Spec op sources reveal more than one incident in Fox Company’s meltdown in AfghanistanMarine Corps Times
‘Like a bunch of cowboys’
They were supposed to be the fewest of the Few and Proud, quiet professionals trained for sticky covert missions.
So when Marine Special Operations Company-Fox — the first of the Corps’ new spec ops units to deploy for combat operations — left for Afghanistan in early 2007, the Corps expected nothing less than total success.
Then the unit bent every rule that wouldn’t break, ticked off every commander in the theater, alienated the local population, violated direct orders, caused an international incident, allegedly killed as many as 19 Afghan civilians and wounded dozens more.
The whole thing lasted only a few weeks, according to courtroom testimony and interviews with military eyewitnesses.
“They were just acting like a bunch of cowboys,” said one source inside Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, which became Fox Company’s higher command when the unit arrived in Afghanistan in late February 2007.
So the Army sent the whole unit packing.
THE STORY SO FAR
Much of what is known about the failure of Fox Company, and of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command that sent them abroad, centers around a March 4, 2007, attack on a Marine convoy in Nangarhar province.
Hit with a car bomb while returning from a mission, the Marines claim they were trapped in a complex ambush by attacking insurgents and had to shoot their way out.
Others, including witnesses on the scene and an independent review commission, dispute that account. They accuse the Marines of shooting at nearly everything that moved, killing and wounding dozens over 10 miles in an attempt to get away from the attack site.
When the Marines were kicked out of Afghanistan on April 3 by Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, the top special operations commander in the theater, the Army apologized for the Marines’ behavior, paid compensation to the victims’ families and tried to put the events behind them.
Marine supporters cried foul, however. Interservice rivalry and mistrust rushed Army leaders to judgment, they said.
That’s the story so far.
But at a special court of inquiry, a rarely used military investigative proceeding conducted over three weeks in January at Camp Lejeune, N.C., it became apparent that Fox Company’s failure was not limited to a single incident.
The inquiry was designed to determine whether Fox Company’s commander, Maj. Fred Galvin, and one of his platoon commanders, Capt. Vincent Noble, should be charged criminally for lying, conspiring to lie, dereliction of duty and failure to obey lawful orders.
About a third of the three-week hearing was classified and conducted behind closed doors. But interviews with sources familiar with the details paint the classified portions of the hearing as the most damning for the Marines involved.
The full story of the deployment — pieced together from media reports, official statements, public testimony and interviews with troops who witnessed the meltdown — depicts Fox Company as a fledgling unit suffering from an identity crisis, gung-ho to make a name for itself, trigger-happy and even careless.
MarSOC commanders have had little to say about the issue, citing the ongoing investigations. They did not respond to requests for interviews.
Now, a panel of three senior Marine officers — two colonels and a lieutenant colonel — must decide what’s next for Galvin and Noble. They will make their recommendation to Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, who will decide what happens next.
To some, it was a miracle that Task Force Violence, the nickname Galvin gave to his unit, made it to Afghanistan at all.
As ships carrying Fox Company and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit steamed into the theater, it was clear the spec ops company had been sent out on its maiden deployment with little support.
Catching a ride into theater with the MEU, Fox Company didn’t have everything — or everyone — it needed. The 26th MEU commander, Col. Greg Sturdevant, recognized the deficiencies, but the problems were not his to fix.
He told the court, for example, that the unit had vehicles, but no wrench turners; radios, but no repairmen.
In his testimony, Sturdevant said Galvin made repeated pleas for more support from MarSOC, but with no luck. Sturdevant said Galvin eventually asked if he could spare support Marines to go with Fox Company when the units separated in Djibouti. Sturdevant said the MEU could not help.
Army Maj. Derik Erickson, a logistician with Army Special Operations Command, was tasked to Fox Company after the unit arrived in Afghanistan in early February.
“They hit country with no support,” he told the court. Fox Company was assigned to a camp that hadn’t been occupied for some time and was plagued with electrical problems, such as generators that sometimes did not work.
It was Erickson’s job to get Fox Company supplies — everything from food to tools for its one mechanic.
Erickson said CJSOTF-A, U.S. Special Operations Command and MarSOC all let Fox Company down. The unit was set up for failure, he said.
Task force leaders hadn’t asked for the Marines and believed the untested Fox Company had been pushed onto them.
That the company showed up without a support element, Erickson said, only “enhanced the animosity.” The Marines could tell they were in hostile territory. Fox Company executive officer Capt. Robert Olson was part of the company’s advance party to Afghanistan to talk with CJSOTF-A leaders. He didn’t feel welcome. Fox Company was greeted like it was “a bit of a nuisance,” he said. He asked questions, but “didn’t get a clear answer on a lot of things that I considered fairly critical.”
‘OUTSIDE OF THEIR BATTLE SPACE’
Showing up unprepared, unwanted and inexperienced didn’t stop Fox Company from being ambitious.
“They needed to prove themselves, and they weren’t going to let anyone get in their way,” Maj. Phillip Sanchez, one of the Marine lawyers prosecuting the case, said during closing arguments.
“Their boots don’t even have the dust of Afghanistan on them, and they’re already worried about whether they had time to kill somebody,” Sanchez said. “They had trained too hard not to be able to prove themselves.”
Sanchez said Galvin had dubbed Fox Company “Task Force Violence” because it fit his personal philosophy of war.
“War is violence, and if you are not doing violence, you are not fighting the war,” Sanchez said during the hearing, characterizing Galvin’s ideology.
MarSOC commanders didn’t like the nickname and twice told Galvin to change it. It is unclear if he ever obeyed that command.
Indeed, instead of heeding commands by CJSOTF-A leaders to get familiar with his area of operations, Galvin “shopped for missions” immediately, Sanchez told the court.
One field-grade Army officer present in eastern Afghanistan at the time said the Marines were undone on two counts: “the issue of competence and the issue of integrity. … The trust and confidence in these guys eroded.”
At first, he said, U.S. commanders gave Galvin the benefit of the doubt. Soon after, however, they concluded he was “intentionally deceiving” them.
A big issue was that the Marines seemed to be dissatisfied with the reconnaissance missions that the Army commanders envisioned for them, even though the Marines, with their heavy Force Recon background, were supposed to be reconnaissance experts.
“They resisted it and kept wanting to go do the direct [action] missions,” he said. They strayed from their area, looking for bad guys.
“They never went in their assigned battle space,” the field-grade Army officer said. “They were always looking for missions outside of their battle space.”
Another source assigned to CJSOTF-A at the time said Fox Company infuriated the CJSOTF-A commander, Army Col. Chris Haas, with an apparent disregard for task force rules and procedures.
“What really started all this was the Marines trying to circumvent proper procedure for their actions,” the source said. “They wouldn’t call in when there was a ‘troops in contact.’”
The Marines took to leaving their base near Jalalabad “disguised as Afghans,” the source said. “This was in direct violation of Colonel Haas’ instructions not to do so unless he cleared them, and he was not about to clear anybody to go outside the post not in military uniform.”
Another issue that riled Haas, according to the CJSOTF-A source, was that the Marines filed battle plans with the CJSOTF-A headquarters, “and then they were doing something completely different from what their plans said.”
The source said it appeared that when the Marines filed their op orders, they already intended to conduct the operations differently from their stated plans.
Testifying before the court of inquiry, Col. John Nicholson, commander of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, at the time, said Galvin’s company also strayed into his battle space without notice, violating standard courtesies between units in Afghanistan.
Nicholson said he briefed Galvin that the standard protocol was for special operators to inform him of their plans to conduct missions within his battle space. Instead, he told the court, Galvin classified his operations so his requests would go directly to CJSOTF-A, skirting Nicholson.
“There had been potentially 25 operations in my AO that I, as a commander, was not aware of,” Nicholson said during testimony.
So when he heard about a bloody shootout March 4 in Nangarhar province, Nicholson was surprised to hear that a platoon from Fox Company was involved.
“My initial reaction was, ‘What are they doing out there?’” he said.
The 30-man platoon left its camp at Jalalabad around dawn, heading east on Highway 1 toward Torkham, the city known as the major gateway between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mission there was to talk to Army forces and meet with local Afghan leaders.
The mission went off without a hitch, and 15 to 30 minutes later, the convoy headed back to Highway 1, the main drag between Kandahar and the Pakistani border. When they reached the traffic-choked highway, Marines testified, the cars didn’t yield to their convoy.
Then, as they neared the foot of a bridge spanning a dry river bed, a car slammed into one of their vehicles, exploding in a ball of fire. One Marine was injured, and panic and confusion reigned. The Marines said there were gunners firing on them, and Task Force Violence opened up on their attackers; witnesses raise doubts about exactly what happened and who was firing at whom. But in the end, according to a report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, as many as 19 Afghan civilians were killed and dozens more injured.
Witnesses interviewed by the commission said the Marines responded with “excessive force.”
The shootout infuriated Afghan tribal leaders overseeing the area where the attack occurred, so much so that they asked both their governor and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to halt U.S. operations in Nangarhar province. Kearney and Nicholson publicly condemned the Marines in the months following the March 4 attack, even as the Marines maintained they were returning fire during a complex ambush by enemy forces.
The incident made international headlines but left the Corps speechless. As Fox Company came under fire in the media, MarSOC commanders back home repeatedly declined comment, citing the ongoing investigation into the incident.
In the April 8 edition of The Washington Post, Kearney challenged the notion of an ambush. “We found no brass that we can confirm that small-arms fire came at [the Marines],” he said. “We have testimony from Marines that is in conflict with unanimous testimony from civilians at the sites.”
One month later, Nicholson offered details to Pentagon reporters of the condolence payments made to the families of the dead and wounded.
“I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” he said, reading from a statement. “We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and Afghan people.”
Marines were outraged that Kearney and others were so quick to judge Fox Company when he demanded they leave Afghanistan a month later. Kearney remains under investigation by the Defense Department inspector general, in part for removing the Marines from Afghanistan so fast.
But those criticisms might have been quelled had the public known, as Kearney did, that this was not the only troubling incident involving Task Force Violence.
Five days after the shootout, on March 9, things again fell apart for Fox Company.
The second day of trouble didn’t fully come to light in the public hearing because it was primarily discussed during classified sessions. But in his closing arguments, Marine prosecutor Sanchez briefly touched on the events of March 9, noting that Fox Company ended up with two overturned vehicles, one Marine injured, two Afghans injured and two incidents of escalation of force.
“There was a collapse of command and control during the conduct of three missions,” Sanchez said. “Worse, the necessity for conducting the missions was self-imposed and placed Marines’ lives at risk.”
He said one mission executed that day was in direct violation of a CJSOTF-A order and that there was a conspiracy to cover it up.
Sources present in the region at the time recall the event.
The CJSOTF-A source confirmed that Fox Company was involved in two separate overturned vehicle accidents March 9, and that each incident was followed by the Marines shooting at an oncoming vehicle.
In one accident, a Marine suffered a broken arm, and two Afghans were hurt trying to recover the vehicle, according to the CJSOTF-A source.
“There was an incident of [rules of engagement] escalation after each of them, where there was a vehicle coming from one direction approaching the accident site and the Marines shot at [it],” the source said. He said he did not know if the Marines hit anyone.
A second source, the Army field-grade officer, also confirmed one of these incidents, saying that at least one civilian was injured by flying glass when the Marines shot out the windshield of the approaching vehicle. No civilians were hit by bullets in that incident, he said.
The March 9 incidents confirmed a prevailing view in the headquarters that the Marines were “a little more than trigger-happy,” the CJSOTF-A source said. “There was a general consensus that they were basically scared and itchy on the trigger.”
“It was those two incidents, in conjunction with the shootings — the ROE escalations — and the shooting that occurred on the 4th, that actually caused Colonel Haas to say, ‘You guys are confined to post — you’re not to leave without any express permission whatsoever,’” the CJSTOF-A source said.
The Marines already had angered Haas by consistently flouting his orders or otherwise undercutting his authority, the source said.
“All these things were bang, bang, bang, right on top of each other, and that’s what caused Colonel Haas to confine them to base,” the source said.
Sources said Kearney only made the decision to expel the Marines after discussing the situation with various commanders in the region.
“Colonel Haas was really pissed off at them. I mean, he was absolutely furious at them,” the CJSOTF-A source said. “It was a compilation of everything, because they were just acting like a bunch of cowboys and Colonel Haas had just had his fill and said, ‘Enough’s enough.’”
Sanchez, the Marine prosecutor at the court of inquiry, summed it up: “Normally, you want to give Marines the benefit of any doubt,” he told the court Jan. 29. “But in this case, you might not want to.”
R. W. “Dick” Gaines
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