It felt like an interrogation. The room was small, poorly ventilated and bare: only a desk, two chairs and endless questions. One by one, all 30 members of the patrol cycled through to meet with the investigator.
Two days prior, on March 4, 2007, the Marines were in a fight for their lives along a treacherous stretch of highway in eastern Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. Now, a senior Air Force officer sent from Qatar was picking apart what transpired after their convoy was hit by suicide car bomber. Local Afghans alleged the Marines went berserk, killing and wounding more than two dozen innocent civilians. The Marines, members of an elite commando force, said they were caught in a complex ambush, using precise, measured and justified force to suppress the threat and escape the kill zone.
Pihana's findings would touch off one of the most publicized war-crimes cases in recent American history. But as a newly declassified report reveals, his work wasn't only flawed, it was found to be "unbalanced," in some ways "inappropriate," and potentially influenced by the Army general who ordered the investigation right before making an unprecedented decision to evict the Marines' entire unit from the war zone.
All seven Marines ultimately were cleared of wrongdoing related to the March 4 attack — but at great cost to their reputations, physical health and emotional bearing, and that of their families. Long before their day in court, these men were branded killers by the very institution that had an obligation to provide them due process free of any bias or unlawful influence. At least one member of Congress and several senior military leaders — including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Marine general at the time — weighed in publicly, all seemingly convinced the report's findings were sound.
"I felt at the time like if the facts were being looked at in an unbiased way, there shouldn't be any question, there shouldn't be any problem at all," one of those Marines recalled. "But then there was a feeling of 'Wow, this is really happening. We're up against the machine.'"
As detailed in the first three installments of this series, "Task Force Violent: The unforgiven," those at the heart of the controversy were assigned to Marine Special Operations Company Foxtrot, the first unit sent into combat by MARSOC, the Marine Corps' contribution to U.S. Special Operations Command. In many ways Fox Company's Marines were in deep trouble from the word go, the victims of poor guidance and woefully insufficient support from their higher headquarters. A tenuous situation became turbulent once in theater, culminating with their ouster, investigation, trial by public opinion and eventual adjudication during a three-week military tribunal held in January 2008.
READ PART 2: The generals resisted MARSOC. Their Marines paid the price
READ PART 3: Marine commandos survived a nightmare. No one believed their story
READ PART 5: Now on the outside, betrayed Marines fight to recapture their stolen honor