HANFORD, Calif. (AP) – Two Marines were severely traumatized when told to photograph the corpses of men, women and children after members of their unit allegedly killed as many as two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians, their families said Monday.
Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, 20, and Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, 21, both members of the Marine unit based at Camp Pendleton, photographed the scene in the western Iraqi city of Haditha with personal cameras they happened to be carrying the day of the attack.
Briones later had his camera confiscated by Navy investigators, his mother said, while Wright’s parents said their son was cooperating with the Navy investigation, but declined to comment further.
“It was horrific. It was a terrible scene,” Briones’ mother, Susie, said in a tearful interview Monday with The Associated Press at her home in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
She called the incident a “massacre” and said the military had done little to help her son, who goes by his middle name, deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I know Ryan is going through some major trauma right now,” said Susie Briones, 40, an academic adviser at a community college. “It was very traumatic for all of the soldiers involved with this thing.”
The details of what happened Nov. 19 are still murky. What is known is that a bomb rocked a military convoy and left one Marine dead. Marines then shot and killed unarmed civilians in a taxi at the scene and went into two homes and shot other people, according to Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and decorated war veteran who has been briefed by military officials.
The incident at Haditha has sparked two investigations – one into the deadly encounter itself and another into whether it was the subject of a cover-up. The Marine Corps had initially attributed 15 civilian deaths to the car bombing and a firefight with insurgents, eight of whom the Marines reported had been killed.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday on CBS’s “The Early Show” that “it would be premature for me to judge” the situation.
But he added that it is critically important to make the point that if certain service members are responsible for an atrocity, they “have not performed their duty the way that 99.9 percent of their fellow Marines have.”
Asked how such a thing could have happened, Pace replied, “Fortunately, it does not happen very frequently, so there’s no way to say historically why something like this might have happened. We’ll find out.”
Lance Cpl. Briones told his mother he saw the bodies of 23 dead Iraqis.
Susie Briones got a panicked call that day from her son, who said he did not see the shootings but was told by his supervisors to go into the houses and remove the bodies. He brought along a digital camera that his mother had given him before he left for Iraq.
One of the bodies was a little girl who had been shot in the head, Susie Briones said.
“He had to carry that little girl’s body,” she said, “and her head was blown off and her brain splattered on his boots.”
Briones’ best friend, Lance Cpl. Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, had been killed earlier that day by the roadside bomb. He was still grieving when he was sent in to clean up the bodies of the Iraqi civilians, his mother said.
Ryan Briones told the Los Angeles Times that he’d been interrogated twice by Navy investigators while in Iraq. He turned over his digital camera but did not know what happened to it after that.
“They wanted to know if the bodies had been moved or tampered with,” said Briones, who has not been interviewed by Navy investigators since he returned from Iraq in April.
Susie Briones said her son has been seeing a private psychiatrist and been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder since his return. She criticized his military care, saying all his military doctors did was give him sleeping pills and antidepressants.
Wright also photographed the scene, according to his parents, Frederick and Patty Wright. They said their son was an innocent victim who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He is the Forrest Gump of the military. He ended up in the spotlight through no fault of his own,” Frederick Wright told the AP in an interview at his home in Novato, about 20 miles north of San Francisco.
Wright told his parents about the incident soon after it happened. He was distressed, and they reassured him the incident would be investigated and that it wasn’t his fault.
The Wrights said Naval Criminal Investigative Service had “all his information,” but did not give further details. They declined to say whether he witnessed the killings or what he thought of the allegations against other members of his unit.
He was under so much pressure because of the investigation that he had consulted with an attorney, they said.
Wright and Briones are both recipients of the Purple Heart, given to soldiers wounded in battle.
Wright was injured during an assault on Fallujah in January 2005. He voluntarily rejoined his unit at Camp Pendleton the next month.
Briones was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He received a Purple Heart during his first tour.
On Monday, both Marines were back at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside, where base officials said several members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division were being confined during the investigations.
Lt. Lawton King, a Camp Pendleton spokesman, declined to comment Monday, but another Marine there reflected on the damage the reports have done.
Nicholas Grey, a second lieutenant in the Marine Reserves based at Camp Pendleton, said the case will result in a loss of credibility for the Marines and increase Iraqi anger.
“It will make it a lot harder for the Marines who want to go through the streets,” he said.
Associated Press writers Thomas Watkins in Oceanside and Juliana Barbassa in Novato contributed to this report.