This story was originally posted online on Oct. 29, 2013.
RICHLANDS, N.C. — Joseph Chamblin was such a highly respected staff sergeant in 2011 that the leaders of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., selected him as a scout sniper platoon commander for the unit’s upcoming deployment to Afghanistan — a position typically reserved for an officer.
Once in Helmand province, the scout snipers performed so well against the enemy that they earned the personal congratulations of the commandant and sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
By January 2012, Chamblin was up for promotion to gunnery sergeant and set to re-deploy to Afghanistan. Within weeks, however, his career was in ruins after a video surfaced, showing him and three other scout snipers urinating on Taliban corpses during a patrol in Helmand’s Musa Qala district on July 27, 2011.
For nearly two years, Chamblin has been in limbo — first as he awaited disciplinary action, and later as he awaited medical retirement.
After pleading guilty at a special court-martial to his role in the urination incident and related improprieties, Chamblin lost a rank. He left the Marine Corps as a sergeant on Oct. 6.
Chamblin was one of eight Marines to face discipline related to the incident. The last of those Marines, Capt. James Clement, went before a board of inquiry Oct. 15-17. The panel of officers recommended that Clement be separated from service with an honorable discharge.
After Chamblin’s court-martial, allegations of interference from senior Marine Corps leaders — including Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and his top legal advisers — were raised. Maj. James Weirick, an attorney assigned to the command that punished Chamblin, filed complaints with the Navy and Defense Department inspectors general, alleging undue command influence and other violations of the legal process. Weirick has since been removed from his job.
Marine Corps Times met with Chamblin at his home here on Oct. 10. Excerpts of that interview:
Q. What was the mood like on that deployment?
A. We were all ready to do our job, and we got a lot of support. The command seemed to love us. The more insurgents we killed, the more they loved us. Then all the generals started to love us and then the commandant loved us. They all came to visit and told us how great we were.
Q. What were some of the successes they were praising?
A. The platoon eliminated a lot of enemy combatants, including high value individuals. When they left, they had 223 kills and another 100 maybes. They were able to integrate tanks into missions and did a lot that was different than normal doctrine. Normally the snipers support, but we actually got to the point where we were the main effort simply because we could get in and get the enemy the way it needed to be done.
Q. Some say those successes could have changed the way scout sniper teams deployed. Do you think the video hurt the platoon’s credibility?
A. I’m sure if the video hadn’t been released, we would’ve had a larger positive impact. Hopefully, someone can look past that 30 second video and pull out the good tactics. I think it could’ve changed the perception of what a sniper team could accomplish and how it could be integrated into other operations. The video overshadowed stuff and kept a lot of that from coming out.
Q. What was it like to get a visit from the commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett?
A. It was pretty cool. They specifically requested to sit down with my platoon. I had never heard of that happening before.They walked around, talked to [platoon members], congratulated them. They shook everyone’s hand, gave them a coin and told them they had done a great job. It meant a lot to the guys for all the hard work they had put in. I think it said we were doing a good job and were able to accomplish above and beyond what they expected.
Q. The day you filmed the video, you were told to collect some of the insurgents’ bodies. As a scout sniper, how unusual was that?
A. It was the first time I had been asked to do that in 10 years as a sniper. By doctrine, snipers don’t collect the bodies. I recommended that we not do it, and then it ended up being an order. So we did it.
Q. Why did you urinate on the corpses? And why film it?
A. I really didn’t know it was getting filmed at the time until it was done. And then it was like, “Yeah, we better keep that to just us.” But it ended up getting out. It really wasn’t a decision, it wasn’t planned. Once we got them, it was like, “This is horrible. Why did we have to go get them?” Someone said, “Piss on these guys,” and someone else was like, “Yeah, you know what, piss on them.” And so we did, and that was that. And then we moved on.
Q. You were a staff noncommissioned officer — you put this team together, and you led them. Why did you not only allow the incident to occur, but participate in it as well?
A. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I would do it again. It wasn’t like we had some random Afghans laying there. They were insurgents, they had weapons and they were trying to kill us. The same guys were making IEDs and trying to kill Marines. If they could get over here, they would cut off the heads of everybody in this room right now. That’s how they are. And you know what? I won that day. They didn’t.
Q. There was some other stuff that happened that day, like then-Staff Sgt. Edward Deptola firing an enemy’s weapon from his hip and then-Sgt. Rob Richards throwing a grenade over a wall without identifying the enemy. Any concerns about their behavior as their platoon commander?
A. Not really. Deptola checked to see if the weapon was working and shot back at the guys who were shooting at him. And the grenade, I wasn’t there. Richards said he had reason to believe there was something there. I’m not going to question him. He was the one out there putting his life on the line that day — no one has the right to question that unless you’re standing right there with him.
Q. Do you think this video hurt the Marine Corps’ reputation?
A. Well, it depends on what your idea is of what a Marine should be. If your idea of a Marine is a real fancy-looking guy in uniform that does snap and pop with a rifle and looks real pretty, then yeah, it probably hurt. But if your idea of what a Marine should be is the enemy’s worst f---ing nightmare, then I don’t think it did. But you can’t have both.
Q. Years later, some of your leaders are just being punished or their careers are on hold. Do you think that’s fair?
A. No, not at all. I think a lot of very senior Marines decided to use some of the junior or mid-level Marines as scapegoats. Like Capt. James Clement, the guy didn’t do anything wrong. And Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon totally got screwed. He’s a good man and good leader. And now his career has been put on hold over something he had no control over.
Q. After your court-martial, it came out that the commandant allegedly said he wanted to “crush” you guys. What was it like to hear that after he visited you guys out there?
A. I think he made it personal. He had come and talked to us, shook our hands, so to him that somehow made it personal. It clouded his judgment, and he acted juvenile, like we made him look bad so now I have to get you. I don’t know what his thought process was, but he could’ve just let the process go the way it’s supposed to. Interfering obviously is illegal.
Q. Do you plan to try to correct your record now?
A. I’m probably going to see how everything develops with the IG investigation and everything. But I would say there’s a good possibility that I will file some type of an appeal given that pretty much everyone from the defense secretary on down was f---ing with the case.
Q. How did the rest of your unit treat you after the video was out?
A. The guys in my platoon still treated me the same. The higher command treated us like we had the plague. They didn’t want anything to do with me because they didn’t know how this was going to play out or how it would affect their careers. We pretty much were outcasts, the entire platoon.
Q. How do you think they should’ve reacted?
A. I think they should’ve acted like men and said, “All right, this is what we’ve got on video and this is what we need to do according to regulation.” Instead, they had a knee-jerk reaction or kissed Hamid Karzai’s ass or worried about their career. In the Marine Corps, you should pick up rank to take care of your Marines and accomplish your mission. Not because you want to look good.
Q. Has your perception of the Marine Corps changed?
A. Absolutely. It has totally changed. It’s definitely not a band of brothers. That brotherhood doesn’t exist at the upper levels. Now, the only men I trust are the ones I deployed with, my fellow snipers.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I have a couple small business ventures going. I’m almost done writing a book. The main focus is going to be the 3/2 deployment because I think the guys did such a phenomenal job. And I hate that anything anyone will ever remember about them is a 30 second video.
Q. Some might say you’re cashing in on an unfortunate situation.
A. Probably. But it’s my life, I lived it. I don’t really feel bad about getting that out there. Am I cashing in? Maybe. But I like to eat just like everybody else. The main thing is getting the story out about what those guys did and what they’re all about. That deserves to be told.