CAMP PENDLETON, California (AP) – A slight, soft-spoken Navy corpsman testified that Marines in his patrol seized an Iraqi civilian from his home, threw him into a hole and put at least 10 bullets in his head and chest after growing frustrated in their search for an insurgent.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos said Friday that he saw a Marine put fingerprints from the victim onto a rifle and on a shovel to implicate him as an insurgent. “I was shocked and I felt sick to my stomach,” Bacos said.
Bacos, a medic who had been on patrol with the squad, was charged along with seven Marines in the slaying of Hashim Ibrahim Awad last spring in the town of Hamdania. But Bacos, 21, struck a deal with prosecutors under which he pleaded guilty to kidnapping and conspiracy and agreed to testify Friday at his court-martial and during upcoming proceedings about what he saw.
Military judge Col. Steven Folsom sentenced Bacos to 10 years in prison but reduced the term to one year because of the plea agreement. That will be further reduced by time served.
A reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge also were suspended because of the deal approved by the military authority that convened the court-martial.
In return for Bacos’ testimony, other counts of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy were dropped. “Why didn’t I just walk away?” Bacos asked before being sentenced. “The answer to that question was I wanted to be part of the team. I wanted to be a respected corpman, but that is no excuse for immorality.”
Prosecutor Capt. Nicholas Gannon said, “We are in Iraq to protect Iraqis and that fact makes this case more tragic and more criminal.”
Bacos said he asked the Marines to let Awad go, but Cpl. Marshall L. Magincalda told him in crude terms that he was being weak and should stop protesting.
“I knew what we were doing was wrong,” Bacos testified, speaking nearly in a whisper. “I tried to say something and then I decided to look away.”
Bacos was the first of the servicemen to be court-martialed. The seven others could get up to life in prison.
Prosecutors have said the servicemen killed Awad out of frustration and then planted the assault rifle and shovel by the body to make it look as if he had been caught digging a hole for a roadside bomb.
Bacos testified that the squad entered Hamdania on April 26 while searching for a known insurgent who had been captured three times, then released. Squad leader Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins was “just mad that we kept letting him go and he was a known terrorist,” Bacos said.
The group approached a house where the insurgent was believed to be hiding, but when someone inside woke up, the Marines instead went to another home and grabbed Awad, a former policeman, according to the testimony.
Bacos said the squad had intended to get someone else if they did not capture the insurgent, then stage a firefight to make it appear they had found an Iraqi planting a roadside bomb.
Awad, 52, was taken from the home with his feet and hands bound, then placed in a hole, Bacos said. “I felt I couldn’t stop it any more that day,” Bacos testified. “They were going to do it. They were going to carry out the plan, so I continued on.”
Bacos said Hutchins fired three rounds into the man’s head after checking to see if he was dead, then Cpl. Trent Thomas fired seven to 10 more rounds into his chest.
After the killing, Bacos said Hutchins called in to a command center and reported the squad had seen a man digging a hole and wanted permission to fire at him.
Bacos said he saw Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington put the victim’s fingerprints onto an AK-47 and on a shovel to implicate him as an insurgent who had fired first. Bacos was told to fire an AK-47 into the air to simulate the sound of a firefight.
After the killing, Bacos said, he was standing in the road when another Navy corpsman drove by. “He asked me what happened, and I was very vague,” Bacos testified. “I said, ‘I want you to remember something. We’re different. We’re not like these men.”‘
Bacos’ wife and father sat in the front row of the courtroom during the court-martial. During a break, Bacos turned to her and mouthed the words, “I love you.”
Bacos was recently transferred from Camp Pendleton, where the Marines have been held, to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar for his own safety.