KWAME HOLMAN: As the House debate continued last week over funding the Iraq war, leading anti-war Democrats convened nearby to hear from a group of veterans who say they witnessed and participated in widespread misconduct during their time in Iraq.
The stories came from a dozen or so former Marines and soldiers who left Iraq at least two years ago. They include accounts of unwarranted killings of Iraqi civilians and mistreatment of detainees that were met with indifference or encouragement by commanding officers.
Two of the men said the weight of such experiences led them to suicide attempts.
They have dubbed themselves “Winter Soldiers,” the same name used by Vietnam veterans who reported similar alleged abuses during that war.
They were welcomed by California’s Lynn Woolsey.
REP. LYNN WOOLSEY (D), California: We now have an opportunity to hear from not the military’s top brass, but directly from you.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jason Lemieux was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps two years ago following three combat tours in Iraq.
FORMER SGT. JASON LEMIEUX, U.S. Marine Corps: Please understand that what you hear from me is the tip of the iceberg.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lemieux described an incident near Ramadi early in 2006. A Marine platoon had received intermittent gunfire, four shots in all.
In preparing a report on the incident, he said the unit responded with excessive force, firing thousands of rifle and machine gun rounds, anti-tank weapons, and other heavy weaponry in the general direction of the incoming shots.
Lemieux said, when he tried to enter those facts in a report, a superior officer stopped him and then changed the report.
SGT. JASON LEMIEUX: And he said, “You said here that the platoon only took four rounds of enemy fire. There’s no way they expended all that ammo and they only took four rounds.” He then proceeded to sit down at my intelligence computer and falsified the very same report that he had just accused me of falsifying.
Rules of Engagement
KWAME HOLMAN: Also constantly changing, Lemieux and other veterans said, were the rules of engagement, when and how to use force.
SGT. JASON LEMIEUX: I was involved in firefights during which the rules of engagement were lifted by the chain of command or were simply ignored, resulting in needless and strategically counterproductive civilian deaths.
I was ordered multiple times by commissioned officers and noncommissioned officers to shoot unarmed civilians if their presence made me feel uncomfortable.
These orders were given with the understanding that that my immediate chain of command would protect their subordinates from legal repercussions.
KWAME HOLMAN: In one battle in 2004, Lemieux said the rules changed during the fighting.
SGT. JASON LEMIEUX: The word came down the chain that, all personnel, anyone not wearing a U.S. military uniform on the streets is considered an enemy combatant and is to be shot on sight.
KWAME HOLMAN: You mean anyone?
SGT. JASON LEMIEUX: Correct.
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS, Marine Corps, Retired: Any time you give high-powered weapons to 18- and 19-year-olds, bad things are going to happen.
KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Gary Solis is an attorney and expert on the law of armed conflict. He teaches at West Point. Before watching the televised "Winter Soldier" meeting at our request, he was skeptical about their claims. Afterward, he changed his mind.
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: I was immediately impressed with the sincerity, the depth of feeling, the sense of wanting to right wrong.
What they had to say jibes with reports I've received from lieutenants who returned to West Point where I taught. My former students come back and tell me the same thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: Jason Lemieux said he was trying to write up a report that indicated fire was returned after four rounds were fired on the U.S. position and someone stepped in -- an officer, I guess -- and said...
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: A major.
KWAME HOLMAN: ... a major, and said, "You cannot"...
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: "We can't sent this up with four rounds, saying we expended this kind of fire to return four rounds." Another very disappointing recitation, in that it describes an officer participating in the falsifying of a report.
KWAME HOLMAN: I didn't ask Jason to identify the major. I don't know that he did in his testimony. Will the Pentagon be interested in knowing who that major was?
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: I have my doubts. I have my doubts if the Pentagon is going to want to pay too much attention to any of this testimony.
There were some officers who were named. What's going to happen to those officers? It's impossible to tell.
Pervasiveness of errors is unclear
KWAME HOLMAN: Pentagon officials declined to talk about the Iraq veterans' allegations on camera, but the Marine Corps offered a statement, saying, in part, "The rules of engagement for Marines serving in Iraq have remained very consistent since 2003. If these veterans truly believe they have witnessed violations of the law of armed conflict, it is their duty to provide military investigators with specific details concerning the alleged incidents, to include their own level of involvement, if any."
FORMER CAPT. BING WEST, U.S. Marine Corps: I had the feeling reading and watching this that many of their consciences began to bother them one or two or three years after an event.
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Marine Corps Captain Bing West worked in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration and has spent a considerable amount of time in Iraq. He's written two books about the war. He agrees that the servicemembers should have reported their allegations when they happened.
CAPT. BING WEST: If they feel that strongly about it, for the sake of their consciences, then they should name the names. Otherwise, what they're indicating is that something was widespread and it wasn't widespread, and so they're defaming over a million other soldiers by saying this was commonplace. And that's a canard. That's a lie.
KWAME HOLMAN: Also testifying at the Democratic Progressive Caucus event was Vincent Emanuele, who served four years in the Marine Corps, including time in Anbar province at its most violent.
FORMER LANCE CPL. VINCENT EMANUELE, U.S. Marine Corps: An act that took place quite often in Iraq was that of taking pop shots at cars that drove by. Our rules of engagement stated that we should first fire warning shots into the ground in front of the car, then the engine block, and then the driver and passengers.
Most of the time, however, the shots made their way straight to those very individuals in the car.
KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Lieutenant Colonel Gary Solis.
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: The problem is that too often we have civilians who are not collateral damage; they're primary targets. And that's what should not happen.
And when you're fighting a counterinsurgency, civilians are the primary goal. You have to secure the allegiance of the civilians or you'll never secure victory over the insurgents.
And every time we kill a civilian, be it inadvertent or not, we have done something that's contrary to our goal.
Soldiers wish to formally testify
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Marine Sergio Kochergin served in Iraq twice, during the initial invasion in 2003 and then in 2004 to 2005. He said it was commonplace for units to keep confiscated AK-47 rifles on hand that could be "dropped" after an unarmed civilian was killed.
FORMER CPL. SERGIO KOCHERGIN, U.S. Marine Corps: If you shoot somebody who didn't have anything or by mistake or anything, some sort of incident happen, place those AK-47 next to them so we have proof that they were enemy combatants and we wouldn't get in trouble for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Bing West said the notion of widespread use of drop weapons is ridiculous, and furthermore...
CAPT. BING WEST: And I would argue that what we're talking about here are anomalies. And it's unfair to the reputation of our entire military to take anomalies and to claim that they were the norm.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Gary Solis says investigation is warranted.
LT. COL. GARY SOLIS: What were described very definitely could be charged as war crimes. What's going on or what was going or has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan is so pervasive that we haven't got enough lawyers, if we were going to charge everyone that we suspected of having committed such an act.
Today, it seems as though it takes a pretty blatant act, a pretty serious act to bring about a prosecution.
KWAME HOLMAN: The group that sponsored the "Winter Soldiers" event, Iraq Veterans Against the War, now is seeking to have the veterans tell their stories before formal committees of the Congress.