WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Thursday urged the Marine Corps to publicly clear the names of 30 special operators dogged by false claims that they indiscriminately killed Afghan civilians a decade ago.
The service should release a document stating the Marines of Fox Company, part of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, did not target the civilians amid an ambush and firefight during an ill-fated 2007 patrol in Nangarhar province, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
The special operations Marines and their former commander, retired Maj. Fred Galvin, were cleared of wrongdoing by a military court of inquiry in 2008 but have been fighting for years to clear their reputations, which they say have been tarnished by initial news reports of civilian carnage and a lack of support from the Marine Corps.
"These Marines have every right to be appreciated," Jones said. "These Marines will be old someday … they need to be vindicated today and not 14 years from now."
Jones, a longtime advocate for the Marines whose district includes Camp Lejeune, is sponsoring a House resolution that, if passed, would call on Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to issue a statement to help clear their names.
Gallego, a Marine who served in Iraq, said there is "nothing more scary or confusing when your honor is called into question."
The Marines were on patrol in the Bati Kot district when their six-vehicle convoy was attacked by a car bomb and then ambushed.
A brief but intense firefight ensued and news stories surfaced that the Marines had targeted and killed as many as 19 Afghan civilians.
"We saw no civilians killed at all," said Galvin, who was in the convoy.
At the time, the U.S. military was under pressure to minimize civilian casualties as part of its military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The incident sparked a street protest, condemnation from then Afghan President Hamid Karzai and threatened to complicate the war effort.
The Marines were pulled out of the country and the Pentagon publicly apologized for the incident two months later, before the military court had ruled on the charges against them.
"I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," said Gen. John Nicholson, who was an Army colonel at the time of the statement and now commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, according to the BBC news service.
However, the military court later found the Marines acted appropriately and heeded the rules of engagement during the ambush.
"Anybody who died out there that day … was an enemy combatant," said retired Lt. Col. Steve Morgan, who served as a junior member of the court of inquiry that looked into the incident.
The convoy had been swarmed by a group of military-aged Afghan men during the attack and it was estimated nine to 25 were killed, though only one body was witnessed by U.S. personnel, according to Galvin and Morgan.
"These Marines did what was right," Galvin said.