View Full Version : Marines empathize with those in Iraq

06-01-06, 10:04 AM
Current and former Marines empathize with those in Iraq
By Rick Rogers
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/military/20060601-9999-1n1marines.html)

June 1, 2006

Mention Haditha to current or former Marines and there's a pause, followed by the disclaimer that no judgment should be made before officials fully investigate accusations of Camp Pendleton Marines massacring Iraqi civilians there.

Then they speak of how, if true, the troops might have unjustly killed about 24 men, women and children Nov. 19.

Some talk about the fear and frustration endemic to urban warfare anywhere in Sunni-controlled Anbar province, which includes Haditha, Fallujah and other insurgent strongholds. They also note the grind of multiple combat tours.

Nearly 25,000 Camp Pendleton Marines are serving in this western, mostly desert region of Iraq. Many are on their third tour in little more than three years.

Three years of breaking down doors and rushing into small, dark rooms where Marines might encounter a man with a gun or a family frozen in terror.

Three years of chasing snipers who shoot and then fade into the crowds.

Three years of seeing buddies dismembered or killed by roadside bombs when their big hope is to go home in one piece.

“It is just so frustrating. They hit and run and it's all on their schedule, and then they blend in with the civilians,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Talley, who spent early 2004 in Fallujah as a platoon sergeant responsible for 65 Marines from Camp Pendleton's 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

“Then you wonder: Does this guy who is smiling at me have an AK-47 behind the door that he is going to shoot me in the back with?” said Talley, who lives in Temecula and will retire in October after 22 years of service. “For some of the guys, it eats them up. Until you get shot at, you don't understand what the pressure is like.”

That pressure and those insurgents' tactics are likely to remain for the duration of the U.S. occupation, because most Iraqis don't support the U.S. presence or the nascent Iraqi government, Talley and other Marines said.
“This is a failure to change the underlying thinking of the people,” said retired Marine Gen. Joe Hoar of Del Mar, former commander of the U.S. Central Command. “It's a failure by the U.S. government to improve their security so they feel safe to support us.

“This (winning in Iraq) is not about killing bad guys. This is about changing the commitment of all those people who are living in the society,” said Hoar, a critic of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and his administration's handling of the war since. “When civilians won't give intelligence about roadside bombs, that is a failure.”

U.S. backing of a clearly fractured Iraqi government; the paucity of promised schools, hospitals and power plants; and many Iraqis' belief that Americans are in their country for its oil and not for long-haul improvements have created the societal mistrust, Hoar and numerous defense analysts have said.

But none of those factors can excuse unwarranted killings, Hoar, Talley and others agreed. If troops from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment really did kill those civilians Nov. 19 without cause, they deserve punishment, the sources said.

About a dozen enlisted Marines from the battalion are being investigated for allegedly going on a deadly rampage after Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, was killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha.

Details of the killings went unpublicized until Time magazine reported in March that human-rights advocates had accused the Marines of war crimes. At the time, the military responded by saying it had opened an inquiry. It has since launched two more investigations into the alleged massacre.

Any hearings or courts-martial probably would take place at Camp Pendleton, perhaps as early as July. If the Haditha killings are ultimately ruled as unjustified, they would constitute the most serious U.S. atrocities since the Iraq war began.

Without predicting guilt or innocence, current and former Marines such as Talley and Hoar said they understand the anger that can erupt when a fellow Marine dies.

“The urban conflict is the dirtiest and most stressful of all. ... The challenge is to stay above the emotion, especially for the leaders. It can be very emotional,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the 1968 battle for Hue, one of the most vicious urban fights of the Vietnam War. He is now president of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.

Talley lost one Marine during his Fallujah tour when Lance Cpl. James Huston died July 2, 2004, while responding to an enemy attack.

“When a Marine dies, all the emotions come out,” Talley said. “It's like losing your own brother. You know his mother and sister. You've either met them or you know them through the letters they sent, just like you've shared your letters.

“Maybe he has saved your life, and then he is dead.”

Each deployment and each death tends to ratchet up the stress and the potential of an incident, said Jose Flores, 23, a three-tour combat veteran with the Camp Pendleton-based 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

The 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, now back at Camp Pendleton, was on its third tour of Iraq when the Haditha killings occurred.

Flores vividly recalled his battalion's anger when Maj. Ray Mendoza Jr. was killed by a bomb in November in Ubaydi, a small town near the Syrian border.

“A lot of people get a lot more aggressive searching people and places after someone passes away because you might die next,” said Flores, who observed that Marines on their second and third tours tend to handle Iraqi civilians more roughly then they did the first time around.

“After someone is killed, you get real ****ed off and frustrated, and you just want the search over with,” said Flores, whose unit lost seven Marines and had 90 wounded during his three tours. “Sometimes you take it out on the people.”

Flores added that misunderstandings can lead to civilians being killed. He said that in several instances, Marines accidentally shot civilians who didn't understand – or defied – calls to leave their homes so Marines could search them.

In other circumstances, nervous or inexperienced Marines burst into houses and began shooting because they were scared, Flores said. This often causes other Marines to use their weapons as well, resulting in unintended deaths.

“The Marines are taught that once the shooting starts ... that house is considered a hostile house and they are to clear it as quickly as possible,” said Flores, who lives in Temple City. “And clearing a room with a hand grenade is the quickest way to do it.”

To re-emphasize the the importance of maintaining battlefield integrity, the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee, is traveling throughout Iraq and the United States to address Marine Corps protocols.

In a statement, Hagee said: “To most Marines, the most difficult part of courage is not the raw physical courage. ... It is rather the moral courage to do the 'right thing' in the face of danger or pressure from other Marines.

“Many of our Marines have been involved in life-or-death combat or have witnessed the loss of their fellow Marines, and the effects of these events can be numbing. There is the risk of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor upon ourselves. Leaders of all grades need to reinforce continually that Marines care for one another and do what is right.”

Ultimately, “the truth will come out,” said Christmas, the retired Marine lieutenant general. “It might not be the truth we want to see, but it will come out. You are responsible and accountable. That's our creed.”