Marine tormented by memories of carnage in Iraq

Says he took photographs of slain civilians

By Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times / May 30, 2006

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HANFORD, Calif. -- Marine Lance Corporal Roel Ryan Briones says he is tormented by two memories of Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq.

The first is of the body of his best friend and fellow Marine blown apart just after dawn by a roadside bomb. The second is the lifeless form of an Iraqi girl, one of two dozen unarmed civilians allegedly killed by members of his Camp Pendleton-based unit, Kilo Company Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, First Marine Division.

Briones, 21, interviewed Sunday at his family home, said he was not among the small group of Marines that military investigators have concluded killed the unarmed civilians.

However, Briones said he took photographs of the victims and helped carry their bodies out of their homes as part of the cleanup crew sent in the late afternoon on the day of the killings.

``They ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart," Briones said.

He said he erased the digital photos he took at the scene after first providing them to the Haditha Marine command center. He said Navy investigators later interrogated him about the pictures and confiscated his camera.

At least two military investigations are underway into the Haditha case, which is emerging as possibly the worst case of alleged criminal misconduct by US forces in the three-year-old Iraq war. Of the 12 Marines being investigated, three to four are thought to have done the killing, according to officials briefed on the investigation. The others are being investigated for failing to stop the killings or for not reporting details truthfully.

Briones is the first of his unit to speak publicly about the events. Shortly after 7 a.m. on Nov. 19, Briones said his team of five men was called to respond to a roadside bomb explosion about 300 yards outside Kilo Company's Firm Base Sparta, located in an abandoned school.

When they arrived about 10 minutes later at the smoky, chaotic scene in a residential neighborhood, he said he saw the remains of his best friend, Lance Corporal Miguel ``T. J." Terrazas.

After the explosion, Marines began a sweep of homes looking for the bomber or people who knew his identity, according to officials briefed on the investigation. At some point, Marines entered three nearby homes, killing the people inside. Briones said he didn't see any of this.

He said his team evacuated two other soldiers in Terrazas' unit who were wounded in the explosion, including one, whom he identified as Lance Corporal James Crossan of Washington state, who was pinned under the wreckage. Briones and his team evacuated the two wounded to a field where they were picked up by a Blackhawk helicopter. He said he and his team then returned to the Sparta home base.

He said they were called back to the scene of the explosion about 5:30 p.m. the same day and assigned to mark the bodies of the victims by number and place them in body bags.

Briones said he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before his camera batteries died. He said he then helped other Marines remove the bodies and place them in body bags. He said his worst moment, and one that haunts him to this day, was picking up the body of a young girl who was shot in the head.

``I held her out like this," he said, demonstrating with his arms extended, ``but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs."