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Always faithful?

With alleged massacres of civilians as the backdrop, the Marine Corps tries to expand the reach of programs that deal with combat stress

Always faithful?

Nine-year-old Eman Waleed was in her pajamas when her family gathered in the living room of their small home in Haditha, Iraq, for the last time. The 11 members of her family had awakened to the thunderous blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) in the post-dawn hours of Nov. 19, 2005. Less than 150 yards away, U.S. Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, 20, lay dead near his shredded humvee, fallen to an insurgent attack that wounded two more Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment.

What happened next is hazy, but horrifying: In the blurry aftermath of the explosion and Marine response, as many as 24 Iraqi men, women, and children died, including nine members of Eman's family. Nearly seven months later, the U.S. military is investigating chilling reports that Marines killed Haditha civilians in cold blood, not in crossfire with enemy combatants.

Two separate U.S. military probes are under way to answer two related questions: Did a handful of Marines from Kilo Company gun down unarmed Haditha civilians without provocation? Did the company's chain of command try to cover up what happened in Haditha on that bloody November morning?

In a separate case, the military is investigating allegations that Marines pulled an unarmed Iraqi man from his home in Hamdaniya on April 26 and shot him to death without provocation. In May officials removed seven Marines and one Navy corpsman in the unit from Iraq and placed them in the brig at Camp Pendleton, Calif., pending any charges that may be filed against them.

Earlier this month a third investigation cleared U.S. troops of intentionally killing Iraqi civilians in Ishaqi during a counterattack in March.

For the 130,000 U.S. troops currently serving in Iraq, accusations of war crimes are the exception, not the rule. But as the military examines questions about troop conduct in Haditha and Hamdaniya, broader questions arise about the mental toll of a brutal insurgent war and how the U.S. military works to manage the psychological pressure-cooker of battle.

The U.S. military has released few details about its investigation into the deaths at Haditha, an insurgent stronghold nearly 150 miles north of Baghdad, where Marines regularly patrol. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was conducting a thorough probe without rushing to judgment, and emphasized that any war crimes that might be discovered are an aberration.

But after Marine Corps officials privately briefed a handful of congressmen on the probe's findings so far, lawmakers prepared the public for the worst: "This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them," U.S. Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a former Marine, told Time magazine. "This is going to be an ugly story."

Residents of Haditha have given reporters grisly eyewitness accounts of the ugly story they say unfolded after an insurgent-planted IED exploded near the rear of Kilo Company's four-vehicle convoy late last year: They claim a handful of Marines entered four homes after the explosion, killing more than a dozen civilians who were neither armed nor hostile.

Eman Waleed told Time that her family huddled in their living room after hearing the explosion, while her father went to a bedroom to read the Quran and pray the family would be spared. She says Marines entered the house, shot her father, and then entered the living room: "I watched them shoot my grandfather first in the chest and then in the head." Then they killed her grandmother, she said. The troops fired shots toward the corner of the room, according to Eman, and the other adults in the home died trying to shield the children.

Witnesses told The Washington Post that Marines also entered the home of Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, 76, an amputee dependent on a wheelchair. His death certificate indicated that Mr. Ali suffered nine rounds in the chest and abdomen, leaving his intestines spilling out exit wounds in his back, according to the Post. The report also included a review of death certificates for five more members of Mr. Ali's family, including one child.

One day after the raid, a Haditha journalism student videotaped images at the local morgue and the homes where residents died, and Time later published the contents: Many of the dead, including women and children, zipped up in U.S.-issued body bags at the morgue; and shrapnel and bullet holes on walls and ceilings in homes, along with smears of blood.

Marines filed a report the day after the incident, saying 15 Iraqi civilians and one Marine had been killed by an IED explosion, and that eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing gun battle. The Marines later acknowledged that the civilian deaths were also caused by gunfire, but haven't publicly provided an explanation for the initial report.

Marine Corps Major Dana Hyatt confirmed that the military paid $2,500 in compensation per victim to the families of 15 dead Iraqis. Military officials say such compensation is a common practice in Iraq, and not necessarily an admission of wrongdoing by the military.

After residents of Haditha refuted the Marines' account of the killings, Pentagon officers reviewed their complaints and video evidence, and the U.S. military launched an investigation into the Haditha deaths in February. Late last month, officials briefed some members of Congress on the probe's progress. The congressmen reported that the initial findings suggested unprovoked killings by a few Marines.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed that the United States would "get to the bottom of this," but insisted, "American forces are the solution here, not the problem." Gen. Pace agreed, saying: "Regardless of the outcome of these investigations, 99.9 percent of the service men and service women are doing what we expect them to do."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the reports of U.S. misconduct with initial anger, saying coalition forces have shown "no respect for citizens . . . killing on a suspicion or a hunch." The next day Mr. Maliki vowed to clamp down on rising violence in Baghdad perpetrated by insurgent Iraqis. During the first week of June, Iraqi insurgents killed 22 civilians in the capital with bombs, mortars, and shootings. Iraqi police also found eight human heads stuffed in fruit boxes outside Baghdad. Four days later, they found nine more heads wrapped in plastic bags and stuffed in fruit boxes. The same week, kidnappers wearing uniforms of Iraqi police commandos staged a mass daytime kidnapping of 50 people in Baghdad.

The Dossier on Civilian Casualties in Iraq reports that the majority of civilians killed in Iraq die by the hands of Iraqis. The Iraqi government issued a statement responding to the report: "The international forces try to avoid civilian casualties, whereas the terrorists target civilians and try to kill as many of them as they can."

Still, U.S. officials aren't justifying reports of U.S. military misconduct by pointing to pervasive Iraqi violence. Gen. Michael Hagee, the top Marine Corps officer, said he is "gravely concerned" about the recent allegations of gross misconduct by Marines, and that anyone found guilty will be held accountable. Gen. Hagee plans to travel to Marine bases in California, Hawaii, and Japan to talk with Marines about proper conduct on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, Gen. Pace said the U.S. military would require all coalition troops in Iraq to complete a special ethics course, a refresher of ethics training that all military personnel receive when joining the armed forces. "Emotions on the battlefield are intense," he said. "It's good to stop and check your moral compass."

Intense emotions on the battlefield can sometimes overwhelm a soldier's moral compass, according to Brig. General Donald Campbell, chief of staff at the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq. "It doesn't excuse the acts that have occurred . . . but I would say it's stress, fear, isolation," the general said. "They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion, and they could snap."

The majority of U.S. troops serving in Iraq don't "snap," but all troops endure stress during war, according to Marine Corps spokesman Bryan Driver. Mr. Driver works in the Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS) division, which oversees issues related to health, wellness, and reintegration for Marines.

Mr. Driver told WORLD that the Marine Corps has extensive programs for helping Marines deal with stress and trauma before they deploy, while they are deployed, and when they return home.

While Marines are in the field, they're encouraged to seek help from chaplains or counselors when needed. In 2004, the Corps launched a program to embed a team of psychologists and physicians with units on a rotating basis. The team assesses physical and mental health problems and can provide counseling, prescribe medication, or even order evacuation if necessary.

The MCCS website offers an extensive guide for unit leaders to use in handling troops in distress. The guide covers everything from helping a Marine deal with the death of a unit member to helping him deal with marital difficulties back home. The guide represents the most visited section of the MCCS site, according to Mr. Driver.

Not all Marines who need help seek it, and there are still stigmas attached to reaching out for aid, said Mr. Driver. Some Marines think they're not living up to the ideal of Marine honor if they're struggling with stress symptoms. "That's the biggest challenge," Mr. Driver said. "To get people to seek help . . . to get them to see that it's not a sign of weakness."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.