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Marine 4-star general offers powerful testimony in defense of accused officer

Oct. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Gen. John F. Kelly
Gen. John F. Kelly (MC1 Chad J. McNeeley/Marine Corps)
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Marine Capt. James Clement outside of Lejeune Hall during a lunch break from his Board of Inquiry aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico on Oct. 15. (Alan Lessig/Staff)

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Marine Gen. John Kelly, the four-star head of U.S. Southern Command, testified during an administrative hearing here Wednesday that it is the battalion and unit leadership — not Capt. James Clement — who should answer for failing to properly supervise the scout snipers who made a video of themselves urinating on dead insurgents in Afghanistan.

Kelly testified for the defense before a board of three senior officers overseeing the hearing. They will determine whether Clement, who is accused of substandard performance and misconduct, keeps his military career or is thrown out of the Marine Corps.

As the executive officer of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, Clement was the senior officer on that July 2011 patrol and serving as a radio operator. He has maintained that he was neither aware of the urination video nor present when it was made. It was uploaded to YouTube several months later, creating tremendous backlash in the U.S. and Afghanistan, and prompting Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos to tour the force imploring Marines to correct what he saw as a breakdown in discipline.

When the hearing began Tuesday, prosecutors argued it was Clement’s duty to correct what they suggest was a rash of poor behavior by the sniper team. They pointed to other video clips shot during the patrol showing the snipers without all of their protective gear, the alleged negligent discharge of a grenade launcher, and what they say was indiscriminate fire on an unclear target.

Kelly, who commanded combat forces as a two-star general in Iraq, said he was aware of the battalion’s reputation on that 2011 deployment. At that time, he was serving as the senior military adviser to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. While the scout sniper platoon demonstrated tremendous success, the unit overall was perhaps not the most squared away, he suggested.

“I would say that it was a battalion that was, in my estimation, loose in the way it did business,” Kelly said. “A lot of people doing great things but general confusion in how people were organized for combat.”

Earlier Wednesday, attorneys for the government interviewed Capt. Rudyard Olmstead, who served as Kilo Company’s commander during the battalion’s deployment. Olmstead said he had observed one disciplinary concern with the scout sniper platoon: repeated uniform violations. While on their forward operating base, the men were known to walk around without shirts and without blousing their pants properly, he said, adding that the matter was addressed by their superiors but continued nonetheless.

“I think we ultimately kind of gave up and said, ‘Well, they’re doing great stuff outside the wire,’ ” Olmstead said.

Kelly said these kinds of issues, particularly in a sniper unit that viewed itself as elite and special, spoke to the need for direct supervision by an officer. But in a legal brief submitted ahead of the hearing, Clement’s attorneys indicated that no officers were assigned to lead them. Instead they were commanded by a staff sergeant who reported directly to battalion leadership.

“No doubt about it, Marines will do anything we’ll tell them to do. They’ll take Iwo Jima, they’ll blouse their trousers,” Kelly said. But, “they have to be supervised.”

Insignificant as it might seem, Kelly said a breakdown in discipline regarding something as basic as uniform standards could rapidly lead to significant problems. If those issues were not corrected, Kelly said, “it’s a slippery slope to urinating on corpses, to raping women, to murdering kids.”

“You have to maintain that discipline,” he said.

While testifying Tuesday, the battalion’s commander during that deployment, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, said he repeatedly emphasized throughout the ranks the importance of taking a moral high road in combat. To that end, Dixon spearheaded what he called the “ethical warrior” program to encourage Marines to uphold their standards and professionalism within the fog of war and combat.

Though Clement was on the 20-man patrol to man radio communications, multiple witnesses during the hearing confirmed that a noncommissioned officer, Sgt. Robert Richards, was the patrol’s designated commander. Kelly said that he saw no reason, from extensive battlefield footage taken from a helmet camera over five hours during the patrol, that Clement should have stepped in to take it over.

Clement “effectively communicated,” the general said. “That’s what his role was out there.”

Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commanding officer of The Basic School, where Clement currently serves as a warfighting instructor, also spoke Wednesday in defense of the accused captain. Desgrosseilliers said Clement had distinguished himself at TBS, the Marine Corps’ schoolhouse in Quantico for all new Marine officers, and was selected as one of the school’s staff platoon commanders.

A former commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, Desgrosseilliers said he had also encountered disciplinary issues with scout snipers attached to the unit during a 2006 deployment to Iraq. They disobeyed orders and entered a local village to set up a hide site, causing a disturbance that led to a crowd of 300 Iraqis around the compound, he said. After that, Desgrosseilliers disbanded the platoon, he said.

Testifying in his own defense Wednesday, Clement said he had been absorbed in his duties as radio operator. As such, he said, he was not present for nor did he witness many of the incidents caught on video.

Clement’s civilian attorney, John Dowd, also argued that the videos show an incomplete picture of what took place that day. He presented evidence to suggest the alleged negligent discharge could have been a misfire, and that snipers were authorized to remove their Kevlar helmets on specific occasions to help them shoot more accurately.

The patrol was viewed largely as a success: three insurgents were killed in an ambush early on, and intelligence obtained during the mission led to more enemy casualties. When Clement later viewed the footage, he said he was surprised by what he saw, including Richards’ declaration, as the Marines fired from within an austere compound, that “for the next five minutes, every military-age male south is hostile.”

“I felt that what I had seen in the videos was not what I remembered from the day,” Clement said. “It was not in my memory at all.”

As proceedings neared an end Wednesday, prosecutors unsuccessfully sought to call an unannounced witness to rebut testimony heard earlier: Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, who carried out the Marine Corps’ internal investigation after the urination video surfaced. The board members denied the request after Dowd objected.

In all, eight Marines faced disciplinary action in connection with the urination video. Richards, along with two staff sergeants, were taken to court-martial and demoted in rank.

Clement was the only officer to face criminal charges. But those charges were dropped suddenly in September, amid allegations that Amos and others close to him had attempted to manipulate the military justice system and ensure Marines would be punished for the video. Clement was ordered instead to appear before this administrative board.

Absent from Wednesday’s testimony was any reference to the allegations of unlawful command influence that emerged earlier this year as Clement’s case headed toward court-martial. His lawyers had suggested the Marine Corps attempted to block them from accessing key evidence, including witness statements from prior investigations into the events depicted in the YouTube video.

Clement’s legal team later exposed evidence that Amos had stripped a three-star general of his authority to prosecute the accused Marines after the general refused to throw them out of the service as Amos desired.

The hearing continues Thursday with closing arguments. Following deliberation, the officers comprising the board will recommend whether Clement can stay in the Marine Corps.

The board members are: Col. Francis Donovan, director of the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico; Col. Harold Van Opdorp Jr., commanding officer of Quantico’s Officer Candidate School; and Col. Calvert Worth Jr., director of Enlisted Professional Military Education for the Marine Corps.

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