Family members of two Marines say their sons were ordered to photograph and clean up corpses of unarmed Iraqi civilians that members of their unit are suspected of killing, and they have been traumatized ever since.
In separate interviews with The Associated Press on Monday, the parents of Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, 20, and Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, 21, said their sons told them the events of last November remain seared in their memories.
Wright and Briones were members of a Marine unit based at Camp Pendleton that was sent into the western Iraqi city of Haditha to help remove the bodies of as many as two dozen Iraqis, including women and children, who were shot.
While there, the two were ordered to photograph the scene with personal cameras they happened to be carrying the day of the attack, the families said. Briones' mother, Susie, said her son told her he saw the bodies of 23 dead Iraqis that day.
"It was horrific. It was a terrible scene," Susie Briones said in a tearful interview at her home in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Navy investigators confiscated Briones' camera, his mother said. Wright's parents, Patty and Frederick Wright of Novato, declined to comment on what might have happened to the photos their son took but said he turned over all of his information to the Navy.
"He is the Forrest Gump of the military," Frederick Wright said. "He ended up in the spotlight through no fault of his own."
Ryan Briones told the Los Angeles Times that Navy investigators had interrogated him twice in Iraq and they wanted to know whether bodies had been tampered with. He turned over his digital camera but did not know what happened to it after that.
Susie Briones called the Nov. 19 incident a "massacre" and said the military had done little to help her son, who goes by his middle name, deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I know Ryan is going through some major trauma right now," said Susie Briones, 40, an academic adviser at a community college. "It was very traumatic for all of the soldiers involved with this thing."
The details of what happened in Haditha are still murky. What is known is that a bomb rocked a military convoy and left one Marine dead. Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials.
The incident has sparked two investigations — one into the deadly encounter itself and another into whether it was the subject of a cover-up. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday on CBS's "The Early Show" that "it would be premature for me to judge" the situation.
But, he added, if certain service members are responsible for an atrocity, they "have not performed their duty the way that 99.9 percent of their fellow Marines have."
Briones' best friend, Lance Cpl. Miguel "T.J." Terrazas, had been killed the day of the attack by the roadside bomb, his mother said. Briones was still grieving when he was sent in to clean up the bodies of the Iraqi civilians.
"He had to carry that little girl's body," she said, "and her head was blown off and her brain splattered on his boots."
The Wrights declined to say whether their son witnessed the killings or what he thought of the allegations against other members of his unit.
Wright and Briones are both recipients of the Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded in battle.
Wright was injured during an assault on Fallujah in January 2005. He voluntarily rejoined his unit at Camp Pendleton the next month. Briones was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He received a Purple Heart during his first tour.
On Monday, both Marines were back at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, where base officials said several members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division were being confined during the investigations.
Lt. Lawton King, a Camp Pendleton spokesman, declined to comment Monday.
Sgt. Ian Moore, who was relaxing on the base Monday, said he and other Marines in the battalion were waiting to hear results from the investigations.
"A lot of these things are being played out in the court of public opinion and it's unfair on the Marines," said Moore, who spent time in Haditha on his previous tour in Iraq.