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Retired commandant's son handled dead insurgents after urination incident: NCIS documents

May. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Lt. Col. James B. Conway
Lt. Col. James B. Conway (Marine Corps)
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The son of a retired Marine Corps commandant told military investigators he handled the bagged remains of dead insurgents urinated on by scout snipers in Afghanistan, contradicting assertions from senior officers that he had no contact with those Marines.

Then-Maj. James B. Conway served as the executive officer of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., when scout snipers from the unit recorded video of themselves urinating on the corpses July 27, 2011. He is the son of Gen. James T. Conway, who retired as commandant in October 2010.

No one has accused the younger Conway of any wrongdoing in the incident, which came to light after the video was posted on YouTube in January 2012.

But his involvement is important because he was promoted to lieutenant colonel last year and allowed to take command of another infantry battalion, even as other Marine officers in his former battalion were forced to remain in legal limbo.

Conway watched the operation leading up to the urination incident from a combat operations center in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district, according to a Jan. 18, 2012, statement he gave to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Marine Corps Times obtained Conway’s statement to the NCIS following publication Sunday of an investigative report outlining a complaint to the Defense Department Inspector General that alleges the current commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, and other senior officials inappropriately sought to influence prosecutions related to the incident and to give preferential treatment to Conway as a favor to his father.

Those actions, the complaint says, effectively stacked the deck against the scout snipers and others connected to the video to ensure harsh punishment.

At least eight Marines have been disciplined for their roles in the incident, with two courts-martial pending.

Emails to Conway were not returned, and his father has declined to comment. Marine Corps headquarters released only a brief statement in response to questions, citing ongoing legal proceedings and investigations.

“In order to preserve the integrity of the investigations and to ensure fair and impartial legal proceedings, we will not discuss evidence or specific findings of the investigations,” the statement said.

James B. Conway’s NCIS statement contradicts a May 31, 2012, position paper sent to Amos by Gen. John “Jay” Paxton, then the three-star commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, the battalion’s parent command at Camp Lejeune. In it, Paxton made the case that Conway and the battalion’s 81mm mortar platoon commander, then-1st Lt. Edward Leslie, should be released from all legal holds, even while other officers in the unit not charged with crimes remained in hold.

“There are neither facts, evidence, nor opinions that these two officers were aware of the urination incident nor the photography of it,” wrote Paxton, who was promoted and became the assistant commandant in December. “In addition, the scope of their responsibilities, geographic location and battlefield circulation did not put them in contact with or have influence over the Scout Sniper Team.”

Conway’s hand-written statement to NCIS, however, places him much closer to the incident. He told investigators he and the battalion’s operations officer, Maj. Edmund Clayton, helped unload the dead insurgents from the flatbed of a 7-ton truck. The remains were transported to the base in body bags so Marines could collect intelligence, including biometric information. They were returned to Afghan police afterward, he said.

“We did a cursory inspection and saw nothing out of the ordinary,” Conway’s statement says. “After this event, I did not hear of any desecration to the bodies, nor have I ever heard of such a thing on any operation 3/2 conducted.”

Clayton declined to comment, saying he wants to preserve the investigation’s integrity.

Conway notes in his statement to NCIS that the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, had initiated a pre-deployment program called Ethical Warrior in which Marines were asked to make morally correct decisions on the battlefield in a counterinsurgency environment.

“The program was executed on a weekly basis by group discussions, speakers and integrated into tactical scenarios,” Conway said. “Additionally, we received all mandatory classes on the laws of armed conflict so there were no questions in my mind on the proper/improper handling of enemy KIA [killed in action].”

Conway was promoted to lieutenant colonel last year while the cases began playing out, even as Dixon saw his promotion to colonel kept on hold. Conway moved to Marine Corps Base Hawaii and took command of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, while Dixon’s expected move to a prestigious military school has not occurred.

Dixon declined to comment.

The Corps’ top leaders discussed Conway’s status last spring during the Executive Off-site, a quarterly meeting that includes three- and four-star generals and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, according to an email from Paxton to Amos prefacing the position paper.

Paxton noted in the email that top Marine officers recommended unanimously to “grant well supported exceptions” to allow administrative holds to be lifted from Conway and Leslie, who has since been promoted to captain. The email appears to indicate there was initial confusion about the decision to promote Conway to lieutenant colonel, but raises questions about Amos’ direct involvement in the case.

“In no way was there ever intent to deviate from your guidance or present a fait accompli on any individual or case,” Paxton’s email to Amos says. “... Please know that all of us are united and convinced that these [courses of action] are best for our Corps as an institution, for you as our Commandant, and for all individuals in the proper execution of due diligence and justice.”

Conway received a Bronze Star for leadership after the deployment ended in November 2011, but before the video went viral in January. His citation credits him with overseeing the Musa Qala region, where the urination incident occurred, while Dixon focused on other pressing issues in neighboring Now Zad district.

“His greatest contribution was his ability to act as the Battalion Commander for extended periods and assume control of the Musa Qal’eh [Musa Qala] District, which encompasses two-thirds of the battalion’s combat power,” the citation said of Conway. “The result allowed the Battalion Commander [Dixon] to focus on the failing government of Now Zad District in order to improve Afghan performance, preparing it for transition to full Afghan control.”

The IG complaint was filed by Maj. James Weirick, a lawyer at Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the organization that has overseen the prosecution of cases related to the urination incident. Weirick is a legal adviser to Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the convening authority for the prosecutions.

Weirick’s IG complaint specifically names Amos and Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was assistant commandant until December and is now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. It also names Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the commandant’s top uniformed lawyer; Col. Joseph Bowe, his deputy staff judge advocate; and two civilian lawyers who have senior legal counsel positions with Amos, Robert Hogue and Peter Delorier.

Weirick’s complaint alleges that Amos named Mills the convening authority, replacing Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser after learning he had recommended relatively light punishments as part of plea agreements for those accused. In a separate report Weirick filed with NCIS, he also alleges Bowe, Hogue and Delorier acted to illegally classify other videos of the scout snipers to prevent embarrassing the Marine Corps.

Marines involved in the operation testified during an Article 32 hearing held in March for one of the accused scout snipers, Sgt. Robert Richards, saying they killed 11 insurgents the day the urination incident was made, including three in Sandala, a village in Musa Qala. They were ordered by the battalion operations center to bring the remains back to the battalion’s headquarters, according to testimony.

Weirick defended his decision to file the complaint in a statement at its conclusion. .

“I do not bring this complaint lightly,” he wrote. “This has weighed on me for some time. I am sad for the Corps and the military-justice system.”

Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

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