LYNN NEARY, host:
Last week at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Marine Corporal Matthew Nelson was sentenced to eight years for killing a fellow Marine in what's known as a trust game. In March, Nelson pointed an M-9 pistol at Lance Corporal Patrick Malone and asked him something like, do you trust me? Moments later, Nelson pulled the trigger, a gunshot sounded and Malone was dead with a bullet hole in his forehead.
During the investigation that followed, it became clear that there had been other incidents of playing trust games in this platoon. No one was injured in those incidents, but so far, two more Marines and a Navy corpsman have been court-martialed.
Trista Talton covered this story for the Marine Corps Times. She joins us by phone from Jacksonville, North Carolina. Trista, welcome to the program.
Ms. TRISTA TALTON (Marine Corps Times): Thank you.
NEARY: First of all, can you explain to us what this trust game is exactly?
Ms. TALTON: Well, with this particular unit, it was primarily played by senior members of the unit who would basically make it look as if their pistols were ready to fire a round. They would point the weapon at usually a junior Marine and ask: Do you trust me? And what we have learned over the testimony of the past couple of days and court martials was that most of the time they would say yes.
NEARY: And then the idea was that whoever was holding the gun would pull the trigger and presumably the idea was that it was not supposed to go off.
Ms. TALTON: Right. Either pull the trigger or pull the gun away and show that the weapon was clear. It's not like Russian roulette. There's not supposed to be a round in the chamber.
NEARY: Well, you said in this particular unit. So that implies that this goes beyond just this one particular unit. I mean, is this a new phenomenon or not?
Ms. TALTON: No. We traced cases back to Japan in the late 1990s. Trust was played by Marines holding each other out of the third story of a building. When they're at the third story of the building, somebody let go and a Marine was killed. I had not heard of this game until July of this year when a private stationed at Camp Lejeune allegedly killed his civilian roommate playing this game. With this case this past week, there was testimony of Marines who were saying, no, I've heard of this game in deployment two years ago.
NEARY: How did it come to be? What's the idea behind this?
Ms. TALTON: No one really seems to know. We're not sure when or where it originated. What we do know is that for these Marines and 2nd Tank Battalion out of Camp Lejeune was that it was a way to build camaraderie. You know, when we're in a warzone together I can trust you. Prove it to me.
NEARY: Did Corporal Nelson have anything to say about his actions during the court martial?
Ms. TALTON: He used words like foolishness, stupid - it was a stupid game. He directly apologized to Malone's family in the courtroom.
NEARY: And he did plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, didn't he?
Ms. TALTON: Yes, he did.
NEARY: Were there witnesses to this? Were there other people in the room when it happened and what did they say?
Ms. TALTON: This happened - it was in Iraq. There were eight other Marines in the room. Nelson came in, threw some of his gear on his bed, walked over to a bed near Lance Corporal Malone's bed, talked to a Marine, played the game on him, turned around and then played the game on Malone.
NEARY: So there was somebody else who escaped any injury in this game, you're saying?
Ms. TALTON: Right. Nelson also pleaded to seven counts of reckless endangerment, which means he admits to pointing his service pistol at six Marines and a Navy corpsman. And he testified in court that he played this game on each of those people two to three times.
NEARY: Trista Talton is a staff writer for the Marine Corps Times. She joined us from Jacksonville, North Carolina. Trista, thanks for being with us.
Ms. TALTON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.