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Haditha witness testimony suppressed by NCIS:

AK-47s seen at the white taxi

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

Defend Our Marines | July 17, 2007

This is the second of a two-part article Defend Our Marines Contributing Editor Nathaniel R. Helms.

Read this article's companion piece: Firefight in Haditha: An eyewitness account.

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Haditha witness testimony suppressed by NCIS:

AK-47s seen at the white taxi

by Nathaniel R. Helms

 

Former Cpl Josh Karlen
 

A former Marine from Kilo Company wounded at Haditha, Iraq on the day of the alleged massacre told Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators he saw Kalashnikov assault rifles propped against a white taxicab next to the bodies of five Iraqi men killed when the fighting started. His report contradicts prosecution contentions that the Iraqis were innocent civilians.

Joshua Cash Karlen, 23, from Westminster, Colorado, said Monday that he is positive he saw the weapons while he was being evacuated from the battlefield. The following spring Karlen says he reported his observations to NCIS investigators while being interrogated by two special agents.

“They grilled me over why I was there, why I was driving through the cordon and what I saw,” Karlen said. “I was in there for about four hours.”

Karlen says he repeatedly told the two agents what he witnessed at the ambush site.

“The area was cordoned off when we drove by,” Karlen said in a telephone interview from his home. “I was hit by a grenade and had a severe concussion so I had to be evacuated out. I was on the south side of Chestnut (code name for the road running on the south side of the ambush site) being driven through the cordon. We were going real slow so I could see a white car, a pile of bodies, and weapons piled against the car. There were three or four AKs stacked leaning against a white car and some Marines were standing around. ”

Despite a lengthy interview Karlen’s statement was never included in the evidence obtained by the defense, according to defense attorney Brian Rooney.  The former Marine Corps Staff Judge Advocate represents Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani. Chessani is the former commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. Chessani is currently waiting to discover if he will stand general courts-martial over his role in Kilo’s alleged murder rampage.

“This is the first I have ever heard of this!” Rooney exclaimed.

Rooney said the NCIS failure to provide Karlen’s eyewitness account to Marine Corps prosecutors was a “very serious omission” that undoubtedly harmed his client’s case.

Karlen’s testimony is absolutely essential to the defense, Rooney added. The outspoken defense attorney is at a loss to understand why Karlen’s statement was never introduced into evidence, he said.

“We could never put any weapons with the Iraqis who were killed by the cab,” Rooney explained Monday night. “This evidence is crucial to prove the men in the cab were armed insurgents. Early on there were reports they had weapons, but the weapons were never found.”

Last week Col. Christopher Conlin, the officer presiding over Chessani’s Article 32 hearing, recommended the career infantryman face general courts-martial because he "failed to thoroughly and accurately report and investigate a combat engagement that clearly needed scrutiny."

“The irony is almost overwhelming,” a very senior Marine noted Tuesday morning.

Karlen’s observations contradict prosecution assertions that the five men were unarmed Iraqi civilians who meandered into the ambush site only to be gunned down in cold blood by Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich and Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz.  Wuterich stands accused of gunning down the Iraqis in retaliation for the gruesome killing of Lance Corporal Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas on November 19, 2005 by an IED ambush. Dela Cruz was granted immunity to testify against him. The prosecution alleges Wuterich and two other Kilo Marines then rampaged through a nearby group of houses executing 19 more innocent civilians. Seven other Marines who were with them as well were later granted immunity from prosecution.

Karlen said he was interrogated by two NCIS Special Agents at Camp Pendleton after returning from home leave following the battalion’s return in late March, 2006. He was summoned to regimental headquarters sometime in April or early May along with almost every enlisted man in Kilo who was at Haditha, Karlen said. At the time he was assigned the guard detail providing security to regimental headquarters at Camp Horno, the 1st Marines lodgment area on Camp Pendleton.

By the time Karlen was interrogated he felt sure the NCIS agents already knew ‘everything” about the incident and just want to see what he was going to say about it. They told Karlen they wanted to talk to him because he had actually been at the alleged crime scene. They repeatedly asked him what he had seen and why he was there, Karlen said.

“There were two NCIS guys. The young one was friendly and the old guy was gruff. The young one would ask me questions for awhile, talk about surfing; how did I like Pendleton - that stuff. And then the old one would come in and say he had to ask something and he would sound sort of mean and angry. He would try and be intimidating. It was the good cop – bad cop routine.

“I kept telling them I was wounded and had a concussion and was just riding by. I kept telling them what I saw and why I was there and then they would ask me again. They acted like they didn’t believe me. I told them all I wanted was to get out of the Corps and was this going to keep me in somehow. Once they realized I don’t have anything they wanted they let me go.”

During the Haditha incident Karlen was an assaultman assigned to Kilo Company’s Weapons Platoon. He was standing watch at the same Combat Observation Post - C.O.P. - as former Corporal Joe Haman, another Kilo Marine who witnessed the attack on Wuterich’s squad. Their position was about 600 meters from the ambush site. Wuterich’s patrol had just delivered the morning rations and supplies before they got hit. By lunch time Karlen would be wounded in desperate combat with insurgents near the same site, he said.

The Marines’ legal problems began when Time Magazine published an account in March, 2005 claiming 24 Iraqi civilians, including the five men killed by the white taxicab, were innocent Iraqis. Reporter Tim McGirk wrote that the five men in the taxi were mercilessly gunned down by Marines while on their way to school. They were the first to die in retaliation for an IED attack the patrol had just endured, McGirk claimed.

Karlen has an entirely different take on the incident, he says. He was on guard duty on top of a building when he heard a loud boom. He didn’t know what had happened except it came from the direction Wuterich’s four-HUMVEE patrol had just taken. The IED explosion was followed by a strong exchange of gunshots, he said.

“It was blatantly obvious somebody was getting hit,” Karlen said. “Corporal Haman was the senior Marine NCO on the C.O.P. so he could hear the radios, know what all was happening. I didn’t know anything except there was a firefight going on and we were going out.”

Then it grew relatively quiet for a few minutes. The talk later on was the ambushed Marines had to regroup, Karlen said.

“They had to figure out where the fire was coming from and collect their wounded. Wuterich came out of the School of Infantry. He was a good Marine. He was an instructor. They teach other guys so he had to be a good Marine. The guys who were with him said he did exactly right. All the time there were gunshots going off all over the place. I couldn’t distinguish what kind of weapons were firing. I was gearing up so I wasn’t paying that much attention. Gunfire is always going off in Iraq.”

About 30 minutes later they were told to proceed to some houses down the road that were reportedly occupied by insurgents, Karlen said. After a two minute run their 12-man squad stopped in front of some houses where headquarters thought the insurgents were hiding. Without hearing the radio traffic Karlen didn’t know they were from the same group that ambushed Wuterich’s patrol. He wouldn’t learn anything about that for several months, he said.

At the time he thought his patrol was part of a larger operation because there were groups of insurgents running all over the place, he said. There was gunfire erupting everywhere, he said. All he knew for sure about Wuterich’s patrol was that somebody’s “kill number” had been put out over the radio so he knew a Marine was dead, he explained.

After the squad cleared the first house they came to with grenades, Karlen split up from Haman’s team and went on the other side of the building with Lt. Zall, Sgt. Raphael, the Navy corpsmen and several other Marines. He was standing about 15 feet from Lt Zall and the corpsmen a few minutes later when Iraqi insurgents hiding on the roof of the adjacent building attacked them with a grenade barrage. The attack erupted when a grenade dropped from the roof and exploded about five feet from Lt. Zall and the corpsman. Karlen sustained a serious concussion in the blast, he said.

“I saw the lieutenant and corpsman get hit so we ran out and pulled them into the house under cover. Lt. Zall was hit in both his legs and the corpsman was hurt pretty bad as well. They both had broken legs, Karlen said.

Meanwhile Karlen’s team lost contact with Haman and his fire team. All he knew was that some of the Marines he was with went on the roof of the first house to get a better position to counterattack the Iraqi grenadiers. He was worried about his friend Haman and the other Marines in the squad.

“It isn’t good to get in a cross-fire between friendlies,” he said.

Immediately the fight grew in intensity. It rapidly escalated turned into a “grenade free-for-all,” Karlen said.

“Grenades were going off all over the place. I don’t know how many grenades were thrown. Almost everybody got wounded. Then we used flares to get back in contact. It was just a vicious firefight,” Karlen said

Then the ORF (Quick Reaction Force) showed up, Karlen added. His team eventually ran across the road and joined up with Haman’s group and the reinforcements. By then almost all the Marines were wounded to some degree, Karlen said. After they regrouped he joined other Kilo Marines who went on the roof on still another house to engage the Iraqi insurgents. Karlen stayed there firing on the insurgents until he was ordered to the rear to receive medical attention.

“We overpowered them with our medium machine guns. The QRF was lighting up the buildings with the two-forties (M-240G 7.62 mm medium machine gun),” Karlen said. “They didn’t have nothing to stand up to our firepower.

“And that is about where the war ended for me. I had a pretty bad concussion and they said I had to be evacuated. That is why I was driven past the cordon. Everything else I learned about talking to Kilo Marines when I got back to Camp Pendleton.”

Today Karlen lives in a suburb of Denver. He was married last November and has a newborn son. He is currently employed by a private security company guarding the Federal offices in the Denver area. Karlen eventually hopes to return to school to obtain a business degree and open his own company. Karlen father served six years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, including combat operations in Southeast Asia.

Nathaniel Helms
Defend Our Marines
17 July 2007

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007