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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Sanick Dela Cruz seems an unlikely marine to be labeled a Judas. "He was an outstanding individual," says M.Sgt. James Miller, an ROTC instructor at Wells Community Academy High School. "He wasn't just a good student—he was a great student. He was a go-getter, a fixer of problems. He was a class leader." Miller adds something else: "He told the truth."
Ted Dallas, another of Dela Cruz's teachers at Wells, was equally won over. As the head of a (now defunct) urban horticulture program, Dallas admits he pushed his students, but Dela Cruz rose to the challenge, becoming Dallas's handpicked supervisor. "I'd love to have 28 kids like Sanick every year," says Dallas, who is now vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
The eager young student had a rough start. Born in 1982 in Cavite City, Philippines, a poor town a few miles southwest of Manila, he was abandoned by his mother and father to the care of his aunt. When the aunt moved to Chicago in 1997, Dela Cruz followed.
Living in an upstairs room in his aunt's Humboldt Park home, the teenager grappled with a new language (he spoke a Filipino language called Tagalog), a new culture, and a gang-torn Chicago neighborhood. "I was getting into trouble, hanging around with the wrong people, sometimes not coming home," he recalls. Several times his aunt kicked him out. The two went at it, he says, until she delivered an ultimatum: Follow the rules or leave for good.
The tough love worked. Dela Cruz stopped cutting classes and started turning in his homework. His grades rose. He made curfew. His newfound success seemed tenuous, however, until he found ROTC at Wells Academy—an 800-student school with a largely low-income student population that is nearly 75 percent Hispanic—and a mentor who clearly cared about him. "You could see he needed that father-type figure, a role model, to kind of vent and also to listen to," Miller says. "We'd sit down and talk and try to make some sense of what he was doing, and what his outlook on life was. All of a sudden he just took off."
By his junior year, Dela Cruz was pestering marine recruiters. "Sergeant Miller wanted me to join the army," he says. "He was trying to give me a hard time. He'd joke and say, 'Don't join the marines—they're crazy!' I told him, 'That's why I like them!'" Still, the recruiter who eventually signed him up didn't know quite what to make of the earnest young man who couldn't wait. "He said, 'You're the first one who actually approached me and said, I want to join,'" Dela Cruz recalls.
On the surface, Dela Cruz's enthusiasm echoes recruit poster cliché. "I wanted to serve our country," he says. "I wanted to travel and see what's out there for me. I wanted a challenge." Beneath the platitudes was a sense of familial connection. "From what I know, that's how my family came to the United States—because my great-grandfather joined the navy in World War II," Dela Cruz says. "My aunt said that because of my great-grandfather's service, she was allowed to become a U.S. citizen."
Dela Cruz earned his high-school diploma in 2002 and left for basic training that summer. Reality dawned quickly. After the first week of basic, he recalls, "I was like, 'Man, I don't think this is for me!'" he recalls. "But then I said I wanted to be a marine, so I kept going." That summer, in white cap and dress blues, he became an official leatherneck.
Around Christmas, he received his orders. "My roommate told me we're going to Iraq," he recalls. "I was like, 'You're kidding me. No way!'" In early 2003, Dela Cruz shipped out on the U.S.S. Boxer, bound for the Persian Gulf. In late February, a helicopter dropped him off in Kuwait and he was shuttled to the frontlines in Iraq. His exploits during his second deployment in a firefight in Najaf in September 2004 earned an admiring mention in a Marine Corps News profile. "Their names won't be remembered for their actions that day, except for a lifetime by the men who fought alongside them," the story intoned. "Men like Sanick P. Dela Cruz, a 21-year-old team leader from Chicago."
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The man against whom Dela Cruz soon will likely testify, Frank Wuterich, came to the marines via a far different path. Raised in Meriden, Connecticut, Wuterich graduated in 1998 from Orville H. Platt High School, where he was an honor student, drama club president, and a jazz trumpet player. Like Dela Cruz, he enlisted in the marines during his senior year, but he did so in hopes of joining the Marine Corps band. Rejected, he found himself an infantryman, and a sergeant and squad leader in Haditha. The Iraqi village was his first combat tour of duty. Unlike Dela Cruz, he had never been in a firefight. He had, in fact, never been under fire.
Twenty-six at the time of the IED attack, Wuterich was about as far from the stereotypical vein-jutting "sarge" as his hometown was from Haditha. He was thin and baby faced, with sad doe eyes and dark hair. But he was a regular guy, appreciated for his laid-back demeanor. At home, Wuterich had a wife and three daughters, a responsibility that lent him an aura of maturity and made him a natural leader in a company of 19- and 20-year-olds. Among his men, Dela Cruz says, the sergeant's lack of combat experience was more a source of humor than serious concern.
When I asked Dela Cruz to name his best friend in Kilo Company, he looked up at me and said, simply and earnestly, "Sergeant Wuterich."
Not only did Dela Cruz like Wuterich as a person. He thinks that Wuterich probably saved his life. Not long before the November 19th incident, Dela Cruz was on patrol when he saw an elderly Iraqi man acting oddly. Wuterich noticed, too, and signaled to Dela Cruz to stop. "Next thing you know we found an IED right there," Dela Cruz says.
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Photography: Marshall Photographer, Inc./Courtesy of Wells Community Academy High School