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Respect at Issue for Corpsman, Marines

October 08, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — As a sailor among Marines, corpsman Melson Bacos was an outsider. Now he is poised to be the star witness as Marine Corps prosecutors push to convict seven Marines of murder in the first high-profile Iraq war case to hit Camp Pendleton.

Bacos' court-martial proceeding Friday exposed the complex relationship between combat Marines and the sailors who follow them into battle to patch up their wounds.

In exchange for a light sentence, Bacos has promised to testify against the seven, all charged with murdering an unarmed disabled Iraqi man in Hamandiya in April.

Lawyers say the prospect of his detailed testimony may prod other defendants to cut their own deals.

Sentenced to a year in the brig, the 21-year-old petty officer 3rd class probably will be behind bars for only five more months, after being given credit for good behavior and 142 days already served. Without the plea bargain, the judge said he would have sentenced Bacos to 10 years in prison.

Bacos, with a soft voice and slight build, said he felt powerless to stop the Marines from carrying out a plan to kidnap a suspected insurgent, kill him and then plant phony evidence to make it look as if he'd been caught burying a roadside bomb.

In explaining his actions to the military judge, Bacos said that he pleaded with one Marine to let 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad go, but the Marine replied with an epithet suggesting Bacos lacked manhood.

Navy corpsman Brandon Snow, testifying on behalf of Bacos, said that it is not easy for corpsmen to be accepted by combat Marines.

"You have to earn that respect and trust as their corpsman," Snow said.

By their nature, Marine infantry troops are clannish. They call each other "grunts" and disdain outsiders as POGs -- people other than grunts.

When Marines go into combat, each carries an M-16 assault rifle, a weapon that requires precision handling. Corpsmen, including Bacos, usually carry shotguns, considered a weapon easily handled. Some Marines don't consider the corpsmen to be full members of their teams.

Bacos, the son of Philippine immigrants, enlisted after high school. He said he did not protest the plan to kill an Iraqi on April 26 because he "wanted to be part of the team." But he also said he told another corpsman after the killing that they were different from Marines.

There was no ambivalence when Bacos talked of his first deployment to Iraq with Kilo Company, of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, during the November 2004 fight in Fallouja.

He said the phrase "corpsman-up," the call for a corpsman to rush to a wounded Marine, still "brings chills to me."

"It brings me memories of Marines who have died," he said.

In possibly the most dramatic moment in the court hearing, Bacos listed from memory the names of nine Marines with his company who were killed in Fallouja. A picture was shown of a memorial service held in Iraq, with nine rifles and nine helmets.

To the judge and later to reporters, Bacos said that by not stopping the April 26 killing he had lost his honor. The only way to regain that honor, he said, was to plead guilty and seek forgiveness.

In March 2003, as Marines crossed into Iraq, each Marine and corpsman received a statement from Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, then commander of the 1st Marine Division, telling them to "carry out your mission and keep your honor clean."

Mattis is now a lieutenant general and the convening authority in the Hamandiya case and he approved Bacos' plea bargain.

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