Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
There’s been such an unusually heavy and compelling response to our recent piece “Another Shameful Navy Cover-Up” – concerning a fine Seabee unit that took mass casualties in Iraq last May – that the folks at Soldiers for the Truth, DefenseWatch and I have concluded that there’s more than enough hard evidence to justify a full-scale U.S. Navy inquiry.
The column has created a firestorm: The salty noncoms who were eyewitnesses are calling for heads to roll, while Navy officers present for the slaughter continue to duck and weave when it comes to what really happened during the critical moments leading up to the first enemy rounds dropping on their hastily called assembly. Meanwhile, predictably, those perfumed princes back in the rear staunchly defend the establishment line and the commanders on the scene whose poor judgment led to the tragedy. Clearly, the Navy’s chain of command has circled the ships.
Retired Lt. Col. Roger Charles, U.S. Marine Corps, who’s spent the past several weeks trying to pin down the truth, started at the Pentagon but was repeatedly sloughed off until he reached a minor public-affairs officer at California’s Camp Pendleton. Of course, all he got there was a weasel-worded runaround, starting with his very direct first question: “Did the U.S. Navy or any other element of DOD [Department Of Defense] conduct any investigation into the circumstances surrounding this attack? If not, why not?”
The twisted response: “The unfortunate incident in which I MEF (First Marine Expeditionary Force) lost those Seabees was clearly a result of enemy action. Incidents of this nature are not usually the subject of an investigation. There was no military investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack.”
Charles’ final question, really the whole point of his query, elicited an answer that further fogged the truth by stating “when the attack occurred, the sailors there were conducting routine duties,” even though – according to an official Navy representative on a Casualty Notification Team – there was a “formation.”
A seasoned chief who asked for anonymity clarifies that the Seabees had been ordered to “mill about smartly.” Another chief concurs: “It’s all true! I was there! I was ordered to hear [Adm.] Kubic’s speech.”
Bottom line: There is no doubt in my military mind that some sort of grouping had been ordered.
And while I received an e-mail rationalizing that one mortar round could kill five and wound more than 30 American fighting men who were properly dispersed, along with a number of others making similar assertions, it should at this point be beyond dispute that the Seabees were too bunched up for the tactical environment.
Those who commented to me that nothing wrong was done by anyone are claiming that the casualties were not preventable, contending that nothing anyone did at the compound contributed to the deadly results, and no actions could have been taken that would have prevented or mitigated the outcome.
I don’t think so. And inquiring minds want to know: Why weren’t the Seabees at least ordered to wear protective gear, such as helmets and body armor, while in a compound that was regularly pounded by enemy mortars?
Several supporters and critics of our column rightfully requested that the role of the battalion skipper, then-Cmdr. John Prien – who was subsequently promoted to captain, O-6 – be scrutinized. As of today, he has not answered an e-mail requesting his comments as well as answers to the obvious questions.
The traffic we’ve received indicates that the failure to provide a definitive accounting of this event has created a deep schism inside this unit and their families, with some folks stuck defending indefensible stonewalling and others determined to force the Seabee command to come clean.
Now hear this: Skippers and spinmeisters! Five Seabees died in vain at Base Junction City – apparently because of wrong decisions, petty bureaucracy and appalling leadership. Accountability is the very essence of proper leadership. That should be especially so in the U.S. military, where responsibility for lives and deaths must always be accompanied by a strict and honest accounting for actions taken and not taken – which is why “dereliction in the performance of duties” is a chargeable offense under the Manual for Courts-Martial.
No way is this story going away until the Navy stands in the hatch and acknowledges all that went wrong on that terrible, bloody day last May and sees that those responsible are keelhauled.