Rules of Engagement

Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt

photo of Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt

Sharratt served with Kilo Company, 3/1, and had three counts of unpremeditated murder dismissed after a preliminary hearing looked into his role in the Haditha incident. He also fought with Kilo Company during the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004. Here, he recounts in detail his actions on Nov. 19, 2005, along with his reaction to the charges leveled against him and his fellow Marines -- by investigators, the press, and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) -- and shares his insights regarding Iraqi civilians, insurgents and the experience of combat. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Sept. 6, 2007.

How did you understand the rules of engagement [ROE] before you deployed?

Very well. ... I understood the rules of engagement very well. We had a lot of training, had a lot of classes to make sure we knew what they were and how to apply them, and basically to not put yourself in a bad situation. ...

How realistic was the description of the rules of engagement that you were given? ...

The rules of engagement [training presentations], they were really realistic. Basically, they told you what you can and can't do. But it all comes down to the one ROE, the one sentence on there that says if yourself or any fellow coalition force soldier -- if you feel anyone's life is in danger, you have the authority to use hostile intent. ... You can use deadly force. ...

... Did the ROE change over time for situations?

The ROEs are set in stone. You follow them. And if you follow them correctly, you'll do the right thing. ... You keep the same ROEs from one town to the next. The only time ROEs change is for a major operation like [the second battle of] Fallujah [in November 2004] on my first deployment, because we warned everyone in the town what day we were coming in. We told civilians to leave. And if there was anyone left in the town, we were coming, and you were considered an insurgent. ...

What was the atmosphere like in Haditha when you arrived?

To us it seemed like a very shady town. I mean, nothing really major happened, but just the way the people reacted with us, and the way we tried to help them, and we tried to do all this for them, and they just seemed to not like us the whole entire time.

Can you give us an example? How did they react to you in different ways?

From my first deployment, sometimes you can go out and hand an Iraqi male food or candy for his children. He would gladly take it and hand it to them. Or you can hand it to the children. I can remember a couple times in Haditha where you'd hand them the food to give to the children, and he would just drop it on the ground and walk away. ...

How would it compare to different places within Iraq that you'd been to?

I was in the Al Karma area in Iraq, and it was south of Fallujah. The people there were actually nice. They would come out and help you. They would try and talk to you. ... If a bomb was on the side of the road, they would come up to you and tell you where it was at. And we really didn't have too many firefights in Karma on the first deployment we were there.

In Haditha, how frequently would people help you out, tip you off, that sort of thing?

I can only remember one time that someone came up to us and actually tried to offer help out of the seven months we were there. ...

Did you have a sense of the sympathies of the local population with the insurgency?

I personally believe that they housed insurgents, that most of them were. They just played it off as if they weren't.

Did you feel like you could trust the population in Haditha?

No.

And overall, just how dangerous did that feel to you?

How dangerous can it be? You're in Iraq and you're in a town that you've got a bad vibe from. There just is no way you can gain trust in a place like that. ...

... [W]as this [Nov. 19 patrol] a fairly normal mission? ...

This usually happened every day, not by, say, my squad or the squad I was in, but a platoon, a squad would go to the combat outpost every day to deliver chow and water and do the crypto changes on the radios.

And how long would that sort of thing typically take to do?

About an hour usually. ...

[Before the mission that morning] was there a briefing from Staff Sgt. [Frank] Wuterich? ...

The briefing, from what I remember, was just you come in; we sat down; we got what the route would be so everyone knew it. So say one Humvee got caught in dust and couldn't see where the other ones were, and we didn't notice them stopped at first. They knew the route to get there.

Did you go over what you would do in case of an IED [improvised explosive device], that sort of thing?

Yes. We called those "remedial action," what would happen if there is a close ambush, far ambush, an IED. We usually run through those every single briefing so it becomes memorized in your head to where if that does happen, you can react without thinking. ...

For an IED it's always get out of the kill zone, cordon off the area, and look for a triggerman. ...

What was your role [on the patrol]?

My role as a turret gunner in the first Humvee was -- the Humvees in the convoys, we usually had one hardback and three highbacks. The hardback is usually the one you see in the movies. It's got the four doors and the gun on the top. And the other ones, they're actually more like trucks. They've only got two doors in the front, and then it's more of an open bed in the back. Those ones the Marines can stand up [in] and have outboard security to where they can see all around the Humvee with their weapons.

The Humvee that I was in, [the hardback,] which is more like you see in the movies, which has the gun on top -- that's the only security on that Humvee when you're moving down the street. So basically my job on the turret is if we take incoming fire ... from the front, I would be the first one to engage, because that would be the only weapon there. ...

Also, if a vehicle was coming in too close and it wasn't moving off to the side of the road when I would wave it off, I would have to shoot a warning shot at the deck. And then if he does not comply to that warning shot to the deck, then I would put one into the engine block. And then if he still keeps on coming, then I'm supposed to engage the personnel driving. ...

[Why were you carrying a 9 mm pistol that day?]

Usually every time I would be on the turret and we'd do a trip like that to the combat outpost or anywhere when I was on the turret on the Humvee, I would always find our corpsman, and I would borrow his 9 mm. ...

What was in the turret was an M-240 Gulf, which is a 7.62 mm fully automatic machine gun. My primary weapon that I carried on a daily basis was the M-249 squad automatic weapon [SAW], which was a 5.56 [mm] fully automatic weapon. Both of these weapons did not have a semiauto firing mode. And for warning shots, you'd first have to wave and yell to push a car or a person off the side of the road so we can get by. The next step from that was, at the time, small-arms fire, which would be the 9 milli for me. ...

Basically the main reason why I always used a pistol was you could be more accurate with it. It's a smaller caliber round, so it's got less of a chance to ricochet. And it's also semiauto compared to the full automatic weapon on top of it. So you prevent yourself from shooting too long of a burst and actually killing or wounding the personnel driving. ...

And on this day when you're out on the convoy, prior to the explosion, were there many people out on foot or in vehicles? ...

It was a mediocre morning. It wasn't too busy, and it wasn't too suspiciously quiet. There were people out. There were people in the shop area where there's a bunch of shops on the road. There were people already in those. It wasn't too suspicious of a morning. ...

... [C]an you describe the drive from the moment up until you hit the IED on that morning?

On the way to the combat outpost, the drive was just like any other drive. On the way out there we'd pick random roads to go on, and we took those random roads. We'd get to the combat outpost, and then, you know, the task at hand: Deliver chow, water and do the radio crypto changeover, and then relieve the Iraqi army soldiers, ... send the old ones out and put the new ones in the Humvee to take them back.

That would usually take about 30 minutes to do. Then from there we went down on main roads because it was starting to get a little more daylight, meaning a little more trafficky, which [would] make it a tad bit more safer for IEDs, because usually the insurgents wouldn't kill their own. So we took main highways, main roads, till we got to Route Chestnut. And then when we went down Route Chestnut was when we got to the point where the IED hit. ...

Tell me about the moment of the IED -- how it registered on you, just what it was like right in that moment.

Right in that moment? We were driving down the road. I heard a large explosion from behind me. I turned around to assess what happened. I remember seeing the second Humvee and the third Humvee. I remember calling that out.

Then I don't remember seeing the fourth one. And I called that out. And then we pulled the Humvees over, got out of the kill zone and pulled the Humvees into a herringbone: ... Basically the first Humvee would pull diagonal to the right, and the second Humvee would pull diagonal to the left about 100 meters away, and the third vehicle would also do that to the right.

... What happens in that moment that an explosion of that size goes off? ...

I mean, personally, I can't tell you. After going through Fallujah, living with explosions, 500-pound bombs dropping, grenades, I mean, it just becomes a natural part of life. ...

As far as IEDs go, was this a big one, small one?

No, it was a large IED.

And what happened then, immediately after the explosion?

Immediately after, I looked behind the Humvee, looked behind to make sure the Humvees were there. When I didn't see the fourth one, we stopped the Humvees and pulled them over to the side of the road. At that point, that's where training kicks in. I knew where my sectors of fire were in my Humvee, and I stuck to them. ...

Sectors of fire are basically your area that you have to cover to make sure if anything comes from that area that you're the first one to catch it, and you're the first one to fire back if need be. ... In a clock sense, where I was at in the Humvee, I would have from 10:00 to 2:00, and that would be my area. That's my area and no one else's, and I have to cover it.

... You talk about your training kicks in. Can you explain how that works, what it's like?

Basically when your training kicks in, you've got no time to stop and think. You just have to basically react [by] the seat of your pants. What you feel is right is most likely right, after you've had the extensive training that Marines have. ...

When the IED went off, was there anybody around?

There was a vehicle that I pushed to the side of the road as we were passing it. I do remember maybe a civilian or two on the sides of the roads, but it was a pretty empty neighborhood at that time.

Is that suspicious? What did that make you think?

Everything is suspicious in Iraq. But you can't be too suspicious because then you're too paranoid. And if you're too paranoid, you might possibly do something you'll regret in the future. ...

I remember them running into a house or hiding basically. ... It is usually normal for the people to get out of the streets if an IED goes off because they don't want to be caught up in a potential firefight.

I think you guys have the option to shoot at people who are running away if you think they ... were involved. Can you talk about how difficult it is to make that kind of a distinction?

That is a very difficult situation, where you do see someone running away after an IED, to [distinguish] if they are an insurgent [or] if they are a civilian just hiding. Personally, that is up to the individual Marine or the individual soldier to make that decision to fire or not.

How do you go about trying to find the triggerman for an IED?

Usually it's exceptionally hard to find a triggerman. Usually it's going to be someone close in the vicinity of the IED. They're either going to try and blend in with the crowd. Hopefully, you catch a guy when it goes off with a cell phone or something of that nature in his hand. Basically, you look around at the houses that have the best view of where the IED went off at, and you go and search those areas. ...

... [H]ow and when did you find out that Lance Cpl. [Miguel "T.J."] Terrazas had died?

I found out from Lance Cpl. [Rene] Rodriguez. He was listening to the radio while I was covering my sectors right before we started moving the Humvees, and it was sent over the radio. ... He just basically yelled up to me and said, "T.J.'s dead."

What was your reaction?

At that time I really didn't have one. I mean, as I said -- heat of the moment, you don't have time to mourn. You don't have time to do any of that. ...

So you're looking over the area of your responsibility. What happened next?

... I remember hearing small-arms fire from behind me. I didn't particularly look. I just heard, because, as I said, where I was covering, that's my area, and if I'm not watching it and something comes from there, I could get someone killed.

After I heard the small-arms fire, it died down for a bit, and we pushed the Humvees back closer together. That way it was easier for us to set up a cordon because we were spread out pretty far. A cordon is basically a large circle around the area that the IED happened in. It allowed no one in and no one out.

After we pulled the Humvees back, then I remember seeing two Marines running up a hill to these houses that we took small-arms fire from. I took the weapon [the M-240] off the turret on the Humvee, and I went after them. ...

... Who were the two Marines?

The two that I saw were Cpl. [Hector] Salinas and, I want to say, Pfc. [Humberto] Mendoza. ...

Editor's note: Although Sharratt did not see them at this point, Sgt. Frank Wuterich and Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum would also be present during the engagements of Houses 1 and 2.

And what happened then, when you went after them?

Basically I just thought it was those two Marines, and it's not a smart thing to send two Marines to go through to clear houses. So I grabbed the biggest gun that was available, and I went up there to assist them. ...

By the time I got to the top of the hill, I lost track of where those other two Marines were, because they were pretty much at the top of the hill when I started going after them. I remember going around a broken-down building and linking up with them coming out of what is referred to as House 1.

I linked up with them. Then when they started to go into House 2, I took security on the corner basically to watch. They went inside. I stayed outside to make sure no one was coming through the door to sneak up behind them while they were going through the house. ...

You're keeping watch outside ... the house. What happened then?

Just I heard gunfire and frag grenades go off on the inside. When that was over we all came out -- they all came outside, and we started heading down what's referred to as Route Zebra. There [were] some small, really small houses, maybe one-room houses, that had locks on them. So we tried to kick the doors in. They wouldn't go in. So I shot the lock off with the 240 Gulf light machine gun.

Went in and searched those houses. Didn't find anything. Then after that we headed back toward the Humvees. That's where I put the weapon back in its turret, and I got my primary weapon and the gear that goes with it. Then we headed up to an observation post on top of a house. ... Basically we picked a house that had a good roof on it where we could see all around the area, the IED zone, and basically a 360-degree [view] of the area we were in.

How much time had passed by then, between the initial blast and when you're on the observation post?

Maybe a half hour, hour.

Once you're up on the observation post, what do you see?

At first we saw an insurgent wearing all black running across the ridgeline from the area that we were just at. We figured it was one that survived. So we engaged him and we neutralized him.

We were up there for quite a while, a couple hours. During that time we saw Cobras, which are helicopters, do a strafing run where they fired missiles into another house, which, later we found out, another platoon of ours, weapons platoon -- they were being engaged by frag grenades and small arms fire from a house. So they called in the Cobra strike to fire missiles at the house, and that didn't work. So then finally they called in air support, which is you know, like in Top Gun, the F-14s that fly overhead. And they would drop 500-pound bombs on top of the house, destroying it. ...

... [It] sounds like an awful lot of combat that you're seeing and hearing from this observation post. Is this a typical day? ...

For that day, that was a lot for the town we were in. We really didn't have anything as large-scale as that. Besides that weapons platoon getting attacked, our explosive techs, which we call EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal], they were on the way to assess the crater that the bomb left. And on their way to us, they also got engaged by small-arms fire from insurgents, from palm groves. ...

Why did you leave the observation post, and what happened next?

We were at the observation post for quite a long time. We were up and down it, doing random things. We had detainees that we had to flexicuff that were people in the area. I believe we searched a house under our lieutenant's orders.

Then when we were up there -- and for a while we were observing these Iraqi middle-aged males. They kept poking their heads out and pointing at us, looking at us, and we'd look at them and wave at them to go away. They'd go away for maybe 10 minutes. They'd come back out and keep doing that.

That went on for maybe 20 minutes to half an hour until Cpl. Salinas, he fired a training-purpose round, which is a 40 mm round that comes out of the grenade launcher attached to an M-16. It shoots a blue plastic -- kind of like a ball, but when it hits, there's paint inside of it. ... It's a nonlethal round. So Cpl. Salinas fired that toward the middle-aged men that were observing us, and they saw it hit, and they went back inside. We figured that was going to be the last time. But then they came back out and started doing it again. So finally myself, Cpl. Salinas and Staff Sgt. Wuterich decided we're going to go down and see what these guys are up to. So we headed out to their house.

Is that sort of thing, that kind of peeking, suspicious? What did that say to you?

To us it was a very suspicious act, especially after the IED. Most of the time if an IED does go off, the civilians are smart enough that they'll usually stay in their house. And if we come in, they usually cooperate with us. And if they know something, they'll tell us. But most of the time they just tell us that they were sleeping when it happened or they didn't hear anything.

So then what happened next? You went to investigate?

Yes. We went [over to] go see why these middle-aged men were turkey peeking, basically. ... Turkey peeking is people popping out, looking around, and then when they realize they've been seen, they duck back. ...

We went and headed out to that house that we thought at the time was one [house]. When we got to where [the] middle-aged men were doing that, when we opened up the gate to go in and search, it ended up being two houses and one courtyard. So we went into the first house [House 3] to see if that's where they were at.

When we walked in, the only thing that were there were women and children, which to us, that was kind of weird. We asked them in Arabic if they had any weapons, you know, where [were] the men at. Basically after we asked those questions, they pointed next door to the house that was also in the courtyard. So Cpl. Salinas stayed back to keep an eye on the women and children, and Staff Sgt. Wuterich and myself went to the house next door. ...

And did you say it was unusual that it was just women and children there?

Considering that we saw men turkey peeking there, ... observing us, we thought it was very suspicious.

... So then you went on to the next house?

Yes. Myself and Staff Sgt. Wuterich went to what is referred to as House 4, which would be the second house in that courtyard. And when we went in, we didn't see anything. We got into the living room, and as I was getting ready to walk into the hallway, there was a room in front of me with the door open.

I saw an Iraqi insurgent with an AK-47 pointed at me, so I raised up my squad automatic weapon. And when I pulled the trigger, the weapon jammed. So I pulled back and took cover behind the wall. I pulled out the 9 mm pistol that I was carrying at the time, and I popped the corner -- basically just stuck my weapon out around the corner, looking down the sights, and that Iraqi insurgent was gone.

So I decided I was going to wait there to see if he was going to pop back up, which he did. So I fired a shot and killed him. At that time, I didn't know what was in that room, but I knew that right now I was in the prime position to go in there and possibly be able to have the element of surprise to the insurgents. ...

So I rushed into the room. To the left there were three Iraqi males, and the first one had an AK-47. I couldn't see what was behind him, so I just opened fire on all three of those males until I ran out of bullets. And then when I did run out of bullets, Staff Sgt. Wuterich came in and finished the job.

From the time that you saw that first insurgent who pointed his AK at you to when Sgt. Wuterich finished the room clearing, how much time had elapsed?

... From the time that I saw the insurgent and Wuterich came and helped me, I'd say about maybe 10 to 15 seconds went by.

The first insurgent who pointed his weapon at you when your weapon jammed, why wasn't he able to get a shot off?

At the time, I didn't know why he couldn't get the shot off. But after further investigation, after the situation was over and the house was searched, it ended up that his AK-47 also jammed, because I found a round on the ground that had the primer, which on a shell casing or a bullet, the primer is the firing pin, and the weapon hits that primer, and that allows the round of fire.

After Staff Sgt. Wuterich had come in and he'd helped you finish clearing the room, what happened next? How long did you stay there?

Maybe another minute or two. We collected the weapons, which we ended up finding two AK-47s. We collected those weapons and the ammo with them. ...

We do a hasty search of the house to make sure nothing else was there, which we ended up finding a suitcase with money, hygiene gear and Jordanian passports. So we collected the suitcase up, got Cpl. Salinas and took the weapons, the suitcase and ourselves back to the Humvee to report what happened and drop off what we confiscated into the Humvee. ...

We took the suitcase because the Jordanian passports were a dead giveaway of insurgent activity. A lot of times [insurgents are] from Jordan. Syrians and Jordanians, they will come into Iraq just for a chance to fight the U.S. military. ...

... Can you tell me what weapons you recovered from House 4 and what the condition of those weapons was? ...

... The AK-47s that we recovered from House 4, they were in good working order. When we picked them up, they had rounds in the chamber, with magazines inserted in the weapons. So we collected those weapons up and put them in the Humvee.

Is there any significance? What does it mean that there were rounds in the chamber?

Usually, if you would go to a Iraqi home and you asked for a weapon, they would take you to the weapon, and the weapon would not be loaded. But in this case, with the man pointing it at me and us recovering them with rounds in chambers, [that] told us that they had hostile intent for us, which makes them insurgents. ...

... How long did you stay in the area?

... After leaving the area of House 4, we dropped off the suitcase and the weapons at the Humvee. Then we went back up to the observation post for I don't remember how long, but there was a point that I remember coming down and myself and Lance Cpl. [Stephen] Tatum went over to the IED site. ...

When we were over there, we saw T.J.'s body laying on the ground still, after an afternoon of being there. Myself and Lance Cpl. Tatum decided to pick up T.J.'s gear, what was left of his M-16, and we took those back to the Humvee that we put the suitcase and the AKs in. ...

... How long did you stay in the vicinity?

We stayed in the vicinity maybe 15 to 20 minutes after we loaded up T.J.'s weapon and gear. Myself, I went back up to the observation post, the OP, with Staff Sgt. Wuterich and Cpl. Salinas for a couple hours. Then we came down when I want to say second squad came -- talked with a few guys from second squad.

We got an ammo and chow and water resupply. From there I remember getting on top of another Humvee ... with a turret, facing down Route Zebra, and I held security on Route Zebra for a couple hours. ...

Originally we were supposed to be on a convoy. We would have mounted up in Humvees and drove back to our firm base. But what happened was they wanted us back, because we've been out there since 7:00, 6:00 in the morning, and it was getting to be 10:00, 11:00 at night. So we've been out there all day. So they told us to get back as quickly as possible. We volunteered that we would just [foot] patrol back, and that's what we did. ...

What was the mood? What was the kind of conversations as you guys walked back?

It was a night patrol, so we don't talk at night. Basically that just gives up our position. We're Marines; we still had a job to do, so we didn't stop to talk. ...

When you got back to the base, what happens then?

When we got back to our firm base, we geared down, and we were brought into a debrief, in the briefing room.

So you just talked about what happened?

Yes.

[Talk about those conversations if you can, about how you and your fellow Marines felt after a day like that, and how you'd decompress once you were back at base.]

... The feelings that a Marine has after a day like that -- I couldn't tell you anyone else's feelings. The only one I can tell you is mine. And I had mixed feelings. I don't let my feelings get ahold of me or take advantage of me. But my main thing was I was just glad to be back, and I was just glad that -- unfortunately, a Marine died that day, but I was glad that only one Marine had to die that day. ...

After a day like that, everyone has their own way to decompress. Everyone has their own way to vent, and everyone has their own way to mourn. I myself, I went out, and I did what I could to help all the other Marines. That's just the person I am.

I believe I can mourn when I'm back in the States. But we're out here now, and we've got a job to do. We've still got a couple months left. So I couldn't let the Marines and our squad -- I couldn't let them down by going off and doing my own thing when I should be in there helping them.

What sort of things did you do to help them?

It's just talking to them, giving them high spirits, hugs, anything you can do to make them feel just a little bit better than they did a minute ago.

That night and the time afterward, was there a lot of discussion of what had happened that day?

Just talk of what happened. Everyone wanted to know, because all they heard was rumor mill, just what was going around the base at the time. So you could say yes, there was a lot of talk. ...

Did you see any of the photos of the dead Iraqis from Nov. 19 that other Marines had taken?

Yes, I've seen the photos of the dead Iraqis.

How were they circulating around?

I don't remember how I saw them or how I got ahold of them, but I just remember seeing them on someone's camera or a PlayStation Portable.

And then what did you think of that?

Nothing really. ...

... I want to run by you some of the things alleged by the Iraqi eyewitnesses. ... The Iraqis from House 3 claim that you, Wuterich and Salinas ordered everyone out of Houses 3 and 4, separated the women and children from the men. What's your reaction to that story? [Why would they have said that?]

Just to save themselves. They didn't like what happened, so they tried to take us down in the process. I mean, it was probably their loved ones, but their loved ones were insurgents. So, I mean, there's nothing we can do about it now. But the reason why I think they would make up a story, it's just like how anyone would make up a story, to make themselves look better.

What's the standard operating procedure for entering the house under those circumstances?

There's two versions of entering houses. There's MOUT -- Military Operations Urban Terrain; that's basically the rough way to do it. That's if you're in a combat situation. If the house is deemed hostile, you kick the door down, throw a frag grenade in. You can clear by fire -- and that's putting your weapon around the corner and shooting a few rounds before you go in -- and then you enter the house basically with force.

The other version is SASO [Security and Stabilization Operations]. That's the light version. That's basically, you literally walk up to the house, knock on the door. You talk to the people who answer the door. You ask them if they have any weapons, and you just walk through the house, look for things suspicious, and if you don't find anything, you leave on good terms. ...

... For the house that you cleared, [House 4], why did you use [the MOUT] tactics rather than the knock-and-talk?

We originally used the knock-and-talk tactic [at] the first house [House 3] we walked into. Knocked on the door, ... let ourselves in and found the women and children. The second [House 4] was pretty much a casual -- we walked in not expecting anything, but [there were] possible suspicious guys, so we might want to detain them and question them later.

And then, when we got into the living room with no one to be found, and then I looked up and saw the man with the AK-47 pointed at me, that's when we flipped the switch on and basically just went into kill mode. ...

How possible was it in your estimation that the men in this house were not insurgents, [that] they were just grabbing their AKs and trying to defend their own house?

They weren't doing that. ... We know the insurgents were not just defending their houses, because one, when we went in, they had weapons drawn and pointed on us; and two, after collecting the AK-47s, we found the round that had the primer indented, meaning they tried to shoot. ...

... [Prior to Haditha, you were deployed in Fallujah.] What was your sense of Fallujah, going in?

Fallujah was like the O.K. Corral. It was going to be the wild, wild west. ... In Fallujah, from day one of the push to the end of the push was pretty much constant combat. You were in a firefight the whole entire time. ...

And in a place like Fallujah, ... how difficult is it to distinguish a civilian from an insurgent?

For the push of Fallujah, there [were no civilians]. We were told before we went in that if it moved, it dies. ...

About a month before we went into the city of Fallujah, we sent out flyers. ... We let the population know that we were coming in on this date, and if you were left in the city, you were going to die. ...

Was the procedure for clearing a house in Fallujah different from other house clearing in Iraq?

Yes. The difference between clearing houses in Fallujah was that the entire city was deemed hostile. So every house we went into, we prepped with frags and we went in shooting. Now, in Haditha, before and after the 19th, the standard house clearing was knock-and-talk ...

... [What are] the rules around positive identification of a target?

That also goes into what Lt. [Jesse] Grapes taught me on my first deployment [in Fallujah]. A good way for positive identification -- is it a target? You ask yourself that, and a good way to answer that to yourself is, is he holding an AK-47? Is he doing something suspicious? Digging a hole? Is he planting an IED? Does he have a cell phone? And that's where you ask yourself, is it a target?

Then, if you can answer yourself the right question for yes -- it's a target, he's holding an AK-47; yes, he is a target -- now you can fire.

... Can an entire house be declared hostile?

Yes, an entire house can be declared hostile. A good example: If on the 19th we weren't in such proximity to the houses, we most likely would have just dropped a 500-pound bomb on the house ...

How would the events of Nov. 19 have played out differently if simply a bomb had just been dropped on those houses?

Well, if it was just a bomb dropped on those houses, then it most likely wouldn't have been us being in the news as being murderers or massacrists, because with the 500-pound being dropped, sad to say, there would be no evidence there of who was in the house. ...

... What [was your take on] the initial [news] reports, the Time magazine report and the flood of media coverage?

At that time, the investigation was already kicked off most likely, and there was just nothing we can do. Yes, it upset us, but there was absolutely nothing we can do. The news was going to report this the way they wanted to. They didn't care what actually happened. They just wanted to get the bad side. ...

We thought that the insurgents might have finally gotten smarter to where, instead of just hurting us physically, they were going to start to get the politics and get them against us by setting up a situation like this, ... knowing that our news television channels would put this on the news, put this on national television for the reason to make us look bad, ... to make it look like the war in Iraq is a waste of time, in my opinion. ...

... What's the general attitude among Marines toward the media?

Most Marines, we despise the media, because the media has a tendency to report bad things instead of the good things. ...

How accurate are the news accounts that say 24 civilians were killed in Fallujah that day?

... The news saying that there were 24 innocent civilians killed, it's not accurate at all. My case proves it. I mean, if it just takes my case, then that's four more taken off. So if the four that I encountered were insurgents, I don't know why the news now doesn't believe that the rest of them were, because they were all insurgents. ...

The news has blown this way out of proportion. From the beginning they labeled us as cold-blooded murderers before we were even charged with anything, before the investigations were even complete. And after what happened with me being charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder, all those charges are dropped. To me, what does that say the news listens to? ...

Let me talk a little about the process of the Article 32 hearings [the preliminary hearings that determine if a full court-martial will proceed]. There were some Marines who testified for you, some who testified against you. What was your feeling about those who testified against you?

It hurt. It was one of the most devastating things in my life, knowing that Marines that I went to combat with, Marines that I was right next to when bullets were flying -- and at the same time we were afraid for our lives, but at the same time were able to spit out a quick joke to cheer each other up. It just -- it tore me apart on the inside.

Why do you think they did?

To this day, I don't know why. I personally, I think it was NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] and the way they were doing business with these Marines, scaring them into making them do what they want.

... When did you first hear from the NCIS?

It was during that deployment. They had us go to the Haditha Dam to interview us. ...

I was personally interviewed. It was the fifth sublevel of the dam, five floors down from the ground level. It was in this boiler room. There was bottles with urine in them all around the room from I guess other Marines that they were interviewing. They wouldn't allow myself or those other Marines to go to the bathroom. They told us we had to, you know, urinate in bottles.

I couldn't tell you how long it lasted. I would say six hours or more. Basically how they went was, you would tell them what happened, and they would try and twist it on you while you're telling them. ...

Say I said I walked into House 4 with Wuterich and I saw an insurgent with an AK-47 pointed at me. I believe he [the NCIS interviewer] tried twisting it to where it was the insurgent was holding the AK-47 up in the air as if he was trying to give it to me.

[Did you feel] like they had an agenda?

Personally, yes, I did think they had an agenda. ... To me, it came across as they were trying to find something wrong, and that was their only goal, not to prove us innocent of this but to prove us guilty. ...

... [W]hat was your contact with the NCIS after [your interrogation]?

It was quiet for a couple of months with NCIS, and then, as they were leaving, they had us turn in the weapons that we had that day. There was also another interview. ... Then at Al Asad, which is a larger military base in Iraq where we go to get on a plane to fly to Kuwait to fly home, they told us that ... our unit was going to leave without us and we were going to be stuck at Al Asad to do polygraphs. ...

... [W]hat, if anything, could you have done differently in that room or in that house on Nov. 19 ...

Personally, I think I did everything perfectly that day. Because of me, no one else died. Only one Marine died that day, and we all got to come back. ...

... When you were charged, what was your reaction? What effect did that have on you?

At that point in time, we knew there was an investigation going on, so I figured there was going to be charges. So I really didn't have really any emotion to it. I pretty much knew it was coming by the way everything was playing itself out.

How did your family react?

They were very hurt. They talked to me a lot about it. I was only able to tell them so much. I know that hurt them the most, because they're family, but I didn't want to tell them something that could later hurt any of us that were involved in it. Basically just -- it tore my family apart.

Congressman [John P. "Jack"] Murtha is from your state, right?

Yes. He is from Pennsylvania.

What was your family's reaction to Murtha's comments?

From that day on, they despised him with the passion of the four deadly horsemen of the apocalypse. ...

What was your reaction when you heard the sort of things he was saying?

After we heard what Congressman Murtha had to say, it made us pretty upset to know that a fellow veteran of war could turn around and -- in our opinion, for his personal gain -- use our situation of losing a Marine and possibly going on a rampage. Just blew our minds that someone would have to stoop that low to get respected in a higher authority in the political side of this war. ...

... [W]hen the charges were dismissed against you people called his office for comment, and his responses were on the lines of that he was not going to comment on an ongoing investigation. So he would not comment on the dismissal of charges at this point. What's your reaction to that?

Personally, I think John Murtha is a coward. He said something, and he can't own up to it since he was wrong. ...

Given the legal jeopardy that you've been through, the attention that this has garnered, how much do you think Marines might be second-guessing themselves in the field now?

That was the only thing that I was afraid of, because I guarantee you there's a lot of Marines out there now that are going to second-guess themselves, that are going to think before they shoot. And that's going to get them killed. ...

We talked about Fallujah, where the civilians were also being cleared out. But outside of situations like that, how can you distinguish an insurgent from a civilian?

You mean every day? Basically you can't. I mean, the insurgents wear what the civilians wear; the civilians wear what the insurgents wear. The only time you have a surefire, "Yes, he's an insurgent," is if he's carrying a weapon or if he's shooting at you.

Can you talk about how insurgents use civilians for cover?

Yes. There have been times that you go into a house, and you think it's a friendly house, and you get shot at. And luckily the insurgent misses, and you go to shoot them, and there he is hiding right behind a woman or a child.

Why would he do that?

To protect themselves, to keep themselves from getting shot. ...

... How much of the usual rules about women and children break down in [an insurgency]?

We always looked at women and children can also be insurgents. There are stories that women would pack C-4 where their bellies are at to make themselves look pregnant, and they would come up to U.S. coalition forces, and they'd detonate themselves. So everybody in Iraq, you have to suspect them of being capable of doing anything.

And children?

Yes. And children.

What sort of things were they doing?

It can be as simple as being on a cell phone and calling an insurgent group and telling them that we're on this specific road. ...

How often [in your experience] in Iraq [did] civilians come into the line of fire? ...

I've experienced civilians walking into the line of fire a couple of times. I can't tell you how many times I've experienced [it], but the experience is there.

And how do you deal with that? How hard is it to fight in a situation like that?

You've got to fight for the greater good. You've got to look beyond that. Yes, you might have to kill a civilian to kill that insurgent, but at least that insurgent doesn't have the chance now to plant an IED and possibly kill 12 Marines in one amtrak, which is a large, kind of like a tank, but it's more for carrying personnel. A good example of that is 3/25, the battalion that we relieved in Haditha, lost 19 Marines in one of those amtraks because of an IED. ...

How common do you think the killing of Iraqi civilians is by U.S. forces?

Most likely very common. But that's over my head.

How do you think that affects the overall mission in Iraq, those civilian deaths?

In some cases, they might be necessary; in some cases, they might not be. And in the end, any civilian death is a bad thing, because they're the ones that we're trying to help. ...

As you're going about your duties, how much did you worry about the prospect of injuring civilians?

... [Y]ou usually don't think about that, because in the war we're in, you have to wait for the situation to come to you. You have to wait to be attacked. You have to wait to be shot at. So basically, once the situation escalates, you have to make the call.

... [E]ven if it is an insurgent and not a civilian, how much of a burden is killing on you, as a professional warrior?

For me, the burden of killing -- I don't have one because I did what I needed to do to get the job done and come home safe. ...

What was your attitude in general toward the civilian population in Iraq?

Personally, my attitude toward the civilian population, I really didn't hate them, but I really didn't like them. It was a neutral thing. If they were kind to me, I was kind to them. If they were shady to me, I was shady to them. ...

Do you assign any blame or hold any resentment toward any Iraqis for what you've been through?

Personally I do not hold any blame for the Iraqis. I look at it as, if another country came into America and tried to take over America or do something, it's going to be the same people acting as insurgents. It's going to be your average Joe that has a weapon, and he's going to do what he can to fight for what he believes in. ...

After Nov. 19, did the company's perception of Iraqis change at all?

I believe the perception of the Iraqis didn't change very much. We knew what kind of city that was, and we were just waiting for a bad day like this. And after that day, I can tell you that Haditha got a little more rowdy than it was before that. ...

Before the 19th we really didn't have a lot of confrontation with insurgents. We had the occasional mortar and the occasional IED attacks. But after that we started to get more IED attacks. They actually started doing drive-bys, where they would actually shoot at us in cars and drive away.

And why do you think it increased?

There's two reasons for it. It was really quiet after the 19th for a couple months, and it started to pick up. Usually when that happens, that's because they know our pattern of unit changeover, which is when ... we would be getting ready to leave Iraq and the unit coming in would take over for us. So what the insurgents [would do], after they picked up on this, is they would start to hit heavy on our way out to try and demoralize the next unit coming in.

And did you have any sense of the local population of Iraqis? Did their perception or attitude change after Nov. 19?

I don't think so. ...

... We've heard reports from a couple of sources that after Nov. 19, there was actually more cooperation from the local population in Haditha pointing out IEDs and that sort of thing. How does that square with your experience?

I remember that their cooperation was a little bit better. But as I said previously, toward the end of deployment, the insurgent activity went up and up and up until we got relieved. ...

... Could what happened to you happen to any Marine?

Yes, I believe what happened to me could happen to any Marine, any soldier, any sailor, any Air Force man. ...

What effect has this incident -- what you've been through and the legal proceedings -- had on your career as a Marine? What were you looking at before, and what are you looking at now?

Before, I enjoyed being an infantry Marine; it's everything I wanted to [do]. But knowing that doing my job, I'm going to get questioned, or doing my job that, in my personal opinion, I can do well, now if I'm going to get questioned every time that I have to kill someone, then I'm done with it.

... How did you envision your career in the Marines prior to this? How long do you think you would have stayed in, etc.?

That I couldn't tell you. But I was probably going to re-enlist.

But you're definitely not going to now?

That's correct. I'm definitely not going to re-enlist now. ...

... How do you feel about the Marine Corps now?

The Marine Corps is going to be the Marine Corps. I mean, I really can't comment on that. I learned a lot through the Marine Corps, and I loved a lot in the Marine Corps, met a lot of extraordinary Marines that are still with us and that have been KIA, killed in action. There's always going to be mixed feelings about the Marine Corps with me. ...

The support that I received from just family, friends, everything -- there's a lot of support. There's a defense fund that a lot of people donated to which helped my family and myself through this entire ordeal.

Just having close friends out here and having friends call me to check up on me, that always made me feel a little bit better. I thank everyone for praying for me. And now that this is done and over with I can rest easy. ...

How much do you feel like the system worked?

Well, in my opinion, personally I don't know how everything got askew the way it did. But the way the system worked for me, I thought it worked pretty well. But I just wish it didn't have to come the way it did. ...

When you describe your actions and what happened, you're very calm in just describing incident by incident. Can you talk about some of the sounds or what it's like being in the military, just so people have a better idea of what you went through viscerally?

No offense, I'm sorry, but that's just something you can't speak with words, in my opinion. ... It's not something that you can describe. It's something that's going to be in my head for the rest of my life. ...

What would you say are the biggest misunderstandings people might have about how combat takes place in this war?

People think combat is like it is in the movies when you're watching a movie with combat in it, like Black Hawk Down or Windtalkers or Saving Private Ryan. Everyone thinks that they understand what's happening. But until you hear that bullet fly by your head or you see that grenade land next to you, no one will be able to understand it unless you're there. ...

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posted february 19, 2008

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