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Witness at Haditha

When a deadly roadside bomb ripped through a convoy of U.S. marines in Haditha, Iraq, the violent American response left 24 Iraqi civilians dead. In his first public comments on the incident, a marine sergeant from Chicago describes the terrible things he saw—and did—that day in November 2005. His account bolsters the government’s case against his squad leader and friend—that the carnage was a massacre of innocents

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Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz: “I saw the truth. I saw it.”

The menace is gone from the marine who talked. The strapped-on flak jacket, the gladiator helmet tugged low, the lizard-eye shades as dark and forbidding as limousine tints, the hostile, unsmiling face caught by a war photographer’s lens. In its place appears the guarded, almost haunted demeanor of a man who has seen terrible things, done terrible things, who has examined them, worried them, and been scarred by them in the many ways war can wound. Hunched over a dining-room table in a modest home near Camp Pendleton, California, stripped of his gear and weaponry, Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz appears reduced, self-conscious and alone.

Two and a half years ago, on a cool sunny morning in Haditha, Iraq, he was just another leatherneck, part of the time-honored hoo-rah fraternity. Then, on a routine resupply mission, a roadside bomb exploded beneath a vehicle in his convoy, killing one member of Dela Cruz’s Kilo Company and injuring two others.

Dela Cruz escaped physical harm. But what happened on the morning of November 19, 2005, and what Dela Cruz would later say about it, would hurt him in every other way—even as it would help turn Haditha into a household name as notorious and controversial as Abu Ghraib.

Today, Dela Cruz’s testimony underlies accusations that what occurred that morning—the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians, including babies, women, and elderly people, by a squad of marines—was a revenge-driven massacre. His words form the basis of a homicide charge against his squad leader and friend, Frank Wuterich, a man Dela Cruz continues to call “a great marine.”

Dela Cruz, a graduate of Wells Community Academy High School in West Town who dreamed of dedicating his life to the Marine Corps, now finds himself in a painfully paradoxical position in relation to his military brotherhood.

Marines hew to a mantra almost as sacred as Semper fidelis: Leave no one behind. And with the men involved at Haditha, friends, families, and supporters have lived up to the creed in every way. Web sites such as DefendOurMarines.com and DefendOurTroops.com feature tributes to the marines of Haditha. Bloggers have said the troops acted “heroically” that day. Those supporters have scorned Dela Cruz, deriding his testimony that he watched Wuterich gun down a group of Iraqi men who were surrendering. “Dela Cruz is one of the sleaziest characters to emerge from the Haditha prosecution,” declared one writer on FreeRepublic.com, a conservative blog site. As this article went to press, the supporters had reason to be pleased: Of all of the men accused in the killings, only Wuterich still faced charges.

Despite the “no marine left behind” creed, however, Dela Cruz has been largely forsaken. No Web sites solicit support for him. No ex-marines pen impassioned articles on his behalf. Dela Cruz says that even his family, once unflaggingly supportive of his military career, has questioned his decision to testify against Wuterich.

Dela Cruz’s detractors dismiss the idea that they have left one of their own behind. If anything, they say, he abandoned the marines by turning on his sergeant. Dela Cruz himself insists that he is simply doing what a good marine must do: tell the truth.

Sitting across from me at a dining-room table in San Diego (the home belongs to a relative of one of his attorneys), Dela Cruz looks as small as his five-foot six-inch, 130-pound frame would suggest. The olive skin of his native country—the Philippines—has been burnished bronze by hours in the Southern California sun. He makes eye contact when he speaks, but his delivery is often halting and his grammar awkward from a lifelong struggle with English as a second language. He relies on “sir” as a kind of all-purpose punctuation and pauseword, the way other young men might use “like” or “you know.” Only the tattoo crawling up his arm—a leering Grim Reaper clutching a sickle—hints at the bravado of the hardened fighting man he once was.

“I really don’t like talking about this,” he says, fidgeting, rubbing nicotine fingers together absently, as if trying to erase a deep scar: Indeed, while other Haditha marines have made their case to the media—Wuterich, most notably, having appeared on 60 Minutes—Dela Cruz has held his tongue until now, even after being granted testimonial immunity and having the homicide charge against him dropped. He agreed to speak to Chicago on condition that the story not be accompanied by photos showing the bodies of civilians killed that day, though they are easily found on the Internet.

“To be honest, I can’t wait to get this thing over with and go on with my life,” he says, “to just move on. But I can’t do that until it’s over.” And for him, that means talking—and telling what he insists really happened.

* * *

The day began like so many others in Haditha, cool and clear, and ripe with the possibility of either tedium or terror. If the men of Dela Cruz’s Kilo Company platoon—part of the Third Battalion, First Marine “Thundering Third"—had to guess, they’d likely have bet on the former. The mission, after all, was to be routine.

Their base of operations was Firm Base Sparta, a camp in a school they had commandeered shortly after arriving in Haditha, a town of about 100,000 on the Euphrates River near the Syrian border. Once a popular vacation spot, the city now found itself a strategically crucial supply line stop for the Sunni insurgency and the spread of al Qaeda.

Places like Fallujah had already become killing zones. Now, the marines believed that Haditha was next. Their mission was to secure the city’s dam and prevent insurgents from taking over the town.

Rising at five that morning, they pulled on their body armor and stuffed ammunition into pouches—everything from grenades to cartridge magazines to night vision goggles they carried just in case. They slipped on sunglasses and strapped on camouflage helmets. Completely “kitted up,” and looking like futuristic troops out of a Hollywood sci-fi flick, they prepared to move out.

At some point, Frank Wuterich conducted a briefing on the day’s task. A four-Humvee convoy carrying a squad of 12 men would cross town to a southern checkpoint; drop off food, new communication codes, and a fresh squad of Iraqi troops; then immediately return to camp. Wuterich described the procedures they should follow in a number of scenarios, including what to do if the convoy was hit by the preferred weapon of the insurgent: an improvised explosive device, or IED.

In a moment of eerie prescience, one man joked about just that. “Somebody was saying, ‘I feel like we might get hit,’” Dela Cruz recalls. “I told him, ‘Man, don’t say something like that!’ It was, like, crazy.”

The reality was, it would have been crazy not to be a little scared, particularly given the deadly stretch the Marine Corps had recently endured. Just that summer, six marine snipers from an Ohio-based company had been ambushed and killed not far from where the convoy was headed that morning. Shortly after, an IED had killed 14 more marines from the same platoon. Only a week before the morning of today’s incident, three Kilo Company marines—friends of Dela Cruz—had been wounded by an IED on a similar resupply run.

At the dining-room table in San Diego, Dela Cruz shakes his head when he recalls the constant pressure. “I’ve seen my buddies get killed; I’ve seen the enemy get killed. You can’t put your guard down because even though you might not see them, they always see you. You could be talking to someone and never know he’s an insurgent. Every time you [left camp], you had to accept that I might be next.”

If camaraderie helped the men cope, their training helped them survive. To the uninitiated, the harsh treatment and obsession with detail that marines suffer at the hands of the fabled drill instructor (’drill sergeant’ is strictly an army term) can seem like senseless bullying. There is a payoff, however, beyond instilling basic discipline: It yields a mental toughness that can cut through the high emotions of a situation gone wrong. In addition, marines undergo extensive training in techniques to deal with an enemy who hides among the civilian population. At bases throughout the United States, the marines practice clearing houses, searching cars, and interrogating suspects. In Iraq they receive more counterinsurgency training, including classes in the rules of engagement—the guidelines that spell out when deadly force can be us

ed. Issued by the Department of Defense, the ROEs require that troops positively identify Iraqis as foes before engaging them. They also forbid marines to attack anyone who has surrendered or cannot fight due to wounds. At the same time, the rules stipulate that marines have a right to self-defense.

But, as Dela Cruz points out, the definitions of self-defense and surrender were moving targets. The ROEs were constantly changing. At times, for example, marines were allowed to fire if someone pointed a gun at them. Other times, they were required to refrain unless fired on.

The corps issued ROE cards, pocket-size summaries marines could carry into combat. The reality, of course, was that nobody whipped out a card in the middle of a tense situation. Not only was the notion absurd; it could get you killed. Most marines simply acquainted themselves with the basics, and when in doubt fell back on the golden rule, printed in bold block letters at the bottom of the card: “YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE RIGHT TO USE NECESSARY FORCE, INCLUDING DEADLY FORCE, TO PROTECT YOURSELF AND OTHERS.”

Beyond those bare-bones instructions, the marines were on their own. They were not trained, for instance, in controlling their anger the way Chicago police officers in some jurisdictions are taught to keep their cool after high-adrenaline car chases.

Dela Cruz understood the regs and why they provided some wiggle room in a country where distinguishing friend from foe could be tricky at best. But about a week before the November 19th attack, Dela Cruz claims he had a disturbing conversation with Wuterich. Dela Cruz says that he and the squad leader were on a balcony overlooking  Haditha Dam, smoking and talking about the IED attack a week earlier that had injured three marines. According to Dela Cruz, Wuterich mused, “If we ever get hit again, we should kill everybody in that vicinity . . . to teach them a lesson.” Wuterich has vehemently denied that this conversation ever took place, says his lawyer, Neal Puckett.

In my interviews, Dela Cruz told me, “I would remember what he said for the rest of my life. I told him, ‘Hey, you know who would do that kind of stuff? Saddam Hussein.’”

* * *

The convoy dropped the men and food off without incident, then turned back toward Sparta. The four Humvees—with Dela Cruz at the wheel of the second vehicle—lumbered through the just-stirring neighborhoods, grinding down Chestnut Road. Just after 7 a.m., the trucks crossed Viper Road, and a flash, followed by an ear-shattering KA-BOOM, shook the neighborhood.

* * *

 

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