Seven years after Marine Capt. James Clement was found to have failed in his supervisory duties over snipers in Afghanistan and involuntarily separated from the Corps, the acting secretary of the Navy has moved to overturn the actions taken against him and grant him relief.
Clement was the final and most senior Marine to face punitive action in connection with an international scandal in which six scout snipers attached to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, filmed themselves urinating on Taliban corpses during a 2011 deployment. The 39-second video, later posted to YouTube, embarrassed the Marine Corps and prompted statements of condemnation from the White House and the highest levels of military command.
But actions against the unit were also tainted by allegations of unlawful command influence by the commandant of the Marine Corps, who made statements and took steps that seemed intended to sway the outcome of the cases.
Others, too, defended the snipers, who were finishing a grueling and demoralizing deployment that saw multiple unit members recommended for valor awards. One of the snipers, Rob Richards, had survived devastating wounds on a previous deployment and earned praise for his valor in combat. When he died in 2014 due to drug complications, he received a hero's funeral and eventually was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Clement, then the executive office for Kilo Company, 3/2, was never accused of participating in the urination incident, and maintained that he was neither present for nor aware of the episode. But at a 2013 administrative Board of Inquiry, or BOI, hearing in Quantico, Virginia, a panel of three officers found that he should have supervised his Marines more carefully, and voted to separate him with an honorable discharge.
Notably, that was despite Gen. John F. Kelly -- the four-star commander of U.S. Southern Command who would go on to serve as secretary of Homeland Security and White House chief of staff -- testifying in Clement's defense at the hearing. Kelly argued that breakdowns in discipline were linked to leadership problems above Clement's head and praised the young officer's record.
"I can't offer an official apology to him and his family, but I think at the end of this board, he should receive that from someone," Kelly said then.
In a June 16 decision, the Board for Corrections of Naval Records did the next-best thing: It handed down a decision to clear Clement's record, award him any separation pay he'd lost due to disciplinary proceedings, and push forward a recommendation that he receive the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal that he'd been submitted for prior to the scandal.
The 12-page decision noted that Clement's appeal hinged on comments from then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos that appeared to prejudice prosecution of those linked to the sniper incident. Then-Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander assigned to oversee the cases, testified in a 2013 sworn statement that Amos told him he wanted the snipers "crushed." Waldhauser stated that he pushed back; Amos soon after removed him from the case.
While the Defense Department Inspector General would eventually clear Amos of wrongdoing, a military appellate court found that his remarks interfered with justice.
In November 2017, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Appeals overturned the conviction of Joe Chamblin, a former staff sergeant who was sentenced to 30 days' confinement, docked in pay and demoted for his part in the urination video.
"The highest-ranking officer in the Marine Corps told [Waldhauser] that the appellant and his co-accused should be 'crushed,'" the court wrote in its decision. "This is an unusually flagrant example of [unlawful command influence]. We find that UCI this direct, and occurring at this level, is highly corrosive to public trust in this proceeding."
In January 2018, the court announced it would stand by its previous ruling and not reconsider its decision to clear Chamblin.
"[Clement], through counsel,contends that he ... suffered as a result of [Amos'] unlawful action in the prosecution of SSgt. Chamblin's case," BCNR wrote in its June 2021 decision. "He further contends that, if [Amos] had respected the independence of [Waldhauser as the oversight authority], he would not have been wrongfully required to show cause for retention at a BOI."
Clement's appeal also accused the commandant's top attorney at the time, Robert Hogue, of withholding evidence through improper classification, thus hindering Clement's defense at the BOI. Clement's lawyer, John Dowd, had also raised this allegation at the initial hearing.
Clement had indeed been wrongfully discharged, BCNR decided.
"Specifically, the Board determined that [Amos'] interference ... the deliberate withholding of UCI evidence, and the unlawful classification of interviews and exculpatory documents related to the case in order to inhibit disclosure, obstructed [Clement's] trial defense counsel's ability to investigate, prepare, and represent his client."
BCNR's executive director, Elizabeth Hill, disagreed with the board's decision. In a following opinion, she wrote that there was no evidence to show that the comments found to have tainted Chamblin's court-martial also affected Clement's hearing.
"[Clement] was not 'crushed,' as [Amos] had demanded for those involved in the incident," she wrote. "Instead, the BOI simply found by a preponderance of the evidence that [Clement's] performance of duty was substandard. ... Accordingly, the BOI determined that [Clement] should not be retained in the naval service."
Hill recommended denying Clement's request.
However, in a signed but unexplained decision, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker overruled her, siding with the board's recommendation. Harker's decision and signature this month came more than a year after Hill signed her recommendation in March 2020. It's not clear why the process, already years underway, lagged for so long at this final step.
Reached via telephone Tuesday, Clement, now 38, told Military.com he was grateful to finally set the matter to rest.
"Practically, I think what it means is that we finally have full closure and validation that we were right," he said. "It was hard when you're a Marine and you're sitting listening to people tell you you're lying. That eats at you when your whole culture is built on integrity. That's a hard place to be for years and years, constantly questioning yourself."
Now a customer support specialist manager for a tech company, Clement said that having his record cleared would make a real difference to him, even years later.
"It's one of those things that you feel like you have to tell people that it happened, because a Google search is going to bring it up," he said. "Now to be able to have on the record that, yes, this happened, but it's all wrong and has since been completely expunged -- that just makes these conversations just that much easier to have."
In all, eight Marines were punished in connection with the sniper incident. Clement said he is aware of others fighting to clear their records in light of the decisions made in his and Chamblin's cases. Now, he said, that fight should be easier.
"With this decision, it's kind of the last nail in the coffin," he said.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.