CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – A former squad mate of a Marine implicated in the deaths of 19 Iraqis testified Tuesday that after a roadside bombing, the group raced to nearby homes, firing rounds and tossing grenades for 45 minutes, even though he said the Marines did not take gunfire, come across a single insurgent or find a weapon.
Still, former Cpl. Steven Tatum told a military jury at the Camp Pendleton that he felt the squad did nothing wrong that day in the town of Haditha in 2005, when Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including unarmed women and children.
Tatum gave his account during the trial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who led the squad and faces nine counts of manslaughter.
Military prosecutors have implicated the Camp Pendleton Marine from Meriden, Conn., in 19 of the 24 Iraqi deaths. He is the last defendant in one of the biggest criminal cases against U.S. troops from the war.
The squad was returning from a supply run at a combat outpost in the early morning when one of the four humvees in their convoy hit a roadside bomb, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and wounding two others.
Tatum said he rushed to help one of the injured Marines who was trapped under a humvee when he heard small arms fire hit the vehicle in front of him. Tatum said he then saw Wuterich and another Marine ran toward the nearest home.
When Tatum caught up to Wuterich, the sergeant told him "'treat the house as hostile,'" Tatum testified. Tatum understood that to mean there were armed individuals inside and he did not need to identify his target to attack.
The Marines tossed grenades in rooms and fired off rounds. One man was killed near the kitchen. Others were killed in a back room, where Tatum fired alongside Wuterich but said he was unable to see what he was shooting at because of the darkness and flying debris after a grenade exploded.
The Marines left when someone yelled that they had seen a person running out of the home, Tatum said. They ran to a neighboring house, tossing in grenades and shooting off rounds. Tatum saw the body of an Iraqi man near the kitchen when he went in after his fellow Marines.
While checking an empty room, Tatum said he heard people in a back bedroom moving then Wuterich firing his M-16. He rushed to help him, shooting at what he said were silhouettes in the dark, some big, some small.
"The only thing that gave me any indication there was a hostile act in there would be Staff Sgt. Wuterich firing sir," Tatum told military prosecutor Lt. Col. Sean Sullivan.
Tatum returned later when the house had been determined to be safe and learned they had killed an unarmed woman and children in the room.
The defense says Wuterich believed insurgents were in the homes and that's why he ordered his Marines to shoot first and ask questions later.
Tatum told the all-Marine jury he also felt endangered at the time and believes Wuterich and the squad were justified in their actions, even though troops did not take any gunfire or come across any insurgents for 45 minutes while they raided the homes.
The debate is whether Wuterich reacted appropriately as a Marine squad leader in protecting his troops in the midst of a chaotic war or went on a vengeful rampage, disregarding combat rules and leading his men to shoot and blast indiscriminately at Iraqi civilians.
Prosecutors in their opening statement Monday painted a picture of a young Marine with no prior combat experience losing control after seeing his friend's body blown apart.
They showed jurors — all of whom have combat experience in Iraq — graphic pictures of bodies, including the faces of men shot at mid-range who were in a car near the scene of the bomb attack, and described how Wuterich stood at the foot of a bed of a frightened woman and children in one of the home's back bedrooms and sprayed them with bullets.
Prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon said the evidence will show Wuterich "made a series of fatal assumptions and he lost control of himself."
Wuterich has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules.
Wuterich's lawyers said the squad was under small arms fire and Wuterich believed insurgents were in the homes. Attorney Haytham Faraj asked jurors to apply their Marine Corps knowledge and combat experience and imagine how they would react after the deadly blast, blinded by the debris and believing they were under attack.
Faraj, a retired Marine, told the jury of four enlisted men and four officers that Wuterich's orders were meant to urge Marines not to hesitate in reacting.
He also told jurors not to be swayed by member of Wuterich's squad who testify against him.
"You have a bunch of scared Marines promised immunity who are going to tell you about things that did not happen," Faraj said.
Wuterich, who has been working a desk job at Camp Pendleton awaiting the long-delayed trial, is the last of eight Marines initially charged. Six have had their cases dropped. One was acquitted.
Wuterich also acknowledged that he did not positively identify his targets, three investigators testified.