition, a junior officer, Lieutenant Andrew Grayson, must still undergo ab Article 32 investigation to determine whether there is enough evidence to bring him to trial for dereliction of duty.

Despite Mattis’s decision to bring the two Marines to trial their lawyers remain confident they will be exonerated.

“We are very disappointed that the Commanding General did not follow the recommendation to withdraw and dismiss all charges made by the experienced trial judge who heard all the evidence during the Article 32 Investigation,” Tatum’s attorneys said. “However, Lance Corporal Tatum did not commit any crime, and we will take the fight to the courtroom.  We will vigorously challenge the government’s case, and nothing will be left undone in defense of this fine young Marine.”

“We remain convinced that the military justice system eventually will reach the right result,” they concluded.

Rooney offered similar sentiments.

“We expect that Lieutenant Colonel Chessani will be fully exonerated when this goes to trial. While we are disappointed with the decision we look forward to going to court-martial to show that no stone was left unturned and nothing was swept under the rug in an effort to discover the truth of what happened at Haditha,” Rooney said.

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
19 October 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).