QUANTICO, Va – The U.S. Marine who was once feared beheaded by Iraqi insurgents after disappearing from his unit has stepped forward to deny he was ever a deserter, insisting that "Once a Marine, always a Marine."
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun (search) has been under a cloud of suspicion since failing to report for duty June 20. Videotaped images later surfaced showing him apparently kidnapped; he emerged unharmed in Lebanon on July 8.
"I did not desert my post," Hassoun told reporters outside Quantico Marine Corps Base (search) on Monday. "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."
Hassoun, 24, of West Jordan, Utah, disappeared from his base near the troubled Iraqi city of Fallujah (search) and later turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. It remains unclear how he traveled from Iraq to Lebanon, where he was born and still has some relatives.
On June 27, Arab television showed a videotape of a blindfolded Hassoun, a sword hanging over his head. At one point during his disappearance, a group claiming to represent his captors announced that he had been beheaded after being lured from the base by a love affair.
Hassoun did not answer any questions during his brief appearance Monday. He is in the midst of what the Marines call a "repatriation process" in which he is debriefed and given time to decompress and avoid the media spotlight, officials said.
"I would like to tell all the Marines as well as all those others serving in Iraq to keep their heads up and spirits high. Once a Marine, always a Marine, Semper Fi," Hassoun said, invoking the Marine Corps motto, Latin for "always faithful."
Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said the Marine Corps was not in a position to confirm or deny Hassoun's kidnapping claim. Lapan also acknowledged that the Corps reviewed Hassoun's statement to the press but made no changes.
"The words are his. They were reviewed only to make sure ... that he didn't provide useful information to the enemy or divulge information that is militarily sensitive or could cause problems in some way," Lapan said.
Hassoun arrived at Quantico on Friday after six days of medical evaluation at a military hospital in Germany. In the coming days, he will leave Quantico for Camp Lejeune, N.C., his home base, Lapan said. He will continue the repatriation process there, Lapan said.
Marine officials said it may be weeks or months before Hassoun returns to active duty.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (search) is not expected to question Hassoun until his repatriation procedure is completed, the Marine Corps said. The Marines are a separate service within the Department of the Navy.
When Hassoun first disappeared, the Marines said he was on "unauthorized leave" but changed his status to "captured" after the videotape of him blindfolded surfaced a week later.
Some reports have said Hassoun fled his camp after seeing one of his colleagues killed by a mortar shell; others indicated he was lured out and captured. Another version of events says he was freed after promising the insurgents not to rejoin his unit in Iraq.
It was unclear how Hassoun left Iraq and how he made contact with American officials in Lebanon. An embassy spokeswoman in Beirut, Elizabeth Wharton, said the Marine arrived at the fortified embassy, located in a hilly suburb, accompanied by relatives.
Hassoun, a Muslim, is fluent in Arabic, French and English. He was educated at American schools in his native Lebanon before moving to the Salt Lake City area. He was serving his second stint in Iraq as a translator.
Militant groups in Iraq have captured and threatened to behead foreign Muslim hostages, creating an uproar among many Muslims, including other militants. All captured Muslims have so far been released unharmed.
Hassoun's father, Ali Hassoun, who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon, repeatedly pleaded for his son's release. He and his other sons contacted politicians and Muslim clerics in Lebanon and Islamist groups in Iraq in hopes of securing the Marine's release.