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Marine Humvee was shot at, Army expert testifies

Convoy gunners are accused of killing Afghan civilians.

January 26, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — An Army explosives expert testified Friday that a Humvee was hit by small-arms fire after a suicide car bomb attack last March on a Marine convoy whose gunners have been accused of killing as many as 19 Afghan civilians. Sgt. 1st Class Jason Mero offered the first definitive support for testimony by Marines on the convoy, who said their gunners fired because the Marines believed enemies were shooting at them. Attorneys for the Marines have said they fired on gunmen, not civilians.

Mero told a court of inquiry he was "100% certain" that small-arms fire struck the gunner's turret shield on the convoy's second Humvee, which was targeted by the car bomber. He said he was 90% certain that the Humvee's windshield and headlight were hit by small-arms fire.

An Afghan human rights group has accused the Marines from a special operations unit of firing indiscriminately at civilian vehicles and pedestrians after the suicide attack. An Army colonel in charge of the area, saying he was "deeply ashamed," told reporters and Afghans in May that the Marines had killed 19 Afghan civilians and wounded 50.

Mero, who examined the Humvee within two days of the March 4 incident, said he was pressured by the Air Force colonel in charge of the investigation to alter his conclusions. He said Col. Patrick Pihana first agreed that bullets had struck the Humvee, but changed his mind after talking to Afghan civilians near the bomb site.

"He was wanting me to change my opinion . . . to buck up his opinion" that the convoy was not fired on, Mero said. Though Pihana's pressure made him uncomfortable, Mero said, he did not change his conclusions.

Pihana has testified during the three-week inquiry, but only in classified sessions closed to the press and public.

Mero said he based his conclusions on an examination of several "divots" in the windshield and a hole in the headlight. A hard plastic coating on the turret shield was bent inward by the impact of a bullet fired from outside the Humvee, "just missing the gunner," he testified.

Mero also provided the inquiry's first description of the car bomb, which slightly wounded the Humvee gunner but did not cause extensive damage to convoy vehicles. He said the bomb -- made of fuel oil, ammonium nitrate fertilizer and mortars -- detonated prematurely about 15 feet from the second of the convoy's six Humvees.

Under cross-examination by a government attorney, Mero conceded that his investigation would have been more thorough if he had inspected the bomb site. But he said the Afghan government asked him not to travel there because local Afghans were "very, very angry."

Earlier Friday, a retired Marine master sergeant testified that the Marine company was resented and undermined when it arrived in Afghanistan last winter -- and wasn't provided such basics as bunks and fuel.

The special operations command "really didn't want us to do well" and placed "obstacles in our path," said Master Sgt. Jim Elder, the company's operations chief.

Elder's testimony, for the defense, was the first to suggest rivalries within the Marine command in addition to tensions between Marine Special Operations Company F and U.S. Army commanders.

Such conflicts could be useful to the defense if they leave the impression that the Marine unit is being made a scapegoat by rivals.

The actions of two of the company's top commanders are being investigated by the court of inquiry, which is a fact-finding body, not a criminal court.

The three Marine officers on the inquiry panel will report their findings to the head of the Marine Corps central command. No one has been charged in the case.

Attorneys for Maj. Fred C. Galvin, the company commander, and Capt. Vincent J. Noble, the convoy commander, questioned Elder about the unit's reception as the first Marine special operations company deployed in combat.

Even before deploying, Elder said, Galvin had a "terrible" and "adversarial" working relationship with his battalion commander because the commander had not selected Galvin to lead the unit.

And a Marine liaison major in Afghanistan who was supposed to provide equipment for the company "did not deliver," Elder testified.

The company was assigned to a run-down camp that lacked bunks, fuel, guards and food, and had fecal matter in the drinking water.

Though the liaison major was a Marine, Elder said, he developed "Stockholm syndrome" -- identifying with Army commanders who dominated the joint special operations command. "He Army'd up," Elder said with disdain. Elder, now retired, was among the most outspoken of the three dozen witnesses who have testified in public at the inquiry, the first for the Marine Corps in half a century.

The special operations command ordered the Marine company out of Afghanistan after the shootings.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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