CAMP PENDLETON — In high school in nearby Encinitas, John J. Jodka III and his 11th-grade classmates dramatized the court-martial of Army Lt. William Calley for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
His teacher says Jodka offered thoughtful, incisive comments about the need for soldiers to balance their duty to follow orders with their personal sense of morality.
On Wednesday, Jodka, now 20 and a private first class in the Marines, was sentenced to 18 months in the brig for his role in the April kidnapping and slaying of an unarmed Iraqi, Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, in Hamandiya, west of Baghdad.
In a strong, unwavering voice, Jodka told the judge, Lt. Col. David Jones, that his loyalty to the Marines in his squad, and his respect for his sergeant and corporals, overwhelmed his belief that the plan to kidnap and execute a suspected insurgent was illegal and immoral.
That same loyalty, he said, led him to be part of a conspiracy to lie to superiors about the killing and to insist for months that he was innocent.
"In combat," Jodka said, "there is nothing but your squad.... If you can't depend on those men, you'll never survive combat." A Marine sergeant called as a character witness before the sentencing said the motto of infantry squads is "If we die, we're going to die together."
"When [it] hits the fan, I know that Marine on my left and on my right has my back," said Sgt. Jacob Anthony Fernandez. "If he dies, I die."
Jodka said that he "agonized" over his decision to plead guilty because it could be interpreted as disloyalty to the Marines in his squad, several of whom have been charged in connection with the killing.
"In the end it was the right thing to do," Jodka said under questioning from one of his attorneys. "The most difficult part for me is that I had to weigh my own integrity and need for the truth with the loyalty to the Marines that I had bonded with in Iraq."
Jodka's father, John Jr., his voice breaking with emotion, pleaded with Jones to "return J.J. to his family and to me." His son was "still just a boy" when he was sent to Iraq, Jodka said.
At least 16 U.S. service personnel have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the unwarranted killing of Iraqis since the war began in March 2003. Two received life sentences. On Wednesday, an Army specialist at Ft. Campbell, Ky., pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl. The Marine Corps is still investigating whether to file murder charges and other counts against Marines from Camp Pendleton for the deaths of 24 Iraqis at Haditha last November.
Jodka pleaded guilty Oct. 26 to aggravated assault and conspiracy to obstruct justice in the death of Awad, a former Iraqi police officer. In exchange, authorities dropped charges of murder, kidnapping and larceny, which could have brought a life sentence.
Navy corpsman Melson Bacos, who also pleaded guilty, was sentenced to a year in the brig. But the corpsman, unlike Jodka, never fired his weapon at Awad.
In all, eight members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, were charged in the killing, which occurred shortly after midnight April 26. Prosecutors say Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, the squad leader, decided to kill a suspected insurgent who had been arrested three times but let go for lack of evidence.
When that individual could not be located, the Marines allegedly decided to kidnap and kill Awad, who also was suspected of helping to plant roadside bombs.
Jodka, who characterized his time in Iraq as consumed by "fear, confusion and frustration," said he was unaware that the man he and others shot at was not the original target of their search.
Jodka fired his machine gun at Awad but said he was unsure whether his rounds struck him.
Jodka is the first Marine to be sentenced. Lance Cpl. Tyler A. Jackson is set to be sentenced today after pleading guilty. Lance Cpl. Jerry Shumate Jr. has also agreed to plead guilty.
Hutchins and three other Marines -- Cpl. Trent D. Thomas, Cpl. Marshall Magincalda and Lance Cpl. Robert Pennington -- are set to stand trial.
Although Judge Jones had said five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge were appropriate for Jodka, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the convening authority in the case, set the penalty at a maximum of 18 months in the brig and a general discharge, as part of a plea bargain.
Jodka will get credit for the six months he has been in the brig awaiting trial.
At San Dieguito Academy in upscale Encinitas, where Jodka is a 2004 graduate, students and teachers watched the criminal case closely.
"Jodka was so quiet and super-thoughtful, I never saw him becoming a soldier, let alone being involved in something like this," teacher Bob Teisher said in a telephone interview.
"This is all very shocking," said Teisher, who led the My Lai court-martial discussion and gave Jodka an A in the Advanced Placement government course.
Jodka, who briefly attended UC Riverside, said he hoped to return to college and become a history teacher because he believes he can help students understand difficult concepts. He said he realized his conviction would hurt his chances of becoming a teacher.