Sunday, November 05, 2006

From the New York Times

November 5, 2006

Anger Joins Grief as Marine’s Family Feels Misled

DAGSBORO, Del. — When Tricia and Gregg White were told by the Marines in 2004 that their son, Lance Cpl. Russell White, had been killed in Afghanistan in a gun-cleaning accident, their hearts went out to the marine who had been holding the gun.

Corporal White’s brother Adam memorized a prayer of forgiveness, the Whites said, and headed to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to visit the marine, Lance Cpl. Federico Pimienta. The Whites had been told he was on a suicide watch.

“I immediately put myself in his parents’ position, and I just couldn’t imagine,” Mrs. White said. “We didn’t want two people to die because of what we thought was an unfortunate accident.”

But their outpouring of forgiveness came months before they learned that, whatever had happened, their son’s death did not result from a gun-cleaning accident. It was before they learned that Corporal Pimienta had lied to investigators and that he had been repeatedly chastised for mishandling weapons. It was before he failed to appear at his court-martial, having fled to Europe.

And it was before persistent questioning, guided by intimations of a darker explanation from their son’s platoon mates, enabled the Whites to piece together a picture of what had happened at Bagram Air Base on June 20, 2004, when Corporal White, 19, was killed by a single shot to the head.

What they learned did not, to their minds, add up to a simple accident. But it did leave them feeling alone, forsaken by military authorities, and incredulous at what they say was the incompetence of the initial investigation into Corporal White’s death.

“I had lost faith in the entire system,” Adam White said at Corporal Pimienta’s June court-martial on unauthorized absence charges. “I figured we were never going to receive any justice.”

The Marines say that there was no attempt to mislead the Whites and that the investigation and the prosecution were appropriate.

More than a dozen families have publicly said they were misled or overtly lied to about the cause of their loved one’s death in Afghanistan or Iraq. These families — about half from the Marines and half from the Army — said the military was slow to investigate or take possible violations seriously, or that the information they did receive was riddled with contradictions. What should be the military’s most careful duty, these families say, has for them been a painful ordeal.

The best known such case was in 2004, when Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former professional football player, died in what the Army first said was a heroic firefight. A month later, officials told the family that he had actually been accidentally shot by members of his own platoon. The Defense Department is now completing the fourth investigation of his death, this time examining the possibility that a cover-up followed.

But cases like Corporal Tillman’s are not unheard of. A recent study by the Army shows that the families of seven soldiers were misled about their deaths.

The Whites said they had expected better treatment from the Marines, a smaller, select force that goes out of its way to welcome the families of recruits into the fold.

“They started out real good, and then they stopped — they stopped giving me information,” said Gregg White, a construction contractor in Dagsboro. “The door kept shutting, and I was like, No, you’re not going to slam the door on me.”

Lt. Col. Curtis L. Hill, the chief spokesman for the Second Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, said in an e-mail message that there was no intent to provide inaccurate information to the Whites or to the medical examiner, who was also told the death had resulted from a gun-cleaning accident.

“When a unit loses a marine, there is a flurry of activity as they make every attempt to gather as much information as possible in order to release a message back to casualty branch at Headquarters Marine Corps,” Colonel Hill said, adding that initial assumptions sometimes proved false.

“Although I normally don’t speculate,” he said, “I believe that it would have been a valid assumption made at the time that a negligent discharge of a weapon could have been tied to weapons cleaning.”

After complaints from parents and publicity over the Tillman case, the Army recently revised its casualty notification procedure, adding safeguards like an accuracy check of the casualty report and a requirement that the unit commander call the family within seven days.

The Marines have made no such changes, said Bryan J. Driver, a spokesman for the Marine Casualty Branch. “No one that we’ve heard of is having a problem — it’s all Army, not Marines.”

Mrs. White likes to say that Russell, one of three boys, was “a born soldier” who as a small boy patrolled the family’s dock. Another son, Dennis, is in the Navy, but the Whites said that being a Marine family felt special. The couple owns two English bulldogs — the Marine mascot.

The Whites said their first inkling that they were not being told the whole truth came about a month after their son’s death. They learned, through a friend of their son’s, that Corporal Pimienta, who they thought had been confined at Camp Lejeune, had been seen off the base.

“My heart started racing,” Mrs. White said. “First we think he’s in a rubber room somewhere, and he’s walking around. He’s not even in the brig.”

Corporal Pimienta was released because he had attended his pretrial hearings and committed no additional misconduct and was not judged a flight risk by his commanding officer, Colonel Hill said.

Then the Whites received a copy of the initial investigation report, prepared by the Army Criminal Investigation Division, which conducts investigations for other service branches. Contradictions in witness statements were not explored, they said, and no one said Corporal Pimienta had been cleaning his gun, a 9-millimeter pistol, at the time of the accident.

In fact, Corporal Pimienta’s own statement in the report said that Corporal White had been playing with the pistol and had left it on Corporal Pimienta’s bed. When Corporal Pimienta went to holster the gun, he told the investigator, it went off.

Chris Grey, a spokesman for the investigation division, rejected criticism of the inquiry, noting that it included gunshot residue testing, sketches of the crime scene, interviews and forensic laboratory work.

But in phone calls and e-mail messages, Corporal White’s Marine buddies warned his parents that they were not hearing the full story, Mr. White said. Some who had left the service and could speak freely told the family that Corporal Pimienta was known for mishandling his gun, practicing quick-draw techniques, aiming at other marines and regularly violating basic principles of safety.

Ultimately, a dozen marines testified or gave sworn statements that they had seen Corporal Pimienta break the firearms rules, and two of his superiors said they had given him repeated verbal reprimands.

“I would inform him that the way that he is handling his pistol would be — was unsafe,” Cpl. Alfred E. Riley testified at the court-martial. “And that eventually he’s going to end up hurting someone, sir.”

Colonel Hill said that he could not speculate about why Corporal Pimienta was permitted to continue carrying a weapon, but that the Marine Corps took gun safety “very seriously.”

“As evidenced by the repeated counselings,” he said, the corporal “was being corrected when he failed to properly handle his weapon.”

The confusion only fueled the Whites’ suspicions of foul play. But military prosecutors decided to treat the shooting as a pure accident, charging Corporal Pimienta under a catch-all provision for “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.” The maximum sentence he could have received was three years.

“We pleaded, begged and demanded” that the investigation be reopened, Mr. White said. “The prosecutors were very reluctant.”

But after the unit returned from Afghanistan in November 2004, prosecutors did interview some witnesses again, including the only other person in the bunkhouse at the time of the shooting, Lance Cpl. Steven Groover. Corporal Groover said that immediately after the shooting, Corporal Pimienta asked him to lie about what had happened.

The charges against Corporal Pimienta were increased to include making a false statement to investigators, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years, and manslaughter with culpable negligence, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. In addition, Corporal Pimienta was charged with reckless conduct and assault based on new accusations that he had pointed a loaded gun at another marine, Cpl. Ian R. Dunton.

A Marine spokeswoman, Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, said the Whites “had no influence” over the decision to increase the charges.

The Whites hoped the trial would finally bring them justice and a sense of resolution. But two days before it began, Corporal Pimienta fled the country. The Whites and their friends learned of his absence not before the trial, but that morning at Camp Lejeune, on a closed-circuit television showing the proceedings.

In absentia, Corporal Pimienta was convicted of making the false statement and of manslaughter, and acquitted of the charges involving Corporal Dunton. The court-martial recommended a sentence of 12 years and a dishonorable discharge, and the defendant was demoted to the rank of private. But to the Whites’ bitter disappointment, Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, then the commander of the Second Marine Division, reduced the sentence to six years and the dishonorable discharge to a bad-conduct discharge.

Lt. Barry Edwards, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said the sentence was decreased “in the interest of justice, discipline, mission requirements, clemency and other appropriate reasons.”

When Mr. White found out about the change via e-mail, he kept the news from his wife for two days to spare her the shock.

“We were astonished and sick,” he said. “Basically, General Huck was saying that Russell is just a number. He also, in my opinion, discredited the integrity of the people that made up that trial.”

“The Marines aren’t bad,” he added. “It’s the bureaucracy. It’s the brass.”

According to e-mail messages provided by the Whites, General Huck, who has since retired, declined without explanation a request to meet with them. The Marines declined to make General Huck available for comment.

Private Pimienta turned himself in on Feb. 15 in Spain. He was returned to the United States, where he began serving his six-year sentence and faced an additional charge — not desertion, as the Whites had hoped, but “unauthorized absence.”

Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Adam told the court how painful it had been to think that Private Pimienta would never serve his sentence. “You have to understand,” Mrs. White said, “that we’re not the people that we were before this event happened and we will never be, again, the same.”

Private Pimienta was sentenced to 10 additional months in the brig, out of a maximum of 12. When he addressed the court, appearing for the first time in the same room as the White family, he did not mention the gunshot that killed Corporal White.

“I am truly sorry,” he said, reading from a piece of paper, “for all the hardship my absence has caused.”

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