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Marine testifies he saw no enemy fire

His position was poor; a 2nd witness heard shots. Up to 19 Afghans died when a convoy, fleeing a bomb, shot at traffic.

January 09, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A former Marine counter-intelligence sergeant testified Tuesday that special operations Marines fired into oncoming civilian traffic in Afghanistan last March even though he saw no evidence that their convoy was fired upon.

Appearing before a rare military court of inquiry, Nathaniel Travers, a former staff sergeant, said Marines in his convoy were rushing back to their base after a car bombing when Marine Humvee gunners fired into civilian vehicles on a highway in eastern Afghanistan.

As many as 19 Afghans died in the March 4 incident, which is being reviewed by a court of inquiry -- the first such hearing by the Marines in half a century. The board of inquiry is an administrative fact-finding body, not a criminal court.

"There were a lot of people who died that day who really didn't need to," Travers said in a slow, halting voice during the inquiry's opening day of testimony. "They were just driving in their cars."

An Afghan human rights group accused the Marines of firing indiscriminately, killing civilian men, women and children. Two months after the incident, a U.S. Army colonel in Afghanistan, saying he was "deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry," paid $2,000 each to families of the victims for what he called "a stain on our honor."

The next week, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said Col. John Nicholson's apology was premature because an investigation was still underway.

The board of inquiry is looking into discipline in controlling gunfire, rules of engagement and the "command climate" of Marine Special Operations Company F, the first special operations unit deployed in combat. Its top two officers were brought to court as "designated parties," not defendants.

Lawyers for the officers, Maj. Fred C. Galvin and Capt. Vincent J. Noble, have said the Marines came under enemy fire shortly after an explosives-packed SUV slammed into their convoy near Jalalabad.

Galvin's civilian lawyer, Mark Waple, said Marines involved will testify that they saw convincing evidence of enemy fire before shooting back. Forensic experts will testify that the convoy was struck by bullets, Waple added.

Staff Sgt. Jose Queiro, the gunner in Travers' Humvee, testified late Tuesday that he heard gunfire but did not know its source. He described "controlled fire" by three Marines over a short distance.

"They did an awesome job," Queiro said. "They should've been commended."

Under cross-examination, Travers conceded that he was "an unhappy Marine" who believed U.S. forces should not be in Afghanistan. He acknowledged he was in a poor position to see or hear enemy fire. Confronted with photos showing armed men in a dry riverbed near the car bomb site just before the explosion, Travers said he had not noticed them.

The court of inquiry consists of three senior Marine officers, all with combat experience. They will forward their findings to Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of the corps' Central Command. Helland will decide what action to take, if any. No Marines have been charged in the case.

The tribunal, expected to last two weeks, is separate from an ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation. The court will review and evaluate that evidence.

A public court of inquiry is reserved for special cases, said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "It's for matters of great import," Fidell said. "It has very large horsepower."

Courts of inquiry have looked into Custer's Last Stand, Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the USS Maine. They also have investigated lesser events, such as the 1900 hazing death of a West Point cadet and rotten canned beef that sickened soldiers sailing to Cuba in 1899.

The last Marine court of inquiry investigated the drowning deaths of six Marine recruits in 1956. Other military services have held inquiries more recently, among them the 2001 sinking of a Japanese fishing vessel by a U.S. Navy submarine.

Even before the Marine convoy was rammed, Travers testified, he was alarmed when a Humvee gunner threw a rock through a driver's windshield. Later, Travers acknowledged that he had provided rocks to the gunner.

Travers said he told Capt. Noble, who sat in front of him inside the third Humvee in a six-vehicle convoy: "That's the kind of stuff that's going to get us blown up."

Minutes later, the 28-man convoy was rocked by the car bomb. One Marine was slightly wounded, and the convoy decided to return to base in Jalalabad.

After the smoke cleared, Travers said, he heard gunfire but was not sure who was firing. As the convoy moved west, he said, gunners in the lead Humvees began firing into vehicles. A Marine in the second Humvee also fired his rifle into cars, he said.

In all, Travers said, five to 20 vehicles were fired on.

He said he saw an Afghan man slumped over his steering wheel. Another vehicle, filled with people, was raked with gunfire, he said. "There was a kid in the back seat who looked pretty surprised," Travers said.

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