Fox Company MARSOC Seven

MARSOC 001On 4thMarch 2007, a platoon of thirty Marines were being transported in a six-vehicle convoy when it was ambushed in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.  The area was notorious as a terrorist route into Afghanistan from Pakistan.  The smoke hadn’t cleared over the point of contact when the news media began reporting that these Marines had gone on a wild rampage, killing massive numbers of innocent civilians in the process.  The unit was called Task Force Violent.  In reality, it was the direct-action platoon of Fox Company, Marine Special Operations Command.  In the press, they were undisciplined cowboys who brought shame upon the United States Marine Corps.  The characterization was both unfair, and untrue.

The facts are these: Fox Company was sent into a war zone under-manned, with muddled orders, confusing rules of engagement, and un-prepared for the political environment within which they were destined to serve; they were sent to war with equipment that was inadequate to their mission.  By under-manned, there was but one mechanic to maintain 45 company vehicles.  The Marines did not even know where they were going until after they boarded the ships that would carry them into harm’s way. Their specific mission wasn’t finally communicated to Major Galvin until his company was at sea for two weeks, which was to train the Afghani security forces.

When Fox Company arrived in Afghanistan, they were assigned to a facility at the Jalalabad airfield that had been allocated to French troops.  The facility was in a state of disrepair.  Fecal matter had tainted their well-water.  The Marines were not within the logistics system, so obtaining food was a problem.  They were borrowing food from adjacent units.  The Marine Corps’ first deployment of a special operations capable infantry company was an orphaned unit.  Worse, the Army hierarchy didn’t want these Marines in-country and found themselves at odds with the command structure.

NangarharThe ambush took place on 4thMarch.  The Marines departed their base of operations at 0600 for a pre-approved three-phase mission. The patrol took them toward the Bora Bora mountains, which were snow covered.  The roads were muck.  The Marines proceeded through Bati Kot to a key border crossing.  There, they met with an army military police unit.  The patrol continued on to search for suspected insertion points along the base of the mountains.  Having discovered no clear evidence of insertion points, the Marine turned back toward Bati Kot, where they intended to meet with village elders to learn more about enemy activities in the area.

The attack, when it came, was alarming.  Entering Bati Kot, the Marines noticed several military-aged men lining the street.  A bomber driving a van packed with fuel, raced toward the convoy and attempted to wedge himself between the first two vehicles before detonating the bomb.  When the explosion came, there was a massive ball of fire that rose into the air and briefly engulfed the second vehicle.  Small arms immediately erupted from both sides of the roadway.  The Marines immediately responded in the manner in which they were trained: they fired disabling shots to get the convoy free of danger … moving meant avoiding being pinned down by enemy fire. Warning shots were fired to disperse a forming crowd.  It was, in fact, a textbook response.

Afghan witnesses, however, had a different story to tell.  They said that the Marines panicked and started killing everyone in sight. Some of these witnesses claimed that the Marines exited their vehicles and threatened local journalists who were snapping pictures of the attack.  Other Afghans said that the Marines appeared drunk.  None of these claims were true, but this was the story that appeared in the international press.

Upon return to base, one injured Marine was taken in for medical treatment.  The experience was scary, but the Marines weathered it and took it in stride.  They’d survived the mission.  They saved the convoy.  But later, in the mess hall, a television new report was reporting about the incident … claiming that the Marines had killed noncombatant civilians.

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Believed to be Pihana, Photo from Public doman

The Special Operations Command convened an investigation almost immediately.  Upon order of Major General Frank Kearney, US Army, commanding the Special Operations Command, Colonel Patrick Pihana, U. S. Air Force, was appointed to conduct a fact-finding investigation.  At the time, Pihana was serving as Kearny’s Chief of Staff —and, as such, was not a disinterested party to the investigation.

Nevertheless, during this investigation, Pihana attempted to convince an Army EOD expert to recant his conclusion that in-coming small arms fire damaged one of the Marine vehicles. When the expert refused to abandon his evaluation, Colonel Pihana excluded his statement.  Ultimately, Colonel Pihana recommended charges against four Marines for negligent homicide.  In order for Pihana to reach this conclusion, it was necessary that he disregard the statements of every Marine in the convoy.

In time, Kearny, who retired from active duty in 2012 as a three-star general, would himself be implicated; not only for his repeated misconduct the handling of the investigation against Fox Company, but also in another matter involving an Army Special Forces detachment (Green Berets).  Under scrutiny, Kearny later claimed that he only convened his investigation at the request of the Marine Corps.  Pihana maintained that his investigation was properly conducted.

Within one week of this incident, the Marines were ordered out of the war zone.  Fox Company’s commanding officer, Major Fred Galvin, was relieved of his command.  A board of inquiry was subsequently convened at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to evaluate the facts … but only after Galvin suffered the shame of his relief for cause and his Marines unceremoniously dispersed.

Meanwhile, in May 2007, Colonel John Nicholson [1], U. S. Army, addressed the Pentagon Press Corps via satellite hookup from Afghanistan.  As the commander of Task Force Spartan, Nicholson had oversight of the region within which Fox Company was operating, including Bati Kot. Nicholson reported that the Army had paid claims to Afghan citizens in Bati Kot.  Nicholson opined that what happened that day was a “stain on our honor,” and a “terrible, terrible mistake.”  This is the narrative placed against the Marines of Fox Company; this is the narrative that stuck.

The inquiry convened ten months later.  The question was whether sufficient credible evidence existed to warrant criminal charges: negligent homicide being the recommendation of the initial investigating officer.  The inquiry lasted three weeks.  During this time, the press was excluded for attendance due to the presence of classified information.  Not being present to hear first-hand testimony, certain members of the media invented their own narrative.  It was a rush to judgment by senior army officers and the press.

After the board of inquiry, a Marine Corps 3-star general determined that Major Fred Galvin and his Marines had acted appropriately in combat and pursuant to the rules governing the use of lethal force … but the damage to these Marines had already been done. Galvin was not offered a subsequent command and was forced into retirement in 2014.  Fox Company Marines were cleared of any wrong-doing, but the judicial incompetence of senior officers left the Marines, including Galvin, with a stigma that has dogged them ever since 2007.  In Major Galvin’s case, his superiors constructed fitness reports that were designed for no other reason than to prevent him from advancing in rank … all of this in spite of the fact that a Navy Department conclusion rebuked those who condemned these men even before the facts were clear.

What actually happened here was an episode that unleased international outrage against good Marines, based on proven fabrications, engineered by the enemy to fuel distrust of the American military.  Their dupes were the three senior officers who “rushed to judgment.”  In other words, American warriors were betrayed by senior officers who have been “trained” to remain objective in matters relating to the administration of justice.

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Rep. John Murtha, D-PA Photo taken from public domain

This wasn’t the first assault upon military justice arising from a combat zone.  There was the matter of Haditha, where judgment was rendered far in advance of known facts.  In this case, Congressman John Murtha [2] (D-PA), joined by then Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, condemned the Marines in the press and claimed that there never was an IED attack, that the Marines killed innocent civilians in cold blood.  Only one Marine was ever convicted from this event, one count of dereliction of duty. That one Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich (reduced to private) sued Murtha for defamation, but his lawsuit was later dismissed because Murtha, in his congressional capacity, was above the law.

In another case, arising in 2011, Marines were accused of urinating on the dead corpses of Taliban fighters [3].  Then Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos attempted to interfere in the legal proceedings —applying unlawful command influence over a pending judicial matter— by firing the Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser (the lawful convening authority in the case).  Waldhauser refused Amos’ order to “crush and discharge” the accused Marines.  To make matters worse, Amos attempted to hide the fact that he’d crossed the line of proper judicial supervision and provided photographs to the press that showed Marines urinating on the corpses, which accompanied the words, “What Does America Think of Her Marines Today.”

It would thus appear that there is a serious problem within that small circle of flag rank officers within the Department of Defense.  What kind of leader conspires against his own combat troops?  In the case of Kearney and Nicholson, it may have been a byproduct of an age-old rivalry between the Army and Marines; rather that than simply a matter of inexcusable incompetence.  It may have also been a case of simple vindictiveness.  See also: MarineistanColonel Pihana’s inexcusable behavior was a matter of a senior officer exhibiting his flawed character by giving his boss what he wanted —rather than doing what was right and honorable.  And, of course, Pihana wanted to be a general too, someday.

Major Fred Galvin offered a correct analysis: Fox Company suffered the consequences of political pressure in an unpopular war.  The US military in 2007 was committed to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized protecting Afghan civilians.  A situation in which building trust and confidence with local Afghans took precedence over killing insurgents.  In actuality, Fox Company Marines did nothing beyond defending themselves against a sudden ambush.

Nevertheless, the stress attached to being investigated as war criminals, and the shame of being accused of something they never did, has been a heavy burden to bear among the Fox Company Marines. They have suffered as much as any combat veteran from substance abuse, divorce, and having thoughts of suicide. For what?  They did nothing wrong.

There was a substantial failure within the small enclave of Marine Corps leadership as well.  What kind of leader constructs fitness reports that were only written with one purpose: to force a fellow officer out of the Corps?  Major Galvin, however, never gave up his efforts to urge the Marine Corps to do more for his Marines, to set the record straight. Major Galvin kept faith with his men —the sign of a true leader.

Beginning in 2015, members of Congress petitioned then Commandant of the Marine Corps Joseph F. Dunford and later, Commandant of the Marine Corps Robert B. Neller to do the right thing.  Both of these officers “declined” to revisit the plight of Fox Company Marines.  In his letter to members of Congress, Dunford simply restated the court’s findings from years prior; he merely emphasized that neither Galvin nor his men faced any punitive measures. “Nor is there any adverse information in their military records associated with this incident,” Dunford wrote.  But Dunford was either wrong, or he was lying.  Galvin was systematically damned to failure through faint praise.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) would not back off, however and as a result, Major General Frederick M. Padilla, then serving as Neller’s chief of staff, pledged that the Corps would provide counseling and such other assistance to Galvin and his men as necessary to help them recover from this trauma.  Of course, Major Galvin never heard about this until several weeks later when he read it in The Washington Post.  So much for “following up,” eh General Padilla?

Dunford, now serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon has acknowledged the Navy Review Board’s directive.  Dunford’s spokesman said, “General Dunford was pleased to learn about Maj. Galvin’s exoneration and also appreciates his efforts to take care of the Marines from Fox Company.”  Commandant Neller added, “We have a system through which Marines can try to remediate actions believed to have been unfair or incorrect.  In this case, it seems the system worked as designed, and Maj. Galvin had his record cleared. We all wish him well.”

If these were in fact Dunford’s words, they were only this: underwhelming.

I can’t speak for the Army leadership, but I can say something about the Marines.  From Amos on, the Marine Corps’ senior leadership has established a new low record of performance.  They’d better get this fixed because if we allow this squalid condition to fester, no one with a strong warrior ethos will ever want to serve as Marine, or in any outfit that won’t back up their combat leaders.  Mere platitudes twelve years after the fact doesn’t cut it.

Sources:

  1. Military Times, Task Force Violent: The unforgiven (and five-part series), Andrew deGrandpre, 4 March 2015
  2. LA Times: For a Marine Unit, the battle to restore reputation goes on, David Zucchino, 14 June 2015
  3. NewsRep:The Untold Story of the Leadership that Failed MARSOC Fox Company: Ambushed (and five-part series), Nick Coffman, 29 March 2016
  4. The Washington Post, The Marines were falsely accused of war crimes. Twelve years later, they have vindication, Andrew deGrandpre. 31 January 2019

Acknowledgment: My sincere thanks to former Marine Corps staff sergeant Carol Martin, who now serves Marines in her capacity as a Defense Investigator, who edited and offered advice concerning this article.  Additionally, my deep appreciation to Major Paul Webb Chapman USMC (Retired) for taking the time to read this post and offer suggestions, which I have incorporated.

Endnotes:

[1] Eventually achieved 3-star rank

[2] Member of the USMC Reserve (1952-1990), one of the “congressional colonels.”

[3] There is little doubt that these Marines behaved in a despicable way, and yet, few others have walked a mile in their shoes.  Combat does things to people.  We ought to worry about the effects of sending our young men into a war zone, particularly when there has never been a credible effort to win that war.  In any case, the behavior of these Marines was regrettable, and they ought to have been punished at nonjudicial proceedings, not “crushed” as their commandant suggested.