(Rob Curtis / Staff)
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It wasn't so different from other nights. Outside it was cold and wet. Inside, quarters were close, but they were comfortable enough. The half dozen or so Marines sharing the small wooden hooch at Combat Outpost Viking in Saqlaweiyah, Iraq, were killing time, watching movies and cracking jokes shortly before midnight March 9.
That's when Cpl. Mathew Nelson came in from the cold, discarding his balaclava and goggles on his rack, and taking up his M9 sidearm.
Looking back, it's hard for him to remember exactly what happened next. He would later tell investigators he switched the pistol to safety, dropped the magazine out, and pulled back the slide. The weapon was clear, he thought.
After "messing around" with another Marine, he swung toward Lance Cpl. Patrick Malone, 21, quietly sitting on his rack and watching a movie.
"Do you trust me?"
Whether those were Nelson's exact words isn't clear. But if they were different, the meaning was the same. He was playing a game, one familiar to all the Marines in the room, a test of wills and faith.
They called it "Trust."
"Do you trust me?"
It's not clear, either, if he answered. Malone smiled at Nelson, other Marines in the room told investigators.
The next moment, a gunshot sounded; and then a Marine was yelling "ND! ND! ND!" — negligent discharge — and Nelson would recall seeing smoke rising from the gun and then all eyes turned to Malone, suddenly slumped in his rack with a bullet hole in his forehead, according to a copy of the investigation report obtained by Marine Corps Times.
They tried to save him, they told investigators. They applied pressure and administered CPR before Malone was rushed to an aid station. But 20 minutes later, he was dead.
Nelson, 25, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, 10 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of negligent discharge of a firearm. He faces 22 years in prison. A general court-martial is scheduled for Sept. 10 at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He is expected to plead guilty, Marine officials said.
What is ‘Trust'?
Trust is not new. In 1997, a lance corporal died in Okinawa after other Marines accidentally dropped him from the third story of his barracks. In that version of the Trust game, the Marines took turns dangling each other out a window, holding only their ankles. Five Marines were charged in the incident — one was sentenced to 10 years in the brig.
The game was played to similar deadly consequences in an Army incident in 2007, when a Kentucky National Guardsman shot and killed his best friend, a fellow soldier. The guardsman who fired the fatal shot later said he learned to play Trust from other members of his Guard unit while deployed to Iraq in October 2006.
And less than four months after Malone's death in Iraq, another Marine was charged with second-degree murder after he allegedly shot and killed his civilian roommate while playing Trust in an off-base home near Lejeune.
The game flouts the most basic rules for weapons safety, but the two incidents in the Corps "are not indicative of a trend," Marine officials insist.
After Malone's death, the commander of Marine forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Richard Tryon, issued a memo to his subordinates in theater ordering them to be on the lookout for Marines playing Trust. Apart from a condemnation from Marine Corps headquarters, though, there are no plans to address it.
"This ‘game' is dangerously immature at best and deadly at worst," said 1st Lt. Joshua Diddams, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon. "Every Marine learns the importance of weapons safety, and there is no room for horseplay or carelessness with firearms."
Yet, somehow, it persists.
In Nelson's and Malone's unit, 2nd section, Scout Platoon, 2nd TankBattalion, out of Camp Lejeune, the unofficial rules went something like this: A Marine, usually a noncommissioned officer, would partially insert a magazine into his M9 and pretend to rack the slide so it would appear a round was in the chamber. He'd then point the weapon at a junior Marine and ask, "Do you trust me?" before either pulling the trigger or lowering the gun and clearing it.
They played the game as a way to build camaraderie and "maintain an edge," according to the investigation. Second section included 14 NCOs and 13 lance corporals and below, and they were driven by competition, determined to prove they were better than the platoon's 1st section.
Some Marines took chance after chance playing the game. One close call, in which a Marine realized a round was chambered in his pistol after he'd pointed it at one of his buddies, prompted him to stop playing the game — for a while, more than one Marine told investigators. In fact, the entire platoon had an all-hands safety briefing on negligent discharges after one occurred in January in 1st section, an incident that was not tied to Trust.
Some Marines in 2nd section, conscious of the game's inherent danger, avoided it like the plague, they told investigators. But no one reported what went on inside the hooch, where it was played most frequently.
Those who knew about the game kept quiet for a variety of reasons, the Marines told investigators, adding that most didn't want to be known as the "tattletale." Some said they didn't want their buddies to get in trouble, or they felt it wasn't their place to report it. Some had such faith in their NCOs, they told investigators, that they trusted that every precaution was made to ensure the weapon being pointed at them was empty.
"I have had Trust done to me four or five times," one Marine told investigators. "I trusted [name redacted] because he was safe with a weapon. ... He would ... ask if I trusted him. I would always say yes."
One platoon sergeant, whose name also is redacted in the report, told investigators that his Marines never told him about the game they were playing — not because they lacked the courage, but because they were desensitized to it.
"They had seen it so many times, and the bond between NCOs and junior Marines prevented them from ratting each other out," he told investigators.
For some, this deployment was their first encounter with the game. But at least six Marines told investigators they'd heard about it or seen it played before. One said he'd heard of Trust during boot camp. Another first saw it played in Fallujah, Iraq, while deployed with 2nd Tanks in 2007. One said he learned of the game in 2006.
A life cut short
Malone, of Ocala, Fla., was a martial arts fanatic. He aspired to become a school teacher and enrolled in college after high school, but watching his older sister graduate from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., years earlier left a big impression on him, said his father, Damian Malone.
Shortly after starting college, Malone broached the subject of enlisting with his parents. They asked him to finish school instead, fearing he would be sent to war. But Malone joined anyway in September 2007.
A year later, he was in Iraq. Violence there had dropped considerably, though, and many Marines thought they were more likely to die of boredom than from enemy action.
On March 9, Malone, still wearing his cammies, was sitting on his rack late that night, his back against a wall as he watched a movie. The hooch was well-lit when Nelson walked in.
"I had my pistol in my hand, and the slide was back," Nelson said. "And I don't know if I put the magazine in first and then sent the slide home, or if I sent the slide home and then the magazine, I don't remember. And I thought to myself ‘I know the weapon's on safe,' and I don't know if I squeezed the trigger or what I did. I don't remember. I had the weapon in my hand, though, and then next thing I know, I heard the shot go off, and I just ran over to him and I looked at him and he was shot. He got shot in the head."
Nelson, from Wayne, Mich., told investigators that he and Malone were not arguing at the time of the shooting, a statement corroborated by other Marines in the hut that night. He is confined in the Camp Lejeune brig, awaiting his court-martial.
Three others — Sgt. Michael C. Singles, 27, from Lehigh, Pa.; Cpl. John L. McLellan, 22, from Lee, Fla.; and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Spencer H. Hamer, 23, from Sandown, N.H. — were charged with reckless endangerment after the incident, but their alleged roles are unclear. The investigation report is heavily redacted, and Marine officials have declined to offer many details.
In July, a military judge convicted McLellan on the reckless endangerment charge and sentenced him to two months in the brig and a reduction to lance corporal. Singles, who along with Hamer also faces dereliction of duty charges, is awaiting an Article 32 hearing. Hamer's case will be heard at a special court-martial scheduled for the first week in September.
Officials with II Marine Expeditionary Force could not provide more details about these cases.
Closer to home
Malone's unit had been back in North Carolina for only a few weeks when news spread that another Lejeune Marine allegedly shot and killed someone while playing Trust.
Pvt. Michael Everett Smith, his wife, Courtney, and their roommate Bryan Thorkelson, were entertaining several friends at their two-story home on a quiet cul-de-sac about four miles from the base's main gate on the evening of July 1. Smith, 21, who'd been busted to private from lance corporal five months earlier, allegedly grabbed a semiautomatic handgun being passed around among the guests gathered in his kitchen and pointed it at Thorkelson, police said. The weapon discharged, firing a round into Thorkelson's head. He died a few hours later at Onslow County Memorial Hospital.
Smith's attorney, Phillip Harward, said police have accused his client of pulling the trigger after asking Thorkelson, "Do you trust me?" A retired Marine major and staff judge advocate, Harward said he was familiar with Trust from his time in the Corps but, like local investigators, declined to discuss the case further.
"Does it happen?" Harward asked. "I believe that it probably happens more than we would like it to happen."
Smith, who remains in Onslow County Jail, was indicted Aug. 11 on second-degree murder charges. He faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted.
An automotive mechanic with Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, at the time of the shooting, Smith served a tour in Iraq in 2008. The Corps has since separated him, but II MEF officials would not elaborate.
His wife, reached by telephone, said he is "a good guy," that she and her husband were close friends with Thorkelson, and that she could not discuss the case further.
"My husband wouldn't have wanted any of this to happen to any of his friends," she said.
‘Knock it off'
Then why tempt fate? Marines familiar with Trust deride it as idiotic but argue the Corps is powerless to prevent it.
A corporal, who asked that his name and unit not be identified, said he learned about the game last year when a Marine buddy showed him pictures of several Marines playing it in Iraq. Members of various units, the Marines in the pictures were tasked with conducting checkpoints somewhere along the Syrian border, he said.
He described the images as showing four or five Marines playing with a 9mm inside a hooch similar to the one in which Malone was shot earlier this year. The corporal, who has deployed to Iraq, told his boasting friend that the game is stupid.
But "you can't control something on that level," he added. "When you've got those small berthing areas, the staff NCOs don't see what's going on. There needs to be NCOs or a common-sense junior Marine around to say, ‘Knock it off.' "
When asked about Trust, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, the Corps' top enlisted adviser, emphasized the Corps' no-nonsense weapons safety rules — stopping short, however, of acknowledging the game exists.
"Marines," he said, "are always trained that you treat any weapon as if it's loaded, no matter what weapon you have, and that's from Day One, when you step on the yellow footprints as a recruit."
Tragically, that lesson sometimes fails to sink in.
After Malone's death, when Tryon told his officers in Iraq to be mindful of Marines playing Trust, the general also instructed them to "redouble their efforts to instill a culture of weapons safety into all personnel."
"Although there is no evidence of similar behavior elsewhere in [theater], this tragedy underscores the need for constant vigilance against complacency and reckless behavior," he wrote in his memo.
Tryon also published a policy letter ordering that all negligent discharges be reported, and he directed the safety officer for Multinational Force-West to develop an all-hands comprehensive weapons handling and safety training presentation, according to the investigation. It's unclear if that has taken place yet. Efforts to reach Tryon and obtain a copy of his policy letter were unsuccessful.
Several weeks passed before Malone's parents learned the circumstances of their son's death. To their horror, the investigation revealed that Trust had been played on him at least once before within a month of the shooting. Malone's father said Marines need to wake up and realize that guns aren't for playing games.
"My wife and I ... we really want to ... make sure this practice is stopped," he said. "My son died because of this. You don't ever point a gun at anybody unless you plan to use it."
Staff writer Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.