CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A former squad mate of a Marine implicated in one of the Iraq War’s highest profile war crimes cases testified Tuesday that the group raced to nearby homes after a roadside bombing, firing rounds and tossing grenades for 45 minutes, even though the Marines did not take gunfire, come across a single insurgent or find a weapon.
Still, former Cpl. Stephen Tatum told a military jury at 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.
He said the squad feared insurgents were hiding in the nearby homes after the bomb exploded.
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. One squad member was acquitted. Six others, including Tatum, had their cases dropped.
Tatum acknowledged that charges against him were dismissed in exchange for testifying.
He told military prosecutors during his testimony that squad members tossed grenades and shot rounds into rooms of Iraqi homes in the wake of the bombing that killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and injured two others.
Immediately after the explosion, Tatum testified, the Marines came under small arms fire, but he did not know from where. Wuterich and another Marine fatally shot five Iraqis outside a white car near the scene then headed toward the closest home, Tatum said.
Before raiding it, Wuterich told him to “treat the house as hostile,” the former Marine testified. Tatum understood that to mean there were armed individuals inside and he did not need to identify his targets to attack.
Following his squad leader, Tatum said the Marines edged along walls with their weapons drawn. They tossed fragmented grenades into rooms. In a back room, Tatum said he joined Wuterich in firing rounds but was unable to see what he was shooting at because of the darkness and flying debris.
“I saw silhouettes of targets and that was really it,” Tatum said, adding that it looked like there was a man standing or kneeling.
Then someone yelled a person had fled. The Marines rushed out to a neighboring house, tossing in grenades and shooting off rounds there as well. Tatum saw the body of an Iraqi man near the kitchen when he went in after his fellow troops.
While checking an empty room, Tatum said he heard movements in a back bedroom and then Wuterich firing his M-16. He went in to assist Wuterich, shooting at what he said were silhouettes, 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.
Wuterich also acknowledged that he did not positively identify his targets, three investigators testified.
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.
Defense attorney Neal Puckett suggested Tatum had changed details of his account since talking to investigators. Tatum said mistakes could have been made in the investigating reports but he stood by his testimony.
Wuterich listened, occasionally rubbing his chin and whispering in the ear of his attorney during the day’s testimony.
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.
The issue 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.
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.
The tragedy prompted tightening of those policies, with commanders demanding their troops positively identify their targets before firing.
Staff Sgt. Justin Laughner went in after the raids to gather military intelligence and testified Tuesday that he found no signs of insurgents. He took photographs of 23 bodies.
In 2008 testimony in the court-martial of another Marine in the case, Laughner acknowledged deleting photos he took at the scene under an officer’s orders and later lied repeatedly to investigators about what happened to the images.
“I remember some of the kids had their eyes open,” Laughner testified Tuesday, saying he was shaken by the carnage he saw in the back bedroom.
“I just wanted to leave the bedroom,” he said. “I just thought it was really sad.”