Published Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | 4:28 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | 5:25 p.m.
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A Marine Corps sniper and others in his unit captured on a YouTube video urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan also were recorded shooting and tossing grenades in a rural hamlet without taking any return fire, according to testimony during a military criminal hearing Tuesday.
Sgt. Robert W. Richards, 27, of Seminole, Fla., is charged with multiple counts of dereliction of duty, violating orders and conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The charges outlined at Tuesday's Article 32 hearing will determine if there's evidence to proceed to a court-martial. Prosecutors allege that besides taking improper photos and video images, Richards failed to properly supervise fellow Marines who indiscriminately fired their weapons.
Richards and three other Marines were videotaped relieving themselves on the corpses during a July 2011 mission in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, located in the south of the country. The operation five kilometers into a Taliban safe haven was designed to pursue bomb-making experts believed responsible for killing a corporal whose leg was later found hanging from a tree, said Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin, one of the other Marines caught urinating on camera and one of the mission's planners.
Another Marine in the video who already pleaded guilty, Sgt. Edward W. Deptola, testified they surprised and killed the insurgent fighters after marching for miles through the night to take sniper positions on rooftops of a rural cluster of family compounds. Deptola said he, Richards and others urinated on the enemy fighters out of anger.
"Killing them wasn't enough," Deptola said, "because of what they had done to us, done to us in the past 10 years and what all terrorists have done to us in the past 30 years."
Military prosecutors said urinating on the corpses and videotaping it amounted to desecrating their bodies, a claim Richard's civilian lawyer denied. Richards and the other Marines did nothing to mutilate the bodies and were merely relieving the tension of their dangerous mission, said civilian defense lawyer Guy Womack, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
"It was black humor," Womack said. "It was in poor taste. We're not saying it was OK, but it was not desecration."
The video surfaced on YouTube in January 2012, around the same time as other incidents that infuriated many Afghans. American troops were caught up in controversies over burning Muslim holy books, posing for photos with insurgents' bloodied remains and an alleged massacre of 16 Afghan villagers by a soldier.
The video, which received international condemnation, shows four Marines in full combat gear urinating on the bodies of three Afghans. One of the Marines in the video looked down at the bodies and quipped, "Have a good day, buddy."
The videos captured by hand-held and helmet-mounted cameras were intended to be used by military intelligence to find clues about local conditions, said Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, Richards' battalion commander.
But what the videos showed surprised Dixon. He testified that he had expected to see a full-blown firefight between Taliban fighters and the unit of nearly 20 Marine snipers, engineers, intelligence specialists and an interpreter. Instead, Dixon said the images capture Marines shooting with rifles, machine guns and even a rocket launcher, but there was no returning enemy fire.
The shooting seemed excessive under rules of engagement that required Marines to kill only those Afghans who showed hostile intentions, Dixon said.
"You can't shoot your way out of an insurgency," Dixon testified. "The prize is the people in that you must win them over to your side. Otherwise you drive them into the arms of the insurgents."
Chamblin said he was never shot at during the six-hour engagement. He said that wasn't surprising because insurgents conserved their ammunition and only carried what they could conceal under their baggy clothing.
Dixon testified Richards was an aggressive and innovative Marine. Womack described the six-year veteran with a weightlifter's V-shaped torso as being driven by his military career and suffering for his service. Richards was nearly killed in March 2010 by an IED in Afghanistan that nearly blew off his foot and sent shrapnel into his throat, Womack said.
While recovering in Florida with his wife, Richards shot up a hotel room after imagining Taliban were approaching. Between recovering from his IED wounds and the month-long psychiatric hospital stay that followed the hotel episode, Richards spent most of his stateside time between deployments in hospitals. Then Richards transferred to Dixon's command because a fellow sniper persuaded him he was badly needed, Womack said.
"Sgt. Richards is the kind of Marine we all wish we could be, but secretly doubt we could be," Womack said.
Deptola and Chamblin have pleaded guilty at court martials and had their rank reduced to sergeant. The fourth Marine in the case, Capt. James V. Clement, faces charges that include conduct unbecoming an officer for failing to properly supervise junior Marines and making false statements to investigators. Three other Marines pleaded guilty without trials and were punished by reduced rank, lost pay and reprimand letters.
The investigating officer presiding at Tuesday's hearing, Lt. Col. Christopher Greer, was not expected to deliver a report on how to proceed before next week. His report to a superior officer could be accepted or ignored.