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Exclusive: Marine scout sniper in urination video controversy speaks out

Sep. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Cpl. Rob Richards's scout sniper platoon made international headlines in January 2012 when a video of four Marines urinating on dead insurgents appeared online. (Mike Morones / Staff)

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — At long last, they got him. After weeks of observation, Sgt. Rob Richards and his fellow Marine scout snipers had taken out the insurgent leader in Afghanistan responsible for the improvised explosive devices that had killed two of their fellow Marines. One of the Marines’ bodies had been desecrated by the Taliban, his leg hung in a tree to send a defiant message, Marines said.

It was with this history that Richards and his fellow scout snipers bagged the remains of the leader and two other insurgents in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district and brought them back to their nearby forward operating base on July 27, 2011, to collect intelligence, he said. Before they did so, however, Richards and three other Marines made a decision that would erupt into an international controversy five months later: They urinated on the enemy they had just killed, laughing as they did so.

“We were cheering at the time because, I don’t know how much I can get into it, but he was a high-value target or a person of great interest,” said Richards, 27, during an exclusive interview with Marine Corps Times. “I guess one thing led to another and, jokingly, four of us took a piss on him. Looking back, I know it sounds kind of taboo or distasteful doing it, but at the time it was just hilarious. It made sense. It was just another ordinary day.”

The act was recorded on video by another Marine in 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. It was never intended for public distribution, but the Marine behind the camera stepped on an IED within two weeks of the video being recorded, Richards said. He lost a leg and was sent home to the U.S., his belongings packed up and inventoried by others in the unit. Richards, a burly six-year veteran with three combat tours, believes the camera was stolen by another Marine in their battalion. The video was posted anonymously on YouTube in January 2012.

The scout sniper and his wife of more than six years, Raechel, 25, met with Marine Corps Times on Sept. 11 for a wide-ranging 90-minute discussion in their Jacksonville, N.C., home. It marked the first interview he has done in the 19 months since the video was posted. Richards discussed the operations that led to his scout sniper platoon killing more than 230 enemy fighters, his fight to deploy with 3/2 despite sustaining major injuries in an IED strike in 2010, and his struggle with post-traumatic stress, among other topics.

“Wherever I go, people ask ‘Why did you videotape it?’ And I say, ‘We didn’t f---ing know,’ ” Richards said. “We didn’t know at the time, and we didn’t know it would get in the hands of a traitor, in my opinion. Not only a traitor, but a coward who would potentially try to destroy us and the Marine Corps at the same time by releasing it selfishly.”

Richards is one of eight Marines to face discipline as a result of the incident. He pleaded guilty in summary court-martial in August to failing to obey a lawful order and violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a catch-all that typically reflects a failure to maintain good order and discipline that brings discredit to the armed forces, Marine officials said. The deal allowed him to avoid a bad-conduct discharge that would have eliminated his military medical benefits. He expects to leave the service with a medical retirement, possibly by the end of the month.

Richards said he is tired of people asking why he and his fellow Marines urinated on the dead insurgents, and angry with Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and other Marine Corps leaders for allowing the cases to take so long to play out. At the same time, he expressed remorse for causing hardship for others in his battalion, and said he was devastated when the video was released.

“What really led up to it is they desecrated one of our Marines,” Richards said of the video. “When you’re under that much stress and in that environment, your whole mental being changes. You’re no longer Joe the Family Man. You’re a warrior, and if you read back to biblical wars and wars since the dawn of time, men have been doing this to men for millennia.”

Wounded in Afghanistan

Richards first fought in Afghanistan in 2008 as a member of the scout sniper platoon with Camp Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. The unit deployed as part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of the first Marine maneuver units in Afghanistan in years.

Richards said he had “no idea what was going on” during that trip downrange as a junior member of 1/6’s scout sniper platoon. He stayed with the unit after it redeployed to the U.S., however, and attended scout sniper school in Quantico, Va. After he graduated, he became a team leader and prepared to deploy again with 1/6. The battalion had a tough assignment: It was selected to be part of the initial push into Marjah, then a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand province.

The Battle of Marjah began in earnest Feb. 13, 2010, as Marines were airlifted into insurgent-held territory. A month later, on March 19, Richards was hit by a pull-string IED, causing serious injuries from which he still has lingering effects. He sustained shrapnel wounds to his legs, arms, groin and — most significantly — his throat.

“It got set off on us pretty close. I would say 10 to 15 feet at the most,” Richards said. “At the time, I didn’t really know what happened. I remember trying to walk, and I couldn’t walk, but I knew I had to get out of there. ... I went into this pump house, and I remember looking down because I felt like I was choking. And I looked down, and everything was kind of gushing and I couldn’t breathe at the time... The only thing I can remember thinking is, ‘I’m going to suffocate.’ ”

Richards said he contemplated taking his own life using his M4 carbine because he “didn’t want to go out like that.” His corpsman found him moments later, however, and began providing medical treatment. A hexagonal nut in the IED that penetrated his neck also had opened up a hole that allowed him to breathe like he had received a tracheotomy.

Over the next few weeks, the scout sniper traveled to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and received additional treatment. He couldn’t speak for more than two weeks. While at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a nurse helped Richards show Raechel and his mother that he was OK by taking photographs of him holding up signs expressing his love for them. Still, when he arrived at the intensive care unit at Bethesda, his physical condition was striking, Raechel said.

“He had come into the ICU, and he still couldn’t talk. He was hooked up on all these machines, but he was conscious,” she said, choking up. “... But it was very hard to see him. Just within the couple days it had been since he got hurt, he was so gaunt.”

A rocky recovery

Richards underwent six or seven surgeries, he said. His vocal chords were damaged by the shrapnel, deepening his voice to this day. He also had a mesh screen inserted to hold parts of his throat in place, he said.

Overcoming the mental trauma was even worse. While Richards characterized his treatment at Bethesda as excellent, he struggled with guilt as combat in Marjah continued to take a toll on his battalion and other units deployed there. He also suffered from night terrors and was placed on a cocktail of medications that included painkillers and Valium, he said.

“It’s just like you sitting back at home doing jacks--- and everyone else is back out there,” Richards said. “It’s horrible. I would say it’s worse than the physical wounds. I was just trying to find a way to go back, and there was no way possible to go back. ... It’s almost embarrassing because you feel like you’re not a part of the team anymore.”

His downward spiral culminated with an ugly night in Florida. While vacationing on the beach he was caught off-guard by a pirate-themed event in which replica cannon were fired. Richards pulled out a pistol he was carrying, he said, and discharged it in his hotel room while Raechel was present. He thought he was under attack.

“I don’t even remember. I just shot at a mirror or something in the hotel room, and if it weren’t for her ... ” Richards said, his voice trailing off as he struggled to put the experience in words. “I remember seeing her face, and that’s when I came to.. I guess I just… I don’t even remember. I just sat there. I think I went into the closet or bathroom or something, and I just waited there.”

Police arrived on the scene, and treated him kindly, Richards said. He spent the next month in psychiatric treatment, primarily at a veterans facility in Clearwater, Fla. Richards’ attorney, Guy Womack, brought up the incident during his Article 32 hearing in April. While Richards was struggling to recover, Womack said, he was recruited to join 3/2.

Joining 3/2

Initially, Richards was sought by his new scout sniper platoon to impart wisdom without deploying, according to both Richards and documents outlining the Corps’ investigation of the platoon. While he had deployed to Afghanistan twice, many others in the platoon had not been there, and needed help preparing, he said. Soon, he decided they were green enough that he should be with them downrange.

Despite his physical and mental ailments, Richards quit his medication “cold turkey” shortly after getting out of the veterans clinic in Florida and took aim at returning to active duty, he said. The decision put stress on his marriage with Raechel, but he was determined to do it, they both said. Asked if he was ready for it, Richards didn’t have a sure answer.

“Looking back, it’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I can’t say whether it was a good idea or not. I wouldn’t change it. I don’t think I’d change it for the world. At this point, I think I would still go back.”

The battalion deployed early in 2011, taking over in Musa Qala and Now Zad districts. The area of operations was expansive, and his battalion’s leaders tapped the scout snipers to level the playing field. The heavy responsibilities led to an innovative move in which Richards had a hand: teaming snipers with tanks.

The cooperation started during a mission early in 3/2’s deployment in which tanks were set up in blocking positions to the west of the scout sniper team. The Marines on the ground could see insurgents passing ammunition through holes in a distant compound’s walls, but they didn’t have the firepower to penetrate them. The tanks, with their 120mm main guns, did.

Over that summer, the platoon as a whole recorded more than 230 confirmed kills, according to Richards and documents outlining the 3/2 investigation. Richards’ team, working frequently with the tanks, recorded more than 70.

“They wanted to get some just as much as we did,” he said. “Us using them, they were very grateful for it, and obviously we were extremely grateful for their support as well. And then sometimes they would drive right up to our compounds… and they would drive us out so we didn’t have to worry about blowing our legs off getting back to the main FOB.”

The battlefield success caught the eye of senior Marine officers. In September, Amos and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett met with the platoon for breakfast at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan, as 3/2 prepared to return home.

“He sat us down and talked to the whole platoon, handed out his coins and said, ‘I want you to go back to the schoolhouses and write down what you did that made your deployment so successful,’ ” Richards said of the commandant.

Overall, 3/2 lost six Marines and a corpsman on the deployment.

Legal battles

Following the investigation, Richards and Staff Sgts. Joseph Chamblin and Edward Deptola faced a variety of charges, including some for appearing in the video themselves.

Capt. James Clement, who was serving as the communications link between the sniper team and fellow officers at a nearby command center, was charged with dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was not present when the video was recorded, but was cited by investigators for failing to report other violations that were observed in videos collected by the Corps, including excessive use of small-arms fire.

Chamblin and Deptola eventually pleaded guilty to related charges, and were reduced a rank to sergeant. After a lengthy legal battle, the charges against Clement were dropped in September, but he still faces an administrative Board of Inquiry that could involuntarily separate him from the Corps with an other-than-honorable discharge. Four other Marines involved received nonjudicial punishments and have not been publicly identified.

The cases are complicated by senior leadership’s involvement. In March, a staff judge advocate at Quantico, Va., filed an inspector general complaint with the Defense Department against Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and some of his senior advisers. It alleges the commandant, or others acting on his behalf, deliberately and unlawfully meddled in the urination video cases to ensure stiff punishment, then sought to cover up the involvement. Marine officials have maintained that the legal proceedings for of the accused Marines were conducted fairly.

In July, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the first convening authority in the cases, said in a signed declaration for Clement’s case that he was willing to avoid courts-martial for Richards and the other sergeants involved. Amos, however, told Waldhauser he wanted all of the Marines involved “crushed” and tossed from the service, Waldhauser said.

Amos replaced Waldhauser shortly afterward with Lt. Gen. Richard Mills as the consolidated disposition authority for the cases, a highly unusual move.

In a Feb. 10, 2012, memo to Waldhauser, Amos acknowledged his comments “could be perceived as possibly interfering with your independent and unfettered discretion to take action in these cases.” The commandant removed the three-star general “to protect the institutional integrity of the military justice process, and to avoid any potential issues,” the memo said.

Marine officials argue the decision shows the commandant was committed to the military justice system, but Richards isn’t buying it. He said he’s “very grateful” that Waldhauser “had the balls enough to stand up to the commandant,” both in disagreeing with how to proceed with the cases and in acknowledging it later for the court.

Richards also praised Maj. James Weirick, the Marine attorney who filed the inspector general complaint that has garnered attention on Capitol Hill, in the national media and across the Corps. Weirick, who handled the cases for Mills, spoke up when no one else would, the scout sniper said.

“I’m very grateful for him, and I’m sorry that his career is probably ruined for it,” Richards said. “I hope he doesn’t hate me for that.”

Richards questioned the way the officers tied to the case — especially Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, his battalion commander — have been treated. Dixon, who was not found negligent in the investigation, had already been selected for promotion to colonel and a prestigious top-level school assignment when the video was released. Nevertheless, his career advancement has been halted while the legal cases play out. Conversely, his executive officer in 3/2, Lt. Col. James B. Conway, was promoted to his current rank and allowed to take command of an infantry battalion in Hawaii. He is the son of retired Commandant Gen. James T. Conway.

Richards said that while the “lowly sergeant” in him wonders if someone pulled strings to cut loose the retired commandant’s son, no officers in his battalion should be held accountable for the actions in the video. Dixon and Conway were excellent leaders who were not present when it was recorded and did all they could to prepare the Marines for combat, Richards said.

“At the end, it was my decision — or our decision — and I’m not saying whether it was right or wrong. But what I am saying is we’re the only ones who should have been punished for it,” Richards said, “not some colonel who was in the [combat operations center] at the time. That’s one thing I don’t understand ... I should have been punished, but their careers, they should have been able to keep their careers.”

Life after the Corps

Richards speculated that the commandant took personal interest in their cases, in part, because he had met them in Afghanistan before the video was published. Sought for comment, a Marine Corps spokesman said Amos had no comment for this story.

“Though well aware of the high interest in these cases and mindful of the distorted picture some have drawn, the commandant has refrained from weighing in publicly, believing that respect for the unfinished legal process demands restraint,” said Lt. Col. Neil Murphy, the spokesman. “He looks forward to responding at the appropriate time.”

Richards expressed frustration with Marines who have criticized him and his buddies, especially if they haven’t served in combat.

“They join the Marine Corps for the T-shirt, you know?” he said. “You’re always going to run into that for the rest of your life, and they’re always going to be the loudest, most obnoxious, because deep down they know they didn’t do a goddamn thing. And it’s those [Marines] who are still ridiculing us and calling us pieces of s--- and a disgrace to wear the uniform. My response to them is, ‘What have you done?’ ”

Richards said he is assessing what he will do after he leaves the Corps — something he couldn’t address until he knew the results of his legal case. Ten years from now, he hopes he no longer has the title, “Rob, the sniper who pissed on dead bodies,” he said. He’s proud of the good work he did in the Corps, and grateful for the opportunities he had as a scout sniper.

“That’s the only thing I was really good at in life, being a Marine sniper, and I’ll miss it every day,” Richards said. “I wish I could go back if I had known all this would happen, but I don’t know what I would do. I guess the only thing is, I can’t have any regrets. Everything happens for a reason.”

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