CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – Marine Corps officers have launched a formal investigation into whether a Lebanese-American Marine deserted his unit in Iraq or months later after returning to the United States, a military spokesman said Thursday.
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun was being investigated for alleged desertion, destruction of government property and larceny, said Lt. Col. Cliff W. Gilmore, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune. Hassoun faced those charges a decade ago after disappearing from his unit in Iraq with a 9 mm service pistol and a Humvee.
Hassoun is being held in Camp Lejeune's brig pending the investigation and decisions about whether he will face charges, Gilmore said. A decision on whether to charge Hassoun could come from Maj. Gen. William Beydler, the 2nd MEF's commander, before or after an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury.
Hassoun, 34, turned himself in to military authorities last month at an undisclosed location in the Middle East and was returned to Camp Lejeune more than nine years after he failed to return from a family visit in Utah. His commanders then officially classified him as a deserter, authorizing civilian police to apprehend him.
Hassoun, who was born in Lebanon and is a naturalized American citizen, enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2002 and was trained as a motor vehicle operator. He was serving as an Arabic translator at the time of his disappearance in Fallujah in western Iraq in June 2004.
Seven days later, a photo of a blindfolded Hassoun with a sword poised above his head appeared on Al-Jazeera television. A group called the National Islamic Resistance/1920 Revolution Brigade claimed to be holding him captive.
Soon after the photo and statement, Hassoun contacted American officials in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 8, 2004, saying he had been kidnapped. But the military doubted his story and he was brought back to the U.S. to face desertion and theft charges. Hassoun insisted he had been captured by Iraqi insurgents and was still a loyal Marine.
"I did not desert my post," he told reporters. "I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me."
Just before a military grand jury hearing in January 2005, he vanished again and didn't turn up until his surrender last month.
The Defense Department recorded 466 members of all services either went absent without leave, AWOL, or were classified as deserters after being gone for 30 days in 2012, the last year for which figures were available, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said last month. The FBI's national criminal database available to law enforcement agencies around the country lists nearly 2,300 people wanted for military desertion, spokesman Billy Estok said in an email earlier this month.