The Face Of Haditha


Frank Wuterich led the Marines accused of the massacre in Iraq. He talks here for the first time.

Frank Wuterich knew before he finished boot camp that he didn't want to be a Marine for life, but he may wind up one anyway. Wuterich is the central suspect in the Iraq war's most notorious massacre, at Haditha, where 24 Iraqis were killed by U.S. Marines--Marines led by Wuterich. During his first media interview, the former high school band member and honor student is exceedingly polite. Wearing jeans, black sneakers and a light blue polo shirt, he shows a visitor around his two-story semidetached house at Camp Pendleton in southern California, patiently answers questions and waits good-naturedly for a photographer to set up his equipment. There is no military paraphernalia cluttering his home, which is filled instead with family pictures, knickknacks, and souvenirs from his wife Marisol's sorority days. His 4-year-old daughter is just up from her nap, and he kisses her forehead. He allows Marisol, who is expecting their third child in January, to finish his sentences.

Wuterich, 26, who grew up in Meriden, Conn., signed up for the Marines at 17 and volunteered for the infantry, the grunts who are the heart and soul of the corps. Finding boot camp a dull grind compared with what he felt the recruiting videos had promised, he asked to switch out of the infantry. "I thought I could use my mind a little differently," he says. But he was turned down. He tried again in 2002, requesting a transfer to counterintelligence, but his eight tattoos disqualified him; those kinds of markings make a man too easy to identify. Among the tattoos on his arms, chest, neck and leg are a series of musical notes, the kanji character for endure and a heart for an ex-girlfriend. The one tattoo he's reluctant to exhibit, on the inside of his right forearm, is of a skewer running through a bunch of severed fingers and eyeballs. "That's the one I really don't like," Marisol says sternly but with a smile.

Wuterich long imagined the corps as just a stop on the way to a career as a music producer, but he re-enlisted after 9/11, in part to support his family while Marisol finished her nursing degree but also because he was itching for action. With the rank of sergeant, he was dispatched to Iraq with Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, in September 2005. He saw his first firefight that month in the town of Hit when his team suddenly came under fire. "Was I scared? Sure," he says. It turned out that the shots were com-ing from a Marine officer, who quit shooting once Wuterich's guys sent up three red flares letting him know they were friendly. While under fire, the squad members, none of whom were hurt, took cover and waited to identify the threat before shooting back. They performed just as they were supposed to, Wuterich says. His remark hangs in the air.

Wuterich is under investigation for what happened on another day, just two months after his arrival in Iraq. On the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, Wuterich's squad, on patrol in Haditha, was hit by an improvised explosive device that killed one of his men. Iraqi witnesses and sources familiar with the two Pentagon investigations under way claim that several of the squad's 12 Marines then went on a rampage of killing in the town, leaving 24 Iraqis dead, including five women and six children. Wuterich's lawyer Neal Puckett would not permit Wuterich to talk about those events. Puckett has said publicly that Wuterich felt his unit was under attack in Haditha and acted appropriately under the rules of engagement that allow Marines to defend themselves if they are in reasonable fear for their lives. According to sources familiar with the Haditha inquiries, six to eight Marines will probably be charged in the episode as early as next week. Wuterich is expected to be among those charged with the most serious crimes, which could include murder, for which he could face the death penalty.

"I'm mystified by a lot of this," he says. He wonders, for instance, why the investigators have not pushed harder to speak to him. But it was his lawyer who did not allow him to talk to them, as is common practice among defense attorneys. Wuterich was scheduled for retirement three months ago, but is being involuntarily held in the corps while the probes continue. Transferred to Pendleton with the rest of his unit in April, he is officially on duty, but he is not a full member of his platoon. When it goes on a training exercise soon, he is not likely to participate; the corps doesn't want to train him and then lose him if he goes on trial. Wuterich says he occasionally sees members of his Kilo Company squad at Pendleton, but they keep their distance. "It is sort of uncomfortable," he says.

There are small, subtle signs of Wuterich's detaching himself from his military life: his boots are too scuffed and worn for a Marine. And he hasn't updated his old dress uniform by sewing on the chevron that shows his higher rank. His superiors put in for his promotion to staff sergeant last October, and it came through on Jan. 1--six weeks after Haditha. He says the jacket's too tight, anyway.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: