At Haditha Hearing, Dueling Views of a Battalion Commander
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., June 7 — Through three combat deployments in Iraq, a Bronze Star and numerous combat ribbons, Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani’s Marine Corps career has been defined, it seems, by terrorist bombs.
In October 1983, news of the attack by Muslim extremists on a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 service members compelled Colonel Chessani, then a teenager from Rangely, Colo., to embrace Christianity and, later, to follow two brothers into the service. In November 2005, Colonel Chessani was a battalion commander in Haditha, Iraq, when a roadside bomb planted by Sunni Arab insurgents killed one of his marines and wounded two others.
Infantrymen under his command, seeking to engage the enemy, instead killed 24 civilians. Last year, the Marine Corps charged Colonel Chessani, 43, and three other officers with dereliction of duty for failing to investigate the episode properly and relieved him of his command.
In a military hearing into whether he should face a formal court-martial, witnesses and military documents have helped paint two contradictory portraits of Colonel Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine officer charged since the Iraq war began more than four years ago.
On one side, battalion officers and enlisted men testifying under oath described Colonel Chessani, who at the time of the Haditha killings was on his third combat tour in Iraq, as a physically courageous leader whose integrity was beyond question.
“Lieutenant Colonel Chessani is by far the strongest moral leader I’ve ever worked with,” Sgt. Maj. Edward T. Sax, the battalion’s senior noncommissioned officer, testified last week. Maj. Samuel H. Carrasco, the Third Battalion’s operations officer, said Colonel Chessani’s “truthfulness is beyond reproach.” On Tuesday, Colonel Chessani’s adjutant, First Lt. Mark E. Towers, called him “a godly man” who spent a half-hour every morning in Iraq quietly reading the Bible in his quarters.
On the other side, Marine prosecutors have used testimony from Colonel Chessani’s subordinate and superior officers to portray him as a touchy and incurious field commander who, instead of investigating, sent deceptive reports about the Haditha killings up the chain of command.
Colonel Chessani never asked for a detailed briefing about how and why the marines killed 24 civilians, according to testimony, and did not inspect the scene of the killings, despite a report to superiors that he had.
Three months later, responding to questions about the civilian deaths from a Time magazine reporter, Colonel Chessani sent an e-mail message to his regimental commander that inaccurately stated that several AK-47s were found in a home where marines had killed several women and children, military documents show.
Major Carrasco, under questioning from prosecutors, also described Colonel Chessani as angrily shouting, “My men are not murderers!” after Major Carrasco and another battalion officer advised him, on Jan. 29, 2006, to open an inquiry into the killings.
Amid all the courtroom characterizations of him during the past week, Colonel Chessani, slightly built and with thinning gray hair, sat stone-faced at the defense table in his desert fatigues, jotting notes but rarely talking even to his lawyers.
By all accounts, including his own sworn statements to military investigators examining his response to the civilian killings, Colonel Chessani anguished over the casualties his marines suffered that day in Haditha — the most violent and chaotic day in the battalion’s combat tour.
From a command post about seven miles from Haditha, he viewed insurgent movements via video from an aerial drone and directed several attacks and counterattacks by marines against insurgents in residential areas around the city, according to testimony this week. Colonel Chessani visited one battle site later that day, but did not inspect the homes where 19 of the 24 civilians were killed by grenades and rifle fire.
In a sworn statement to military investigators in March 2006, Colonel Chessani said he never suspected that the killings were improper under the American laws of war, because they followed an attack by insurgents that, he believed, was intended to provoke lethal return fire by marines in a residential area.
“I believe the enemy picked the ground where he wanted to attack us,” Colonel Chessani said in a statement dated March 20, which has not been officially released. “They were — they had set this up so that there would be collateral damage.”
He later added, “Enemy had picked the place, he had picked the time and the location for a reason. I believed he made a definite choice in where it was and thought that, you know, he wanted to make us look bad.”
Marine prosecutors have suggested that Colonel Chessani was, in fact, so intent on not letting insurgents use the civilian deaths against the marines that he ignored evidence that his troops, under sporadic small-arms fire, had violated rules of engagement in killing civilians in their homes.
In a statement he gave on March 26, 2006, to an investigator from Naval Criminal Investigative Service from the base in Asad, Iraq, Colonel Chessani admitted, in stoical, confessional language, that he could have trained his marines better.
“Looking back, I could have done a better job preparing the marines for this deployment as it relates to R.O.E. training,” his statement said, using the abbreviation for rules of engagement. That might have included using live-fire training that required infantrymen to discern enemy targets from civilians.
Perhaps the most important arbiter of Colonel Chessani’s actions in Haditha is Col. Christopher Conlin, the investigating officer who will recommend whether the charges should proceed to a court-martial. Colonel Conlin, a former Iraq battalion commander presiding over his first military hearing, has made several comments that suggest a critical view of Colonel Chessani.
For example, last week, Colonel Conlin told a witness that many other battalion commanders would have joined their troops in the battle area on the day of combat in November 2005, instead of remaining miles away.
On Tuesday, Colonel Conlin asked Lieutenant Towers, who was a battalion legal adviser in Iraq in 2005, if a report by Colonel Chessani’s staff to the regiment stating that the colonel had examined the scene of the civilian casualties “implied that he went there.”
Lieutenant Towers answered firmly, “Yes, sir.”