Military Town Reacts to Marine Arrests

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Military officials announced charges Wednesday against seven Marines and a sailor accused of killing an Iraqi civilian in Hamdania. The suspects are being held at Camp Pendleton in California. The civilian community in Oceanside, Calif., where many residents are affiliated with the base, has its own view of the case.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Colonel STEWART NAVARRE (United States Marines): Seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with offenses, including kidnapping, murder and conspiracy, in connection with the death of an Iraqi civilian in Hamdaniya, Iraq.

INSKEEP: Marine Colonel Stewart Navarre spoke yesterday at Camp Pendleton, California. That's where the suspects are being held, following an incident in April. They were looking for insurgents when they allegedly pulled an unarmed Iraqi from his home. According to the charges, they bound his hands and feet and then shot him.

WERTHEIMER: This is one of two deadly incidents we're learning more about this morning, and we begin near Camp Pendleton, where NPR's Ina Jaffe has been listening to the response to the criminal charges.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Oceanside is a company town, and the company is Camp Pendleton. It seems everyone here is either a Marine or knows someone in the Corps, either as a customer, a neighbor, a relative or a friend.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: At one o'clock yesterday afternoon a couple of Vietnam vets sat at the Strand bar, a pitcher of beer in front of them, and CNN on the TV above.

(Soundbite of television broadcast)

Colonel NAVARRE: It is important to note that the charges and specifications are accusations against the individuals, and the accused is presumed innocent.

JAFFE: For Bill Lewis(ph), former Army, and Rick Garcia(ph), former Navy, the news report was disturbing.

Mr. BILL LEWIS (United States Army, Retired): How can they prove that they were bloodthirsty and not doing their job?

Mr. RICK GARCIA (United States Navy, Retired): How come they can come and blow our people up, but we can't, you know, be so scared that we have to blow somebody up, too?

Mr. LEWIS: I don't think the Marines did that. I think they just did what those people were doing to them.

JAFFE: Bars like the Strand seem to make about a quarter of the businesses in the few square blocks of Oceanside's beachfront downtown. In fact, there seemed to be only four kinds of establishments here: bars, military surplus stores, uniform cleaners and tailors, and barber shops.

JAFFE: At Best Barbers(ph), the ballgame was on the tube and Dick Wilford(ph) was giving a customer the standard Marine haircut he's been doing for years. It comes with his special straight razor trim around the edges. Wilford, a Marine veteran himself, said he was sorry to hear about the criminal charges.

Mr. DICK WILFORD (United States Marines, Retired): You got the jury (unintelligible), you know, and if they did or they didn't, we don't know for sure. Because I know the Marines don't teach you to murder people. I know that.

JAFFE: Right next door to Best Barber is the headquarters of the First Marine Division Association, a sort of alumni and philanthropic organization. Reserve Colonel Chris Wright is in charge.

Colonel CHRIS WRIGHT (Reserve Colonel, First Marine Division Association, United States Marines): Listening to the news accounts of these young Marines, they sound like the all-American boys.

JAFFE: He trusts the Marines to give them a fair trial, and said he'll suspend judgment until there's a verdict.

Colonel WRIGHT: Like any other Marine, we don't want to believe that our Marines did that. I think the truth will come out.

JAFFE: In the age of televised celebrity trials, when almost anyone with a TV feels qualified to weigh in with an opinion, Oceanside seems like the world capital of wait and see. And the people here may not be that far ahead of the rest of America in giving the men and women serving in Iraq the benefit of the doubt.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked how the Marines involved in the alleged killings of two dozens civilians in Haditha should be treated; only a third of those polled felt the Marines should be criminally charged, about half favored reprimand.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

JAFFE: That reticence and ambivalence were reflected in the views of Martha Harmon(ph) and Cynthia Smith(ph), visitors from L.A. and Long Beach, respectively, as they strolled along the Oceanside pier.

Ms. MARTHA HARMON: They're just totally stressed out. I mean, they're surrounded by danger all the time when they're there.

Ms. CYNTHIA SMITH: And I want to mention, there's no way in the world they should be killing randomly like that, innocent people. Now that's my feeling about it.

Ms. HARMON: Well, who says they killed them?

Ms. SMITH: Well, if they killed . . .

Unidentified Woman: Well, who was there?

Ms. SMITH: Right. If they're guilty. If they're guilty.

JAFFE: About a block from the pier are a couple of Camp Pendleton Marines, Lance Corporal Richard Cabel(ph) and his friend, Lance Corporal Singer(ph), were enjoying a trip to town after a long bout of training, training they believed would keep them from making the wrong decisions.

Lance Corporal RICHARD CABEL (Corpsman, United States Marines): We know our jobs.

Lance Corporal SINGER (Corpsman, United States Marines): We try to be as professional as possible. You have to use discrimination over there.

Lance Corporal CABEL: We're well prepared for what we have over. We can handle anything.

JAFFE: They exude a confidence, though they acknowledge they haven't been to Iraq, yet. They haven't seen the horrors of war, the actions of the enemy, or perhaps of a comrade.

I'm Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Oceanside, California.

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