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Marine in video recalls stressful combat

Jan. 21, 2013 - 08:44AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 21, 2013 - 08:44AM  |  
Maj. Tracey Holtshirley, left, accompanies Staff Sgt. Edward W. Deptola to a hearing aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Jan. 16. Deptola pleaded guilty to several charges related to the now-infamous incident in which Marines videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses.
Maj. Tracey Holtshirley, left, accompanies Staff Sgt. Edward W. Deptola to a hearing aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., on Jan. 16. Deptola pleaded guilty to several charges related to the now-infamous incident in which Marines videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses. (John Althouse / Associated Press)
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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A Marine scout sniper involved in the infamous video showing U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan urinating on dead insurgents said during his court-martial here that, overall, the actions of his platoon that day may have saved hundreds of lives.

Staff Sgt. Edward Deptola, a platoon sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, was busted one rank to sergeant after accepting responsibility for his role in the video, which created enormous backlash at home and in the war zone, embarrassed the Marine Corps, and led to servicewide ethics training and a crackdown on troops' use of personal cameras outside the wire.

During his daylong trial Jan. 16, Deptola, the fifth Marine to face punishment in the case, acknowledged failing in his responsibilities as a small-unit leader by setting a poor example for the guys who looked up to him. And through a pretrial deal with the prosecution, he avoided a much harsher sentence recommended by the judge, Lt. Col. Nicole Hudspeth — one that included jail time, demotion to private and a bad-conduct discharge. In exchange, Deptola agreed to be a "cooperating witness" in the Corps' case against two Marines who also may face court-martial in connection with the incident.

Marine officials would not disclose any details about those individuals. However, Hudspeth said during Deptola's trial that the 39-second clip published last January on YouTube was one of 12 videos — containing more than 20 minutes of footage — investigators found, all depicting Marines behaving inappropriately that day. In one, the men are shown posing with the dead insurgents while riding on top of tanks, raising the prospect that the additional two Marines are assigned to another battalion. It also raises questions as to whether the prosecution is going after any officers or higher-ranking enlisted Marines.

A married father of two, Deptola was contrite during his testimony, at one point appearing on the verge of tears as he described the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks being a leading reason he decided to enlist. In an unsworn statement before the judge, Deptola explained that even though he failed to exercise good judgment that day, he and the others involved in the video were responsible for killing numerous insurgents who intended to do the same to his fellow Marines.

The day the video was made, the scout snipers saw significant action, Deptola testified. The three insurgents whose corpses they desecrated were "armed to the teeth and ready to kill," he said, emphasizing the inherent danger scout snipers face in Afghanistan, and noting also that the three bodies seen in the video were among 11 confirmed kills that day. "I put my men and myself in harm's way," he said.

Deptola testified that he and the other Marines suspected the men on whom they urinated were responsible for planting the improvised explosive device that hit one of their friends, Sgt. Mark Bradley. A fellow scout sniper with 3/2, Bradley died June 16, 2011, at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Md. Two weeks prior, his eight-man section was on a nighttime ambush patrol when he spotted what appeared to be insurgents burying an IED, Bradley's father, Jack, said several months later during a Veterans Day ceremony in his hometown of Cuba, N.Y. As the sergeant moved in to investigate, he triggered another explosive and suffered severe lower-body injuries.

The scout sniper team was supporting 3/2's India Company in and around the Musa Qala district in northern Helmand province, Jack Bradley said during his speech, a copy of which appears on the New York state legislature's website. The company's commander was Capt. Michael J. Mulvaney, who wrote to Bradley's family after the sergeant died and recounted the unit's fraternal dynamic. The scout sniper section, Mulvaney said, supported the company through "several tough situations."

A senior enlisted Marine assigned to 3/2 during this deployment acknowledged that Bradley's death — and that of Cpl. Adam D. Jones on April 27, 2011 — upset the unit greatly. But there's no way to know for certain that the three insurgents in the video were the same men who laid the IEDs, he said.

The senior enlisted Marine spoke with Marine Corps Times on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss internal matters with the media. He described the scout snipers' performance downrange as "phenomenal." But they were operating in an area "where patrols were not monitored very closely," he said.

200+ insurgents killed

The battalion deployed to Helmand for seven months in 2011. It had personnel spread between Musa Qala and Now Zad to the west. In all, six Marines and a sailor with the battalion died due to fighting in those areas.

At the time, 3/2 was commanded by Lt. Col. Christopher G. Dixon. His executive officer was then-Maj. James B. Conway, son of Gen. James T. Conway, who retired as commandant of the Marine Corps in October 2010. Both officers cycled out as scheduled not long after the battalion returned home to Camp Lejeune, and were subsequently selected for promotion.

Marine Corps Times contacted Dixon and Conway via email. Dixon declined to comment. Conway did not respond.

While in theater, 3/2 teamed the scout sniper platoon with elements of Alpha Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, also out of Camp Lejeune. They were credited with killing hundreds of insurgents that summer. The long-range optics on the M1A1 Abrams tanks have a range of up to four miles, and helped Marine forces establish positive identification on enemy fighters. During an interview in September 2011, the top commander in southwestern Afghanistan at the time called the tandem "highly effective."

"Just in the past 10 days, the tanks and sniper teams have contributed to about 50 enemy insurgents killed, using the snipers as sharpshooters and the tanks for the surveillance capability," then-Maj. Gen. John Toolan told Marine Corps Times.

During his testimony, Deptola recounted a visit in September 2011 from Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and his top enlisted adviser, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett. The Corps' senior leaders ate breakfast with the platoon and handed out personalized coins for their exceptional work, which at that point totaled 223 confirmed kills, Deptola said. He described that experience as one of the most special of his nearly 10-year career in the Corps.

The fallout

Within days of the video's publication on YouTube, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, then the three-star commander of all NATO combat troops in Afghanistan, ordered mandatory training to address the proper handling of enemy casualties. In Washington, Amos responded with a gruff White Letter to the Corps' generals, commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders, calling for a Corpswide "ethics standdown."

That training was spurred by the video and photographs that surfaced only weeks later showing scout snipers with another unit posing in front of a flag bearing the Nazi-era "SS" logo. He and Barrett subsequently met with thousands of officers and staff noncommissioned officers across the Corps to deliver a speech the commandant titled his "Heritage Brief." In it, he stressed the need for Marines to act professionally, zeroing in on the urination scandal as one of several public gaffes.

Around the same time, the current Marine commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, banned personnel from taking photographs outside the wire that aren't needed for official purposes. Recreational keepsake photographs should be taken only on bases between missions, he said.

Other fallout from the video is less tangible. Deptola testified that shortly after the Marines killed the three insurgents, but before they recovered their bodies, he picked up one of the men's machine guns and began shooting it from the hip — even though there was no enemy fire in the area. Shortly after, they filmed themselves urinating on the corpses, he said. Armored vehicles arrived to evacuate them, but there wasn't enough room for all of the Marines and the casualties, Deptola testified, so he and some others rode on a tank with the bodies, posing for more "trophy photos" and videos along the way.

Maj. Michael Libretto, with the prosecution, said Deptola's actions damaged the Corps' honor and that he failed to set the example of good order and discipline. "He had a duty," Libretto said during the court-martial, "to not participate and stop it from even occurring. The Marine Corps demands more of its staff noncommissioned officers."

The defense called a character witness who served in Afghanistan with Deptola shortly before the video was made. Sgt. Joshua Seiple, a team leader with 3/2, said he believes Deptola can still be a good leader. "He was there to mentor me and help out with whatever job was needed," Seiple said of Deptola serving as his platoon sergeant. "He's a family man, a good friend, a good leader and can make you laugh no matter what happens."

Libretto argued that hearing a junior Marine say he'd still follow Deptola was one of the reasons he deserved the full punishment — especially the reduction in rank to private. That way, Libretto reasoned, the Corps would ensure Deptola never had another opportunity to set such a bad example.

That concerns the senior enlisted Marine, as well.

"They've almost become a celebrity status, an iconic figure," he said. "It's hard, because now you've become one of the cool guys. It's going to be ‘Oh, you're the dude that was doing that to the Taliban, right?'"

Even still, he described Deptola and the others as good Marines who made a poor decision. But he believes they can learn from what happened and be better because of it. He recounted the "enormous rage" he felt after losing four Marines in his platoon during a deployment several years ago.

"I vividly remember looking out and seeing what I thought were spotters," he said. "And I had this overwhelming sense that I wanted to shoot them. … And in a split second, you can lose your moral compass. But it's that muscle memory a staff NCO needs to have to get back under control.

"If given the chance, I would serve with them again, but I am very disappointed in their actions," he added. "… A leader makes mistakes; some of these mistakes can be career-ending. However, I will not be the first to throw a stone in their direction without analyzing my own mistakes that have [influenced my development] into a leader."

Media covering Deptola's court-martial were not allowed to interview him, and he declined to answer follow-up questions sent via email hoping to address how he plans to alter his leadership style in the wake of his guilty plea.

However, Maj. Tracey Holtshirley, Deptola's defense counsel, provided the following statement on Deptola's behalf: "Through his guilty plea, Staff Sergeant Deptola has fully accepted responsibility for his actions related to the unfortunate video. Staff Sergeant Deptola is thankful for his many supporters and deeply regrets the effect that this incident has had on fellow service members, particularly the Marines and sailors he led and served alongside in combat."

During the court-martial, Holtshirley acknowledged the immaturity on display in the video, but said Deptola's career shouldn't hinge on one bad decision. Deptola, he said, was vilified by the media's coverage of the event and that he should not be judged based on society's outrage.

Ultimately, Deptola pleaded guilty to failing to supervise and lead Marines, wrongfully desecrating corpses, posing with casualties in photos and to firing an enemy's machine gun. He said his unit had been briefed on a general order banning the inappropriate photography of casualties, and that he failed to follow orders. His Marines — and the Corps — deserved better, Deptola said.

"The public has a high opinion of the Marine Corps — that [we] don't act like cowboys," he said. "And that's exactly what this was."

Staff writers Dan Lamothe and Andrew deGrandprι contributed to this report.

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