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Sergeant implicated in urination video reaches deal to secure medical retirement

Jul. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. Robert Richards leaves his Article 32 hearing aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., on March 19. In an agreement with the Marine Corps, Richards has decided to go before a summary court-martial on Aug. 7
Sgt. Robert Richards leaves his Article 32 hearing aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., on March 19. In an agreement with the Marine Corps, Richards has decided to go before a summary court-martial on Aug. 7 (Don Bryan / The (Jacksonville, N.C.) Daily News)
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A scout sniper implicated in a controversial video depicting Marines urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan has reached an agreement with the Marine Corps that will secure his retirement benefits.

Sgt. Robert Richards will go before a summary court-martial on Aug. 7 at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Marine officials and his lawyer said. He is one of eight Marines to face disciplinary action for the video, which sparked international uproar and a lengthy Marine Corps investigation after it was posted online in January 2012. It was recorded July 27, 2011, by members of the scout sniper team assigned to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which was deployed to Helmand province’s Musa Qala district at the time.

Richards will face the least form of court-martial, which is typically used to resolve minor offenses. He could be reduced one rank and forfeit two-thirds of his pay for up to one month, but will be allowed to medically retire from the service with full benefits, said his attorney, retired Lt. Col. Guy Womack.

The agreement comes as the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, faces allegations in an inspector general complaint that he exerted unlawful command influence in the cases to manipulate the legal proceedings and ensure strict punishments. He removed a three-star general initially assigned to oversee prosecution of the cases, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, after he told the commandant he would not take steps to have them all tossed out of the Corps. Amos told Waldhauser he wanted each of the Marines “crushed,” and stripped Waldhauser of his authority to prosecute the Marines shortly afterward, Waldhauser said in signed declaration filed in the case for another implicated Marine, Capt. James Clement, last week.

The cases are now overseen by Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the deputy commandant for combat development and integration.

Richards, a veteran of three combat deployments to Helmand province, sustained major injuries in Marjah, Afghanistan, in March 2010, when an improvised explosive device peppered him with shrapnel in the neck, groin, legs and left arm. He also was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, according to his wife, Raechel Richards. The video was recorded during his last deployment in 2011, after he recovered from his injuries sufficiently to secure another chance to go downrange. He was identified as 100 percent disabled by a medical board late in 2012, and cleared for medical retirement.

Raechel Richards told Marine Corps Times on Monday night that they chose the summary court-martial because they are ready to “close this chapter and move on with our lives.”

“We’d rather take the guarantee of preserving his medical benefits than risking it all just to clear his name,” she said. “We feel as if dragging this out any longer will just put the Marine Corps in a bad light, and we’d like to prevent that.”

The agreement is the latest, and perhaps last, legal twist for Richards, who, before the video was posted, was widely praised by battalion leaders for his bravery and ingenuity while leading a scout sniper team, according to military documents obtained by Marine Corps Times. He was charged in January with dereliction of duty, violation of a lawful general order and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline.

Richards had an Article 32 hearing on March 19, and was recommended for a special court-martial, a more serious legal proceeding that can result in forfeiture of two-thirds of basic pay per month for one year, up to one year of confinement and a bad-conduct discharge. The bad-conduct discharge eliminates most disability compensation afforded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In April, he was told by an official at the Camp Lejeune Installation Personnel Administration Center that his medical retirement paperwork had been processed, and was issued his DD-214 discharge paperwork. Within a few days, however, Marine officials realized that was an administrative error and called him back to active duty until his legal status was resolved.

Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman for Mills, declined to say why the Corps decided to offer Richards the less serious summary court-martial now, but confirmed the decision has been made.

“Per regulation and to avoid influencing the court, we cannot make any further comment at this time on Lt. Gen. Mills’ perspective, but will note that an accused must consent to trial by summary court-martial,” Gibson said in an email to Marine Corps Times. “As in any other military justice proceedings, Sgt. Richards enjoys the presumption of innocence. We will have further comment following Sgt. Richards’ court-martial on the 7th.”

Gibson also said Marine officials “strongly disagree with most of the factual assertions and many of the legal conclusions suggested” by Clement’s attorney, James Dowd, in his case. Gibson acknowledged that Waldhauser met with Amos in February 2012 to discuss the cases, and that Amos made some comments “that Gen. Amos felt could be perceived as interfering with Lt. Gen. Waldhauser’s independent and unfettered discretion to take action in those cases.”

Amos decided to take Waldhauser off the cases following that meeting, but Gibson said there was never any intent to manipulate the military justice system. A spokesman for the commandant, Lt. Col. Wesley Hayes, referred comment to Gibson.

Raechel Richards said her husband is considering pursuing a degree in bioengineering to develop prosthetic limbs, or career opportunities that will allow him to use his scout sniper skills.

“We’ve had a dark cloud over us for almost 19 months of our lives,” she said. “It has caused immense stress and strain on both of us, in addition to the stress already caused from returning from a combat zone. I am so proud of my husband and his accomplishments, and I never wanted this mess to overshadow his heroism and sacrifice.”

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