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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The defense attorney for a sergeant facing punishment for his role in the incident in which Marines filmed themselves urinating on Taliban corpses called the action “black humor,” likening it to jokes police officers might make after seeing a horrific crime scene.
The Marines’ decision to urinate on the corpses was in poor taste, said retired Lt. Col. Guy Womack, but not desecration. In fact, it was more a coping mechanism, he said.
Sgt. Robert Richards, who served as a team leader of the sniper platoon with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, during their 2011 deployment to Afghanistan, did not testify during his Article 32 hearing on Tuesday and declined to provide a statement. He was one of four Marines shown urinating on enemy fighters in a 39-second video that surfaced online Jan. 10, 2012. The video was filmed during a counterinsurgency operation near Sandala in Helmand province on July 27, 2011.
A platoon sergeant with 3/2, Sgt. Edward Deptola, who was reduced in rank from staff sergeant following a court-martial here in January, was called by the prosecution as a witness in the case. When asked why the scout snipers urinated on the corpses, he said killing them just wasn’t enough.
“Not for what they had done to us for the past 10 years, and what all terrorists have done to us in the past 30 years,” he said.
Several more videos were shown during Richards’ hearing, including one in which he threw a grenade over a 10-foot wall and another in which he rode on top of a tank with the three bodies on which he’d urinated earlier.
At one point, Richards can be heard on a video telling his Marines that “for the next five minutes, every military age male south is hostile.” The battalion commander on the deployment, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, now with 2nd Marine Division, said during his testimony that he questions whether someone at his rank could make such a declaration, let alone a sergeant.
Also discussed during the hearing was an interpreter firing a weapon while under no clear immediate threat, something Maj. Michael Libretto, one of the prosecutors in the case, said Richards should have stopped as team leader on that patrol.
Because the videos and witness testimony did not indicate that the Marines were under immediate threat requiring the level of fire they were returning, the presiding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Greer, asked nearly every witness about his decision-making during the fog of war to include: rules of engagement, positive identification and hostile intent.
But Womack argued that the Marine Corps requires noncommissioned officers to make life and death decisions under pressure every day.
“The respect and authority we give to a young NCO, no other U.S. service even does that,” Womack said. “So, hopefully, we back them up when they run a completely successful operation.”
Richards is the kind of Marine others dream of becoming, but fear they’ll never reach, Womack said. The sergeant chose to deploy with 3/2, even though he had sustained severe injuries on a previous deployment after detonating an improvised explosive device. His foot basically had to be reattached, and he has an Adam’s apple implant due to shrapnel wounds to the throat.
Few Marines would have the courage, after nearly dying on the battlefield, to look at their wife and say, “I’m going back,” Womack said.
Dixon, the battalion commander, put him up for a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor during the deployment, Womack noted.
Deptola, who identified Richards in several of the videos, said he filmed several of them himself, including the one showing Richards tossing a grenade over a 10-foot-wall. In the video, Deptola can be heard urging Richards to do it. Deptola testified that he thought the Marines were in imminent danger at the time.
Sgt. Joseph Chamblin, also reduced in rank from staff sergeant following his December court-martial, was called as a witness for the defense. The platoon commander on that deployment, Chamblin said he signed a standard operating procedure that allowed snipers to shed some of their personal protective gear in the field as it interfered with accuracy.
Chamblin said he hand-picked the combat-tested Richards for the 3/2 deployment as he worked to build a team of scout snipers that would handle a large area of responsibility in Helmand province. He met Richards as a lance corporal when he was a sniper instructor at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
In addition to the charges surrounding the videos and his statement about every male being viewed as an enemy, Richards’ also faces charges for failing to properly supervise Marines; failing to require junior Marines to wear proper personal protective equipment; failing to report the negligent discharge of a grenade launcher, failing to stop the excessive and indiscriminate firing of weapons, and failing to stop the unnecessary damaging of Afghan compounds.
Greer will now review the testimony of witnesses and additional videos recorded during the deployment and make a recommendation for the next step in his case, which could include a court-martial. That decision is expected within a week.
On the same day that the charges against Richards were announced, Capt. James Clement, the former executive officer for Kilo Company, 3/2, also was charged in connection with the incident. His charges include dereliction of duty; violation of a lawful general order; conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman for failing to properly supervise junior Marines; failing to stop the misconduct of junior Marines; failing to report misconduct, and making false statements to a Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigator.
His hearing date has yet to be set.