Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani

His commanders said in a fitness report that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani had “unlimited potential and value to the Marine Corps,” but he’s now facing the military version of a criminal proceeding for his work during that time, according to a Michigan law firm.

Chessani is hoping the hearing will eliminate the “Murtha taint” from his career, which comes from comments made by U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who was incited by an inflammatory “Time” magazine headline accusing Marines of “massacring” civilians in Haditha, Al-Anbar province, Iraq.

Murtha, in an unprecedented statement, publicly accused Marine officers of a “cover-up” before the situation had been investigated, a charge later disproved by the military.

Officials with the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., are representing Chessani, who was accused of failing to investigate and brief commanders about the situation that pitted U.S. Marines against Iraqi and foreign terrorists on Nov. 19, 2005.

The law center said Chessani, the highest-ranking officer charged, could finish a 19-year Marine career that included the Panama Invasion, the Persian Gulf War, and three tours in Iraq with a dishonorable discharge and possibly up to three years in prison.

His preliminary hearing on the accusations will start May 30 in Camp Pendleton, Calif., officials said.

The law center said Maj. Gen. Huck, who reviewed Chessani’s performance during the time of the Haditha situation, called him a “top notch officer with outstanding potential” and recommended him for promotion.

“Unlimited potential and value to the Marine Corp,” the general wrote in Chessani’s Combat Fitness Report. “Capable of the most challenging assignments.”

The report, required once a year for Marine officers, also included the following comments about Chessani:

  • “Leads Marines from front in every operation. Demonstrates moral courage everyday. Doesn’t hesitate to report bad news fast or contest unrealistic plans/poor concepts. Despite the complexity and size of his AO (area of operations), he always maintains a calm, cool demeanor.”

  • “Always seeks advantage over complex, diverse insurgent enemy. Truly one of the finer thinkers in this COIN (counterinsurgency) environment.”

  • “One of the top 3 infantry/Cav Bn cmdrs of 13 who have served with RCT –2 (the regiment) during OIF. A superb leader, who knows his men, knows the enemy, knows his business. Doesn’t attract a lot of fanfare; just gets the job done to an exceedingly high standard.”

  • “Recommend selection for promotion to Colonel and TLS [Top Level School].”

The Thomas More Law Center, a national public interest law firm from Ann Arbor, Mich., is defending Chessani and believes he is being sacrificed for the sake of “placating anti-war critics.”

“We are eating our own, and the terrorists are laughing in their caves,” said Richard Thompson, president of the center, “Because of them one of the most effective Marine combat commanders in Iraq has been eliminated by his own government. The testimony we will elicit at the Article 32 hearing, which begins on May 30th, will show just how ridiculous and politically motivated these charges are.”

Brian Rooney, a former Marine officer who served seven months in Iraq, is one of the lawyers on the case. He said he’s started working back to the truth through depositions. “There is so much misreporting and outright propaganda from the enemy presented as fact by news organizations like Time magazine,” he said.

In the attack, a bomb killed one Marine in a Humvee and injured two more, and the resulting house-to-house battle between the outnumbered 4-man Marine “fire team” and the insurgents resulted in 24 Iraqi deaths, including 15 civilians.

Chessani, a Colorado Marine, although he was not on the scene, learned that his soldiers made it successfully through the Haditha ambush, but then he got caught in Murtha’s firefight of words as the anti-war congressman tried to capitalize on the situation.

The Thomas More Law Center said Chessani is described by fellow officers as a focused, hands-on commander who followed the Law of War and was sympathetic to the plight of innocent Iraqis. He is a committed Christian with a wife and five children, and has served his nation honorably for more than 19 years with tours of duty in Panama, the first Persian Gulf War and three tours in Iraq.

Chessani, who grew up in Rangely, Colo., and graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, was among eight Marines charged in December with counts stemming from the Haditha ambush.

Also charged were Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich; Sgt. Sanick P Dela Cruz; Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, 22; Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum; 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson; Capt. Lucas McConnell and Capt. Randy Stone.

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