Lt. Col. Christopher G. Dixon, then commanding officer, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, speaks with Afghans at the Musa Qala District Center in 2011. (Cpl. Michael J. Carberry / Marine Corps)
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Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon was in his office at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when he first watched the video of Marine scout snipers urinating on dead insurgents in Afghanistan. He was surprised to see that three of those men were individuals widely considered among the best in his battalion.
The firestorm that erupted after the video was posted online in January 2012 has not quieted. Eight Marines faced disciplinary action in connection with the incident, but the Marine Corps’ handling of their cases prompted a whistleblower complaint against the commandant, Gen. Jim Amos. He and his legal advisers have been accused of manipulating the military justice process to ensure the punishment was severe, and then deliberately concealing their efforts. A three-star general also has claimed that Amos stripped him of his authority to oversee the prosecution of those in the video because he refused to guarantee they would be thrown out of the service.
Dixon, 45, was never accused of wrongdoing. But 19 months later, he remains caught in the middle — his fate in the commandant’s hands. And as with other cases stemming from the urination video, Amos has had direct involvement with decisions pertaining to the former battalion commander, according to documents obtained by Marine Corps Times.
Before the video appeared online, Dixon was selected for promotion to colonel and a prestigious top-level school assignment at the Justice Department in Washington. He was not allowed to attend, however, and was bypassed again this summer for any similar move.
Today, he remains at Camp Lejeune, on staff at 2nd Marine Division, waiting for the final case to conclude.
Amos met with Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant, this past February and “spoke at length” about Dixon, according to an email Paxton sent Feb. 5 to Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, plus numerous other general officers and at least two members of Amos’ inner circle at the Pentagon.
Paxton says in the email that the “BLUF,” or bottom line up front, is that Dixon will not be promoted until all cases tied to the video are resolved. His promotion is not being revoked, Paxton wrote, but “it will be predicated on the complete litigation of all cases” tied to the video. His message is preceded with a disclaimer of sorts. It reads “Legal ... Close Hold ... Case Sensitive ... Do NOT/NOT electronically forward.”
Paxton says in the email that he believes the commandant was “properly concerned ... the Corps as an institution has definitive proof that [Dixon] was not implicated in any manner prior to promotion.” The email recalls a conversation Paxton had with Dixon in December, saying: “He has been patient and professional throughout this ordeal. He should remain so.”
Paxton’s email also lays out a potential course of action for Dixon once the court cases conclude.
“There has been nothing to suggest omission in training or dereliction in guidance or supervision on LtCol Dixon’s part,” Paxton wrote. “Should this remain the case at the conclusion of all pending cases, we will ask [the commandant of the Marine Corps] to go back to [Navy Secretary Ray Mabus] seeking authority to promote as so selected, and presumably with original date of rank. Will also reopen internal USMC/[Manpower Management] discussion on [top-level] school seat that was administratively halted.”
It remains to be seen if getting Dixon another top-level school seat is possible. The selection process is extremely strict, and it is highly uncommon for an officer to receive one after he has been bypassed twice before. Marines who get a seat are frequently on the short list to become general officers.
Reached by email, Dixon referred comment to Col. Sean Gibson, who has served as a spokesman for the Marine Corps on most matters pertaining to the urination video cases.
Gibson said in an email that Dixon “will be provided an opportunity to submit matters in support of his promotion,” but he declined to comment on the feasibility that Dixon will land another top-level school assignment.
Dixon’s case for promotion will go before his chain of command and be reviewed by the Adverse Material Advisory Board, which consists of five general officers who each make a recommendation to the commandant, Gibson said. Amos would then make a recommendation about Dixon’s promotion to Mabus, who ultimately decides whether an officer is promoted or removed from the promotion list.
“Lt. Col. Dixon remains in place at Camp Lejeune pending the resolution of all of these cases,” Gibson said.
Dixon’s predicament is addressed in the whistleblower complaint against Amos and his legal advisers. It was filed in March with the Defense Department inspector general by Maj. James Weirick, a Marine attorney assigned to the organization that has overseen the Corps’ prosecution of cases stemming from the urination video.
Dixon’s treatment stands in stark contrast to that of his executive officer in Afghanistan, then-Maj. James B. Conway. As outlined in a Marine Corps Times investigative report published in May, Conway, the son of retired Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, had direct oversight of the scout snipers on July 27, 2011, when the video was recorded.
Conway was not on the operation and is not accused of wrongdoing.
However, Conway told investigators that he watched the operation unfold that day from a combat operations center in Musa Qala. He also took personal interest in the scout sniper platoon, and convinced Dixon to expand its size before the unit deployed in order to boost its utility, Conway told agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in a Jan. 18, 2012, handwritten statement.
Dixon was focused on operations in a neighboring area, Now Zad district. Conway received a Bronze Star for meritorious service after his deployment. The recognition for his leadership in Musa Qala allowed Dixon “to focus on the failing governance of Now Zad District in order to improve Afghan performance, preparing it for transition to full Afghan control,” according to Conway’s award citation.
Despite Conway’s closer proximity to the events that unfolded, he was cut free from all administrative holds related to the scout sniper cases. A May 31, 2012, position paper sent to the commandant by Paxton, then a three-star general, states Conway had no contact with the scout snipers. But that wasn’t true, according to Conway’s sworn statement to NCIS.
The finding allowed the generals to clear the way for him to be promoted to lieutenant colonel and take a follow-on assignment as a battalion commander in Hawaii.
Conway could not be reached for comment.
Paxton’s position paper included a “Summary of CMC Action,” referring to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and detailed how each case would be handled. It left room for Amos to approve or disapprove, and to leave comments about each recommendation.
Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the commandant’s staff judge advocate, responded days later, saying Amos did not want to make himself part of the decision-making process. He wanted the necessary actions to be taken care of by Paxton and Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, then the convening authority in the ongoing criminal cases.
Nevertheless, a version of the May 2012 position paper was signed by the commandant and sent back to his general officers. Obtained by Marine Corps Times in July, it bears Amos’ initials approving Paxton’s recommendation to release the retired commandant’s son.
This document was requested as evidence by attorneys representing Capt. James Clement, the only officer charged in connection with the urination video. He faces court-martial this fall, accused of dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer for allegedly failing to stop the misconduct of junior Marines. His is the last of the eight cases to be resolved.
This past spring, the Marine Corps provided Clement’s attorneys with Paxton’s position paper, minus Amos’ initials. The copy he approved was produced in July — after Clement’s attorneys spoke to Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the general Amos removed from the urination cases.
The Corps also released a February 2012 memo from Amos to Waldhauser in which the commandant acknowledged acting inappropriately. Waldhauser told Clement’s attorneys that Amos said he wanted the scout snipers “crushed” and discharged from the service. Amos’ memo was made available as evidence only after Clement’s defense counsel sought to interview the three-star, and after six other cases were resolved.
At first, Clement was recommended for nonjudicial punishment. But he refused it, asserting he was not present when the video was recorded, and knew nothing about it until after his deployment.
His attorneys filed a motion to dismiss his case on grounds Amos committed unlawful command influence. They contend Marine officials concealed the commandant’s heavy-handed involvement in the urination cases in at least two ways: one, by not disclosing his reason for replacing Waldhauser; and two, by releasing Paxton’s memo without acknowledging the commandant approved it.
The three scout snipers Dixon recognized in the video were Staff Sgts. Joseph Chamblin and Edward Deptola and Sgt. Robert Richards, according to a signed transcript of his interview with NCIS. Each Marine was demoted in rank at courts-martial, but avoided a bad-conduct discharge or time in the brig.
Four other Mariness received nonjudicial punishment.