Bat­tle for rep­u­ta­tion en­dures

A Marine unit was cleared of slaugh­ter­ing Afghan civil­ians in 2007, but stigma lingers.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NA­TION - By David Zucchino

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The cap­stone to Maj. Fred Galvin’s ca­reer was the com­mand of the Marine Corps’ first-ever spe­cial op­er­a­tions unit. He led the elite com­pany into Afghanistan in Fe­bru­ary 2007.

But less than a month after Fox Com­pany ar­rived in eastern Afghanistan, Galvin was en­gulfed in scan­dal. His unit was ac­cused of fir­ing in­dis­crim­i­nately after a car bomb at­tack on March 4, killing as many as 19 Afghan civil­ians and wound­ing 50 more.

Galvin and his men were cleared in court a year later of any re­spon­si­bil­ity after tes­ti­mony by more than 50 wit­nesses. The three-of­fi­cer jury con­cluded that the two of­fi­cers and their Marines “acted ap­pro­pri­ately and in ac­cor­dance with the rules of en­gage­ment … in re­sponse to a com­plex at­tack.”

The court noted “un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions” by mil­i­tary com­man­ders about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

But Galvin says his and the unit’s rep­u­ta­tion re­mains stained by ac­cu­sa­tions that they killed in­no­cent civil­ians. He has strug­gled over the last eight years to clear the names of the 29 Marines on the 2007 pa­trol.

Galvin, who re­tired from ac­tive duty last year, says he is speak­ing out now to make sure another unit doesn’t ex­pe­ri­ence what he said was the mil­i­tary’s rush to judg­ment in re­sponse to in­tense po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to re­duce civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

The Marines were called into an of­fice one at a time and in­ter­ro­gated for hours, with no Mi­randa warn­ings and no ac­cess to lawyers, Galvin says. They were held in­com­mu­ni­cado for days. They were pub­licly con­demned by top mil­i­tary com­man­ders.

“We weren’t just aban­doned — they tried to de­stroy us,” he said re­cently near his Kansas City home, his hand rest­ing on a file box con­tain­ing thou­sands of pages of doc­u­ments from the case.

“To this day, I en­counter peo­ple, in­clud­ing Marines, who say we got away with mur­der,” he said. “We’ll take this to the grave.”

Ca­reer-end­ing day

Galvin, 45, still main­tains a rigid mil­i­tary bear­ing as he builds a new life, work­ing to­ward an MBA. He has be­come ob­sessed with the case, fil­ing Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quests, as­sem­bling thou­sands of pages of doc­u­ments and writ­ing a bit­ter, book-length ac­count.

The ac­cu­sa­tions of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties es­sen­tially ended Galvin’s ca­reer. He was never pro­moted and said he was steered into dead-end jobs un­til he de­cided to re­tire after 27 years.

In Galvin’s view, Fox Com­pany is a case study in the con­se­quences of po­lit­i­cal pres­sures in an un­pop­u­lar war. The U.S. mil­i­tary in 2007 was com­mit­ted to a coun­terin­sur­gency strat­egy that em­pha­sized pro­tect­ing Afghan civil­ians. Build­ing trust and con­fi­dence with lo­cal Afghans was viewed as more im­por­tant than killing in­sur­gents.

The in­ci­dent be­gan when a pla­toon con­voy from Galvin’s unit was hit by a sui­cide bomber. Galvin was rid­ing in a Humvee at the rear and saw an orange fire­ball rise hun­dreds of feet into the air.

In an in­stant, gun­shots rang out from both sides of the road, he re­called. Galvin said his Marines opened fire, dis­abling a Toy­ota SUV speed­ing to­ward them. In five minutes, Galvin said, his men had killed six to 10 com­bat­ants.

The Marines drove back to their base in Jalal­abad. Thank­ful to be alive, Galvin re­ceived the shock of his ca­reer: The BBC was re­port­ing that the Marines had just killed10 Afghan civil­ians.

By the end of the day, news re­ports quot­ing Afghan of­fi­cials and vil­lagers said some Marines were drunk and had shot wildly at civil­ians. They were ac­cused of barg­ing into homes to shoot in­hab­i­tants.

Amonth after the at­tack, Galvin was re­lieved of com­mand. He and six other Marines on the con­voy were in­ves­ti­gated for neg­li­gent homi­cide and dere­lic­tion of duty.

“After that, we were ra­dioac­tive,” Galvin said. “These tra­di­tions — never leave a Marine behind — well, they left us behind.”

Re­tired Marine Col. Steven Mor­gan, one of the three of­fi­cers on the Marine jury that ex­on­er­ated the unit, said in an in­ter­view: “These Marines still have this black mark on them that never should have been there. It’s an ugly story and it makes me an­gry.”

Lt. Gen. Frank Kear­ney, head of U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand-Cen­tral Com­mand, said sixweeks after the shoot­ings that there was no ev­i­dence of in­sur­gents among 10 dead and 33 wounded Afghans. Kear­ney had or­dered Fox Com­pany re­moved from Afghanistan six days after the at­tack.

Kear­ney, now re­tired, de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

‘To this day, I en­counter peo­ple, in­clud­ing Marines, who say we got away with mur­der. We’ll take this to the grave.’ — For­mer Maj.

Fred Galvin, Fox Com­pany com­man­der

Two months after the at­tack— with a mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tion still un­der way— the top U.S. Army com­man­der in the re­gion, Col. John Ni­chol­son, told Afghan el­ders that he was “deeply, deeply ashamed and ter­ri­bly sorry that Amer­i­cans have killed and wounded in­no­cent Afghan peo­ple.” He called the killings a “ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble mis­take” and “a stain on our honor.”

Ni­chol­son said he paid up to $2,000 each in con­do­lence pay­ments to fam­i­lies of17 Afghan civil­ians he said were among 19 killed by the Marines.

Cracks in the case

Re­tired Marine Capt. Vince No­ble, Galvin’s deputy and the com­man­der of the pa­trol, said the mil­i­tary com­mand buck­led to po­lit­i­cal pres­sures and aban­doned its own men.

“I still ask my­self: How could the mil­i­tary turn against its own like that?” said No­ble, who now works in law en­force­ment in New York.

The unit was de­nied com­bat rib­bons. Sgt. Joshua Hen­der­son, a Marine wounded in the car bomb­ing, was de­nied a Pur­ple Heart.

Galvin and the six other Marines were hauled be­fore a Court of In­quiry at Camp Le­je­une, N.C., in early 2008 — the first such Marine court since 1956. Dur­ing the trial, cracks ap­peared in the case against them.

A U.S. mil­i­tary po­lice pa­trol that ar­rived on the scene about 30 minutes after the in­ci­dent found no dead or wounded Afghans. And Navy in­ves­ti­ga­tors didn’t reach the scene un­til two months later, spend­ing only about an hour there.

Among the most damn­ing wit­ness tes­ti­mony was that of Haji Li­wani Qu­man­dan, who said hewas driv­ing a blue Toy­ota SUV— which the Marines said car­ried armed men who fired at them. Qu­man­dan tes­ti­fied that ev­ery­one in the ve­hi­cle was an un­armed civil­ian.

He said “thou­sands of bul­lets” fired by Marines killed his fa­ther and 12-yearold nephew, and wounded him in the back. Qu­man­dan re­ceived a con­do­lence pay­ment after his name did not turn up on U.S. in­tel­li­gence ter­ror­ist lists.

But in a clas­si­fied court ses­sion closed to the me­dia, a U.S. in­tel­li­gence re­port de­scribed Qu­man­dan as an ac­tive Tal­iban par­tic­i­pant, ac­cord­ing to Mor­gan, the jury mem­ber.

“He was bad news — we were deal­ing with the devil,” said Mor­gan, who had served as a Marine in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer.

Sev­eral other in­tel­li­gence re­ports also said Qu­man­dan ac­tively sup­ported Tal­iban ef­forts, re­tired Marine Mas­ter Sgt. James Craw­ford, the sig­nals in­tel­li­gence chief for Fox Com­pa­nyin 2007, said in an in­ter­view.

After 17 days of tes­ti­mony, the three-of­fi­cer jury cleared Galvin and the others. The­court noted “un­sub­stan­ti­ated al­le­ga­tions” by mil­i­tary com­man­ders about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. It cited the un­due in­flu­ence of a “high level of com­mand, me­dia and gov­ern­men­tal at­ten­tion fo­cused” on the in­ci­dent.

Tes­ti­mony by the Marines was “con­sis­tent, truth­ful and cred­i­ble,” the court con­cluded. Afghans, on the other hand, were known to “fab­ri­cate state­ments and ev­i­dence” in hopes of re­ceiv­ing U.S. con­do­lence pay­ments, the court said.

Mor­gan said he and two other jury mem­bers con­cluded that se­nior mil­i­tary com­man­ders pan­icked after hear­ing re­ports of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and ac­cepted Afghan ac­counts at face value.

“The du­plic­ity by the com­mand — by the se­nior lead­er­ship in our mil­i­tary— well, they showed some very weak lead­er­ship,” Mor­gan said.

Ni­chol­son, now a three­star gen­eral, said through a spokesman that his “thoughts have not changed” since his tes­ti­mony at the 2008 court hear­ing.

The panel’s find­ings were for­warded to a Marine three star gen­eral, who is­sued are port in 2008 that the con­voy re­sponded prop­erly to the car bomb and am­bush. A short state­ment was re­leased late on the Fri­day be­fore Memo­rial Day week­end in 2008.

‘We were am­bushed’

Still, the rul­ing did not re­store the unit’s rep­u­ta­tion. Galvin says the Marine Corps should have done more to em­pha­size that his men had not fired wildly and killed civil­ians— and to cor­rect ear­lier state­ments by mil­i­tary com­man­ders to that ef­fect. A Marine Corps spokesman de­clined to com­ment.

“We were am­bushed, and we fought on the bat­tle­field with honor,” Galvin said. “There were al­le­ga­tions of homi­cide, and we’re liv­ing with that to this day. This haunts us.”

Galvin says he’s not ask­ing for dam­ages or re­in­state­ment, only redemp­tion. “I want them to ac­knowl­edge that we were falsely ac­cused,” he said.

Among the court’s 2008 rec­om­men­da­tions were that Fox Com­pany re­ceive com­bat ac­tion rib­bons and that Sgt. Hen­der­son be awarded a Pur­ple Heart. The rib­bons were ap­proved in May 2008. That July, Sgt. Hen­der­son re­ceived his Pur­ple Heart. The of­fi­cer who pinned it on his uni­form was Fred Galvin.

On Tues­day, Rep. Wal­ter B. Jones (R-N.C.) de­manded a pub­lic apol­ogy from the Marine Corps com­man­dant, Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford, Pres­i­dent Obama’s nom­i­nee to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Jones, whose district in­cludes Camp Le­je­une, said Fox Com­pany had been the vic­tim of “a witch hunt” in which “se­nior lead­ers of our Armed Forces pub­licly de­nounced Maj. Galvin and his Marines be­fore an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the mat­ter was made.”

Jones de­manded that the Marines’ ser­vice records be cor­rected “to re­move the stains of be­ing wrongly ac­cused of homi­cide.”

David Zucchino Los An­ge­les Times

MAJ. FRED GALVIN, shown at left in 2008 and more re­cently at home, says the mil­i­tary rushed to judg­ment amid po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to re­duce civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. “We weren’t just aban­doned — they tried to de­stroy us.”

MEM­BERS OF 1st Pla­toon, Fox Com­pany, were hit by a sui­cide bomber in 2007 and re­turned fire, but were ac­cused of in­dis­crim­i­nately killing civil­ians, prompt­ing con­dem­na­tion from mil­i­tary com­man­ders. A court cleared them after tes­ti­mony from more than 50 wit­nesses.

Chuck Beck­ley Associated Press

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