Sgt. Robert Richards displays his DD-214 military discharge paperwork aboard Camp Lejeune earlier this year. Shortly afterward, he was notified that there had been an error and he recalled to active duty pending his court-martial. (Photo courtesy Raechel Richards)
A scout sniper implicated in a controversial video depicting Marines urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to two charges Wednesday, taking a reduction in rank while saving his medical retirement benefits.
Sgt. Robert Richards will be busted down to corporal, but he avoided a bad-conduct discharge and other potential punishments he could have faced, said his attorney and Marine officials. Richards pleaded guilty in summary court-martial at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to failing to obey a lawful order and violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a catch-all that typically reflects a failure in good order and discipline that brings discredit to the armed forces, said Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman.
Richards is one of eight Marines to face disciplinary action for the video, which sparked international uproar and a lengthy Marine Corps investigation after it was posted online in January 2012. It was recorded July 27, 2011, by members of the scout sniper team assigned to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which was deployed to Helmand province’s Musa Qala district at the time.
Richards’ civilian attorney, Guy Womack, told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday that his client felt the decisions were fair. Richards pleaded guilty to Col. Robert Oltman, the chief of staff at Training and Education Command, out of Quantico, Va. Oltman was selected as the court-martial officer by Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who serves as deputy commandant for combat development and integration. Mills has been the consolidated disposition authority for all cases stemming from the urination video.
By going before summary court-martial, Richards also could have forfeited two-thirds of his pay for up to one month. But he avoided the more severe special court-martial for which he was recommended in March, following his Article 32 hearing. In that scenario, he could have faced forfeiture of two-thirds of basic pay per month for one year, up to one year of confinement and a bad-conduct discharge. The bad-conduct discharge eliminates most disability compensation afforded by the Department of Veterans Affairs — a significant concern for a wounded service member already approved for medical retirement.
Richards, a veteran of three combat deployments to Helmand province, sustained major injuries in Marjah, Afghanistan, in March 2010, when an improvised explosive device peppered him with shrapnel in the neck, groin, legs and left arm. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, his wife and lawyer said. The video was recorded during his final deployment, after he recovered from his injuries sufficiently. He was identified as 100 percent disabled by a medical board late in 2012, and cleared for medical retirement.
Richards agreed to plead guilty as the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, faces allegations he sought to ensure strict punishment for Marines connected to urination video. Amos removed a three-star general initially assigned to oversee the prosecution after that general, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told the commandant he would not take steps to have them all tossed out of the Corps.
Amos told Waldhauser he wanted each of the Marines “crushed,” and stripped Waldhauser of his authority to prosecute the Marines shortly afterward, Waldhauser said in signed declaration filed last month in the case for another implicated Marine, Capt. James Clement.
Raechel Richards, the scout sniper’s wife, told Marine Corps Times last week that they chose the summary court-martial because they are ready to “close this chapter and move on with our lives.” He is expected to retire sometime later this month.
“We’d rather take the guarantee of preserving his medical benefits than risking it all just to clear his name,” she said. “We feel as if dragging this out any longer will just put the Marine Corps in a bad light, and we’d like to prevent that.”
The resolution for Richards leaves just Clement’s case pending. He is charged with dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer for allegedly failing to stop the misconduct of junior Marines. He was initially recommended for nonjudicial punishment in April, but refused it, asserting he was not present when the video was recorded and knew nothing about it until after his deployment.
Clement’s defense team filed a motion late last month to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the referral to special court-martial was tainted by the commandant’s inappropriate involvement. He could face trial next month.