The United States Marine Corps has finally exonerated a group of special operations Marines accused of war crimes in connection to a 2007 ambush in Afghanistan.
Major General Frederick M. Padilla, speaking on behalf of Commandant General Robert B. Neller, sent a letter to Rep. Walter Jones (R., N.C.) acknowledging that seven members of the Marine Corps' first special operations unit acted appropriately when they returned fire following a suicide bombing and ambush from enemy forces. Padilla quoted from a 2008 Marine Corps Court of Inquiry, saying the Marines "acted appropriately" and "reflected sound military judgment" in responding to the attack.
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"The Marines acted in accordance with the applicable operations order, the rules of engagement, and the law of armed conflict," Padilla said in the January letter.
Rep. Jones hailed the letter as a victory for the seven Marines who stood before the Court of Inquiry, the Corps' highest administrative investigative body.
"These men have been to hell and back," he said in a statement. "They were bravely serving their country, only to have their personal and professional lives ruined by misinformation and poor timing. I very much appreciate General Neller and his staff for taking a look at this case and reiterating that these men did nothing wrong on March 4, 2007."
The military sent out a press release announcing the Marines' acquittal on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2008. Padilla's letter, according to Jones, affirmed the exoneration in a more public manner. The muted response stood in contrast to major public condemnations from top military leaders in the aftermath of the March 2007 attack. General John Nicholson, who now commands all American troops in Afghanistan, called the Marines "a stain on our honor" (he was a colonel at the time) and apologized to Afghan villagers killed in the attacks in a May 2007 press conference with reporters.
Nicholson did not respond to a request for comment about the exoneration or his past comments about the Marines.
Retired Major Fred Galvin, who led Fox Company and helped develop the training regimen for the Marines' first special operations force, wants further action taken. He said the public statements from commanders irrevocably damaged the reputations of his men. He objected to Padilla's assertion that "there is nothing to be gained by revisiting the events of March 4, 2007." Three of his Marines have suffered from PTSD and only one of the original seven remains on active duty. The high profile nature of Nicholson's comments has damaged their ability to find work despite the Court of Inquiry findings, their honorable discharges, and other commendations, including multiple Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.
"It was very favorable for the careers for everyone who condemned us, but all of us involved in the ambush when you look at the finance and families—I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemies," Galvin said. "From an institutional perspective it may not be worth revisiting, but if you look at the men who had their lives shattered, their wives and kids gone, their profession destroyed."
Retired colonel Steve Morgan served on the Court of Inquiry that initially cleared the men of charges. He welcomed the letter from Padilla and praised Rep. Jones for his advocacy on behalf of Galvin and his men. He called the commandant's acknowledgment of their innocence "long overdue."
"I think the letter is very important, and it gets right for the Corps what the Marine Corps got wrong," Morgan told the Washington Free Beacon. " These Marines suffered a moral injury at the hands of their leaders. That needs to be addressed by the Marine Corps."
Galvin said the Marine Corps could complete the reconciliation by awarding Fox Company members the Marine Corps Raider badge in a public ceremony. Marines who join the elite unit now receive the badge after completing the training requirements that Galvin helped develop. He and his men have never received that recognition.
"If they would award that Raider insignia, that would be a sign from our service chief that these Marines have been brought back into the fold and set the record straight," Galvin said.
Jones has sponsored a resolution that would establish the Marines’ exoneration as a matter of congressional record. More than 6,700 people have signed a petition to help lobby Congress on its behalf.