Falsely accused Marine commandos were just exonerated

After ten years of silence, the Pentagon has offered a lukewarm confirmation on the exoneration of a group of special operations Marines wrongfully accused of committing war crimes during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2007.

Even though it ostensibly appears to be a gesture of goodwill from the Pentagon towards the falsely accused Marines, it has done little to mitigate the public humiliation these elite commandos have endured in the decade since a routine mission went horribly wrong in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.

On the morning of March 7, 2007, a platoon of MARSOC Marines of Task Force Violent was dispatched to Shinwar District within Nangarhar to meet with local elders and build rapport. What the Marines of Violent didn’t know was that they were rolling into a carefully-planned ambush and would soon find themselves in a fight for their lives.

Upon moving into town, a suicide bomber in a van drove into the column of Humvees, his vehicle packed with explosives. Within seconds, gunmen hidden in nearby houses and on rooftops began raking the convoy with small arms fire. Quickly getting themselves out of the kill box, the MARSOC element drove off in a hurry, returning fire to cover their egression to safety.

A MARSOC Critical Skills Operators secures a landing zone in Helmand Province, Afghanistan (Photo from US Marine Corps)

Before the Marines had even made it back to their forward operating base, a grim and chilling story emerged of an intoxicated American fighting force brutally slaughtering civilians — children, women, and elderly men — at random in Shinwar.

MARSOC, short for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, was the newest addition to US Special Operations Command in 2006. TF Violent, made up of 120 Marines from MARSOC’s Fox Company and helmed by Maj. Fred Galvin, would be sent overseas to Afghanistan the following year for its initial deployment.

With operators drawn from the remnants of the Marine Corps’ Force Reconnaissance units, MARSOC boasted highly-trained asymmetric warfare specialists, capable of taking on and executing missions analogous to those carried out by the US Navy’s SEAL teams or the Army’s Special Forces.

Just as Galvin and the platoon made it back to their post, tall tales abounded of American troops entering homes and shooting indiscriminately in a frenzied fury. Death tolls varied with some capping off at 19 or 20 civilians killed in cold blood by Marines.

MARSOC Marines operating in Farah Province, Afghanistan (Photo US Marine Corps)

The situation rapidly disintegrated into a mess. Galvin was relieved of command and TF Violent was recalled to the United States. USSOCOM leadership, worried about another My Lai Massacre on its hands, went on record saying that there was nothing to support the veracity of TF Violent’s account of the ambush and attack.

In essence, USSOCOM had just publicly admitted that one of its own had committed a major war crime before any form of investigation or inquiry had proven their guilt. Galvin and his fellow officers were relieved and shuffled around. The Marines of Violent were held in limbo, their futures uncertain. If found guilty, they would face dishonorable discharges and a lengthy incarceration at Fort Leavenworth’s military detention facility.

In record time, negative press, including an article from the New York Times likening Shinwar to the infamous killings at Haditha, worsened matters for the shamed members of Violent. Public opinion slanted against all Americans present at Shinwar that fateful day.

Then-Lieutenant General Frank Kearney, Deputy Commander of USSOCOM at the time, lashed out against TF Violent, taking legal actions against its members after determining that they apparently did not come under fire from enemy irregulars in Shinwar. Kearney would quickly be accused of unlawful command influence in his efforts to discredit TF Violent.

However, in the following months, the prevailing story surrounding Shinwar began to crumble. Preliminary investigations convened by the military determined that the Marines of TF Violent used excessive force and appeared, at a first glance, to be very guilty of the war crimes they were accused of committing.

A MARSOC Critical Skills Operator waits in ambush with Afghan police and special forces while on patrol in Helmand Province (Photo from US Marine Corps)

An ensuing NCIS investigation and a court of inquiry convened by none other than then-Lieutenant General, James Mattis, absolved the Marines of TF Violent of any wrongdoing. There was little evidence to support that they had carried out a massacre of the civilian populace. Conflicting accounts from Afghan locals in Shinwar derailed the narrative and Navy investigators determined that only a handful of military-aged males were killed. A woman and a young boy did sustain minor injuries, but none as horrible as stories coming out of Shinwar claimed. Nevertheless, the Marines of Violent and the United States were the subject of weighty condemnations by the Afghan government, the United Nations, and Amnesty International.

Of the 120-strong complement of TF Violent, seven Marines, including Galvin, were singled out for charges and punishment, each due to their perceived role in what occurred in March 2007. Known as the MARSOC 7, these Marines were subject to threats, coercion, and even attempts at forced confessions through blackmail.

But by 2008, the Marines of TF Violent were released of any suspicion and absolved of all wrongdoing. The crimes they were accused of simply did not hold any water. Even after being declared innocent, in the past decade, the MARSOC 7 have suffered considerably from the stigma of being falsely accused of war crimes.

Unable to find jobs in the civilian world as a result of being labeled war criminals and faced with dead-end military careers, many were left to fend for themselves by a Corps that seemed to care more about its public image than its warfighters.

Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina has led a bipartisan effort to get these Marines a public apology and exoneration to once and for all put down the ghosts of Shinwar, so that the Marines can move on with their lives. Maj. Galvin, now retired after 30 years of service in the Corps, has been instrumental in getting the Pentagon to issue confirmation of Violent’s pardon.

Afghan police and army personnel patrolling Shinwar in 2017 (Photo US Army)

To that end, the Pentagon quietly confirmed to Jones that Galvin and his men had been found to be fully in the right on that fateful March day in 2007, and had executed the mission to the best of their training. Even still, this confirmation seems to be far less than what the Marine Corps and the Pentagon could do to fully clear the names of these MARSOC Marines.

Even with this latest move by the Pentagon, albeit a quiet and almost unnoticeable action, why was the Marine Corps so reticent about fixing the tarnished reputations of its most elite commandos?

The answer may lie within the considerable friction between MARSOC and the Army-led Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A), its overseer during its initial deployment. According to a Marine Corps Times series on the Shinwar affair in 2015, TF Violent’s Marines were generally under-supplied and ill-prepared for the environment they were thrust into.

While MARSOC Marines had to live a spartan lifestyle, feasting on packaged Meals Ready to Eat and going without replacement uniforms and gear, other special operations units operating under CJSOTF-A’s umbrella were provided with hot meals and well-stocked logistics and a supply chain.

During the March 7 attack itself, CJSOTF-A officers were seemingly unconcerned that a MARSOC platoon had been hit by an IED and was taking heavy fire. Though it was later recommended that officers manning the CJSOTF-A’s command post be charged with dereliction of duty, they were left uncharged.

An Afghan soldier questions a driver at a checkpoint in Shinwar (Photo US Army)

By the end of 2007, public opinion was firmly against the actions of TF Violent and the MARSOC 7 were faced with a worsening uphill battle, nearly impossible to win.

In the wake of Shinwar, the higher echelons of MARSOC appeared to be concerned with petty issues surrounding Violent and Fox Company’s officer leadership. Some critics argue that the leaders of the fledgling special ops outfit were trying to save face.

In doing so, they turned the MARSOC 7 and the Marines of TF Violent into scapegoats.

Galvin and Jones have spearheaded an effort over the years to publicly restore the names of the Marines of Violent and, to that end, Jones has introduced a Congressional resolution that would permanently set the record straight on Shinwar and the actions of Fox Company’s warfighters.

Between 2007 and the present day, MARSOC has evolved into a highly competent and effective special operations asset. Now referred to as the Raiders — a tribute to the Marines’ WWII-era unconventional warfare force — with their own special insignia, they undergo deployments around the world as directed by USSOCOM.

Though the first of the new Raiders, Galvin and the MARSOC 7 have neither been awarded the title nor the insignia, largely due to the false allegations that just won’t go away.

Officers from both MARSOC and CJSOTF-A who were involved in attempting to wring confessions out of the MARSOC 7 and discredit their actions were allowed to continue their careers with their respective branches with no mark or mention on their record noting their at-all-costs crusade against the Marines of TF Violent.

While the Pentagon’s quiet confirmation of TF Violent’s innocence has been the most these Marines have had to alleviate some of the burden of the past ten years, there is still far more the Department of Defense and Marine Corps can do to right this wrong.

It’s only a start.