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Rob Richards' funeral a salute to Marine sniper's complicated legacy

Aug. 22, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Rob Richards was well guarded.

In the week following the 28-year-old retired scout sniper’s sudden death Aug. 13, first there were the Marines in dress blues standing watch outside the funeral home near Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Then came the Patriot Guard Riders, mustered on short notice to flank the entrance of the family tribute center here that hosted his viewing service Thursday, and shield friends and family against the possibility of hostile protesters.

And when the last loved ones filed out at the end of the evening, muscular members of Richards’ motorcycle club, American Infidels, stayed to guard his coffin and customized Softail Night Train bike, with arms folded and faces set.

Richards’ name would become publicly linked with a 2011 war zone video depicting him and other members of his sniper team urinating on a dead Taliban fighter, an act that would receive international censure and result in a demotion for Richards prior to his medical retirement in 2013. But those who knew Richards best said that day in Afghanistan was the last thing that should define him.

They described instead a deeply complex character: A fighter who survived a blast that nearly cost him his leg and still begged to be sent back to combat. A skilled and thoughtful tactical warrior whose battlefield innovations earned praise from senior officials. A man sometimes incapacitated by physical pain from war wounds, steeped in medications and old before his time. And a veteran war hero who sometimes feared the community he loved had turned its back on him.

Richards’ tragic death — believed to be caused by a reaction to one of his medications — came as he and his wife Raechel began a hopeful new chapter in their lives. A year out of the Marines, they were planning a move back to their home state here where Richards planned to begin a degree in mechanical or biomedical engineering, with an eye toward working with military weapon systems or prosthetics. Thanks to a trusted new psychologist, Raechel Richards said her husband had been feeling more ready to move beyond the betrayal and judgment he’d felt from the Marine Corps during the last conflicted year of his career. Once in Florida, she said, they’d planned to wean him off the half-dozen drugs he took for pain and sleeplessness to try more natural remedies, like acupuncture and chiropractic therapy.

“It was really hard for him to be in Jacksonville,” she told Marine Corps Times. “He’d see Marines all the time and it was a constant reminder that it wasn’t his life anymore. He would see news reports of things that were happening overseas and he would say, ‘I need to be there. How can I go back?’ He kept asking, ‘Is there a way for me to just buy a plane ticket and go over there?’ ”

Legacy for snipers

Before the release of the infamous video, Richards had enjoyed a smaller kind of notoriety. During a March 2010 foot patrol with Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, near the city of Marjah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, he had been severely wounded by an improvised explosive device that left shrapnel and deep wounds in his legs and left arm and lodged a quarter-sized hexagonal nut in his neck.

A small army of supporters, organized by Raechel, followed his recovery on Facebook and showed solidarity by wearing hex nuts on jewelry and key chains in his honor.

First Sgt. Paul Crawford, Richards’ former first sergeant when he was with 1/6, marveled at his resilience and his concern for his team — even in the earliest stages of his injuries.

During a phone call after Richards returned home to recover, the first thing he said was, “ ‘Hey first sergeant, how are you and how are the guys?’ ” said Crawford, now attached to 1/8 and the president of the regional chapter of American Infidels. “And of course he had a raspy voice because of the injury to his neck. I was like, ‘Are you crazy? I should be asking about you.’ That’s the person that he is. And that’s what we carry with us today.”

Though Richards nearly lost a leg, had his neck rebuilt with titanium, and struggled with severe depression and post-traumatic stress in the months following the IED attack, he was adamant that he would return to Afghanistan. Twelve months after he was wounded, he deployed with Lejeune’s 3/2 to Helmand’s Musa Qala district.

While there, Richards and his sniper team racked up enemy kills and experimented with ways to improve the unit’s effectiveness. Richards worked to attach other elements to the sniper team, including explosive ordnance disposal techs and combat engineers, to create a “super-team” planning Marine expeditionary brigade-level operations. When the team’s effort to use tanks to find long-range targets resulted in some 50 insurgents killed in 10 days, then-commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan Maj. Gen. John Toolan took notice, commending the unit’s innovation.

Raechel credited Richards’ keen intellect and “MacGyver”-level problem-solving capacity. His sniper instructors saw the same traits.

“As a Marine sniper, no one could touch him,” said Sgt. Ben McCullar, an instructor at the sniper school in Quantico, Virginia, and best friend and colleague of Richards’ since boot camp. “No one could stand next to him and be compared. He will go down in history as completely reshaping the way we employ Marine snipers.”

Marine veteran Sgt. Edward Deptola offered another take. In April, Deptola became the last of the 3/2 snipers embroiled in the video investigation to leave the Corps, securing an honorable discharge following a court-martial that cost him a rank. Deptola, who has never before made public statements about that deployment, said he and Richards shared a special, unspoken bond, often racking in side-by-side bunks in Afghanistan and spending any spare moments playing games of Spades.

Deptola called Richards one of the best snipers of all time and credited his achievements to a singular focus and ambition centered on doing his job better than anyone had done it before.

“That was his life,” Deptola said. “He wanted to be known and remembered as the best Marine Corps scout sniper, hands down. And he is.”

Gunnery Sgt. Benjamin Parker, Richard’s team leader with 1/6 in Marjah, said Richards’ rare abilities as a sniper were what rightfully should make him memorable among Marines.

“He has saved more lives than anyone, and everyone here knows it,” Parker said, gesturing to assembled loved ones at Richards’ military funeral. “But everyone else knows him for another thing. And it should be the other way around.”

Call sign: 'Tinkle'

Everything changed in January 2012. McCullar remembered sitting at Richards’ home when they discovered the sniper video had been posted to the gossip website TMZ. As Raechel, who holds a degree in public relations, uttered expletives in horror, Richards saw the dark humor.

“We sit down on the couch,” McCullar said. “And Rob takes a deep breath and says, ‘Well boys, it looks like I’m going to be famous.’ ”

That incident, coupled with allegations of other inappropriate behavior that same day in the war zone, would cost Richards his career after more than a year in legal limbo. But during an interview with Marine Corps Times in September 2013, he did not back down from his actions.

“When you’re under that much stress and in that environment, your whole mental being changes,” he said then. “You’re no longer Joe the family man. You’re a warrior.”

When he joined the American Infidels after his last deployment, he was good-naturedly slapped with the call sign “Tinkle” in a nod to the controversy. As much as Richards wanted to put the past behind him, he embraced the nickname, Raechel said.

“He had to laugh about it, because if he didn’t laugh about it sometimes, he would just let it consume him,” she said.

While Raechel said her husband sometimes felt abandoned by the larger Marine Corps community following the scandal, not everyone saw his actions through the same lens.

Dustin, an American Infidels chapter leader who asked that his last name be withheld because he remains on active duty, said he first encountered Richards at the Tarawa Terrace gym aboard Camp Lejeune. He was wearing a 3/2 scout sniper shirt and Dustin approached to ask if he had been with the sniper team on the 2011 deployment. When Richards acknowledged he had, Dustin high-fived him and walked away.

“I know that myself and my fellow brothers didn’t look down upon him at all,” he said. “He was a legend and a warrior to the bone.”

Despite controversy that continued to swell in 2013 when a Marine whistle-blower brought allegations, now dismissed by a Defense Department Inspector General’s report, that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos worked to have Richards and the other snipers “crushed” in the military justice system for their actions, many senior Marines stayed close to the sniper and his family.

Marine leaders including Gen. John Kelly of U.S. Southern Command, former sergeant major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent, retired Sgt. Maj. Ernest Hoopii and 2nd Marine Division Sgt. Maj. Bryan Zickefoose had expressed their sympathies after Richards’ death, according to Raechel and Guy Womack, the Richards family’s friend and attorney. Former 3/2 commander Col. Christopher Dixon, whose promotion was delayed while the sniper video was investigated, also left a message of sympathy, Raechel said. Richards had expressed remorse that Dixon’s career might have been harmed by his actions.

A badass with a soft spot

For all his hard reputation, Richards had a contradictory soft spot that would flummox his fellow Marines. Several told the story of a day in Marjah where Richards’ unit discovered a ferocious-looking mangy dog chained to an iron contraption in the ground. One Marine suggested shooting the frightening animal, but Richards wanted to pet it instead. A couple sticks of beef jerky later, he was cuddling the beast as the other Marines looked on in amazement.

Richards could go from fighting insurgents to rolling in the dirt with the flea-bitten mutts that would appear at Marines’ compounds in Afghanistan, Parker said.

“We’ve got blood on our hands, and he’s playing with a dog,” he chuckled.

Sgt. J.D. Montefusco, a former team member of Richards’ in Marjah who now serves with Special Operations Training Group in Stone Bay, North Carolina, contrasted his animal-cuddling antics with the day he found him wounded, insisting he was fine despite the holes in his arms and legs and the metal hardware lodged in his throat.

“He was the hardest guy and the sweetest guy,” he said, shaking his head.

For Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Marine veteran who worked alongside Richards as a scout sniper team leader during the 2010 deployment to Marjah, Richards’ legacy is one that reveals the depth of today’s conflict and the men who fight it.

“Rob Richards is kind of emblematic of the warrior class for our generation, someone who saw going to war as his duty and his passion,” Gibbons-Neff said. “I think people saw that and were kind of inspired by that, but also hesitant ... it showed them the severity of the conflicts that they could produce a guy like Rob, who was so dedicated and so good at what he did in this day and age.”

An emotional military ceremony held Friday at the Bay Pines National Cemetery here had a few quirks designed to reflect Richards’ character. A guest of honor was Harley, his nine-year-old American bulldog who barked anxiously when the honor guard fired a rifle salute and sniffed at his master’s casket after the service had ended. Raechel said Rob, who was often immobilized by pain for days or weeks, likened he and Harley to “two old men on the couch.”

The casket arrived in a wagon pulled by a sleek trike motorcycle as Patriot Guard and American Infidel bikes roared around it.

Richards’ final burial will take place in February at Arlington National Cemetery to coincide with a Marjah veterans’ reunion. Before that, Raechel said, she plans to load Rob’s ashes into an ammunition can, where he used to joke they belonged, and take them to places the couple talked about visiting together. The first stop is Craters of the Moon National Preserve in Idaho, a favorite spot of Richards’ that she had never seen.

“The next couple months, it’s going to be Raechel and her ammo can,” she said. “I’ll take him to all the places we never got to go.”

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