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U.S. Armed Forces React to Charges Against Troops in Iraq

July 7, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE: With Marines taking fire and locked in street-by-street combat, these scenes look like real fighting in Baghdad or Fallujah. But this is the Marine Corps’ combat training center in Twentynine Palms, California.

Here, in a mock Iraqi village in the Mojave Desert, Marines scheduled to ship out to Iraq by the end of the summer are preparing for the kind of combat they’re likely to face.

SOLDIER: Tell him just to cooperate, and it will be over soon.

JEFFREY KAYE: Here and at other bases, the U.S. military is refining its training, not only in tactics, but in ethics. That’s because of a series of accusations that American servicemen have murdered noncombatants in Iraq.

Brigadier General Douglas Stone is the commander of the Twentynine Palms Marine base.

Brigadier General Douglas Stone, Commanding General, Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base: The lesson is to teach them how to achieve their mission with the ethical use of force, and to ensure that they’re always following the rules of engagement.

JEFFREY KAYE: Rocked by the allegations of atrocities, the military is strengthening programs to educate soldiers and Marines about ethical conduct and the rules of war, what it calls values training.

Here, Marines get a sense of the dangers they’re likely to encounter, car bombs, snipers, and civilians who may or may not be insurgents. They’re also here to learn about cultural sensitivities. To assist them are up to 500 Arabic-speaking role players, many of them Iraqi-Americans.

Marines undergoing training say they have learned, the key to their success will be getting to know the Iraqis.

SERGEANT MATTHEW GRAFF, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment: I think it’s just something that, as soon as we actually get on the deck over there, that we will establish our own relationships with the people around the area that we’re working in. And it’s something that will develop, and we will get better communication with them. And then we will start understanding who is bad, who is not, who can we trust, who can we not.

JEFFREY KAYE: By inviting the news media to report on these exercises, the message the Marine Corps intends to send is clear, namely, the military is learning from mistakes in Iraq and adjusting its training.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL ANDREW KENNEDY, U.S. Marine Corps: We have evolved, adapted, and made things as good as they can be, in order to give our guys the tools that they are going to need for the kind of fight that they have.

JEFFREY KAYE: But human rights advocates say this kind of training only partially addresses the problem of military misconduct.

BRIDGET WILSON, Attorney: I think you have to look at a failure of leadership when you start having a cluster of these kinds of cases.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bridget Wilson, a San Diego lawyer who often represents service men and women, says the boundaries for acceptable military behavior are set in Washington.

BRIDGET WILSON: I think that, when you have people very high up saying things to troops like, well, we think the Geneva Conventions are quaint and out of mode, and need to be changed, that kind of an attitude starts to filter down.

And when you see only fairly low-ranking people being prosecuted in these matters, it can get pretty cynicism-inducing.

The case against eight men

Camp Pendleton Marine Base

JEFFREY KAYE: One case moving forward against enlisted men is at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California.

COLONEL STEWART NAVARRE, Chief Of Staff, U.S. Marine Corps Installations West: Based on the findings of a criminal investigation, seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with offenses, including kidnapping, murder and conspiracy in connection with the death of an Iraqi civilian in Hamandiyah, Iraq.

It is important to note that the charges and specifications are accusations against the individual, and the accused is presumed innocent.

JEFFREY KAYE: The eight members of the Marines' Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, are in Camp Pendleton's brig, awaiting hearings. All of the squad members, none above the rank of sergeant, are facing murder charges, which carry the death penalty.

The case centers on Hashim Ibrahim Awad, an Iraqi farmer whom the Marines allegedly shot to death in April near his home in the village of Hamandiyah. After his funeral, village leaders complained to American military officials, who launched an investigation, conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Military investigators have charged that the eight seized Awad from his home, tied him up, put him in a hole, and shot him. To make it appear he was an insurgent, investigators allege, the troops stole an AK-47 rifle and a shovel and placed them in the hands of the man they killed.

CAROLYN JODKA, Mother of Accused Soldier: This is not the son we raised. This is not the young man that we know today. To be charged with it is just preposterous. You know, he honorably was doing his duty.

JEFFREY KAYE: Carolyn and John Jodka are parents of Private 1st Class John Jodka III. The 20-year-old from Encinitas, California, is accused of being one of five men who shot at Awad, killing him.

The Jodkas say their son, who was on his first tour of duty in Iraq, sees his defense as a continuation of the combat he saw.

JOHN JODKA, Father of Accused Soldier. He undergoes his ordeal with the same sort of bravery he did under fire.

Eight pawns of the military

Brig. Gen. David Brahms (Ret.)
It defies logic that a group of eight, including folks like my client ... would come together and do something which is so undisciplined and so at odds of the basic moral principles that are taught to Marines.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Jodkas accuse the U.S. military of railroading their son and the others for political purposes.

CAROLYN JODKA: I think our government may be trying to send a message to the Iraqi government, and may be using our sons to send that message.

JEFFREY KAYE: And the message is?

CAROLYN JODKA: That we're being tough on our own, that, you know, we hear your concern about citizens being killed, if this man was, indeed, just a citizen. And I think that is yet to be proven.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Jodkas and other families and supporters of the accused are fighting back. In addition to their many news interviews, they're using the Internet to post pictures and videos of rallies they have held outside Camp Pendleton.

They have also created Web sites on behalf of those facing charges to make their case and to raise funds for legal fees. Lawyers for the accused say they will conduct their own investigation in hopes of proving the killing of Awad was justified.

David Brahms, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general, is the civilian lawyer for Lance Corporal Robert Pennington, one of the eight accused.

BRIGADIER GENERAL DAVID BRAHMS, Attorney For Lance Corporal Robert Pennington: It defies logic that a group of eight, including folks like my client, who had multiple tours in Iraq, three of them, in his case, would come together and do something which is so undisciplined and so at odds of the basic moral principles that are taught to Marines.

JEFFREY KAYE: Brahms says the investigative files he's been provided don't offer a full picture of what happened in Hamandiyah.

BRIGADIER GENERAL DAVID BRAHMS: The much more likely scenario, given the character of these young men, and given the fact that they're Marines, and given the setting, is that this was an appropriate interaction.

Murky rules of engagement

Bridget Wilson
I have always asked people to tell me what their answer would be: You're on the streets of wherever the war zone is, and an 8-year-old child is walking down that street pointing out where your people are to the sniper above. What would you do?

JEFFREY KAYE: Brahms doesn't dispute that Marines killed Awad, but he's convinced they followed the rules of engagement regarding the proper use of force.

Was he an insurgent?

BRIGADIER GENERAL DAVID BRAHMS: That's an interesting question. When you're dealing in a combat situation of this sort, what we have is confusion as the central theme, the fog of war, if you will. Insurgents can't be identified by shining a beam on them, and like, some sort of litmus test, they turn red; aha, an insurgent.

JEFFREY KAYE: One factor in deciding guilt or innocence in the Hamandiyah case is the often fuzzy line between moral and immoral behavior on the battlefield, according to lawyer Bridget Wilson.

BRIDGET WILSON: I proposed a hypothetical, in that I have always asked people to tell me what their answer would be. You're on the streets of wherever the war zone is, and an 8-year-old child is walking down that street pointing out where your people are to the sniper above. What would you do? It's not always as easy as...

JEFFREY KAYE: And the right answer?

RAYMOND KELLY: The right answer? The safe answer for you is, probably, you shoot the kid, if you want to stay alive.

JEFFREY KAYE: Marine Corps officials at Camp Pendleton would not discuss this Hamandiyah case. The next step in the case of what some supporters are calling the Pendleton eight will be a hearing this summer, in which prosecutors and defense attorneys can present evidence and call witnesses.

After that, the commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command will decide which, if any of the charges involving the killing of Hashim Ibrahim Awad will result in a court-martial.