Jan 25, 2012 27 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Joshua Waddell, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marines, appeared on his way to a stellar career as an American military officer. The son of a retired Navy SEAL commander, Waddell had won a Bronze Star during his first tour of duty in Afghanistan and had returned for a second.
Then he made a decision in combat that military experts say has severely jeopardized his future in the corps.
But some military experts say the black mark on Waddell’s record was undeserved, that he and other young American officers are being put in a difficult, if not impossible, situation by unreasonable rules of engagement foisted upon the military by politically sensitive commanders in the Pentagon.
The facts in Waddell’s case are spelled out in Marine Corps documents. But how those facts should be interpreted is a matter of heated dispute.
On Nov. 1, Waddell, a 25-year-old executive officer with 3rd Battallion, 7th Marine Corps Regiment, was monitoring a surveillance camera in Sangin, Afghanistan, when he spotted a man who had been identified as a bomb maker working with area insurgents. Two days earlier, a sergeant from India Company had lost both legs and a hand when a bomb detonated in their area of operation. The man spotted on the camera was believed to be responsible.
After receiving permission from his battalion commanders, Waddell ordered Marine snipers to open fire on the man, and he was hit. A group of Afghans rushed to the man, put him on a tractor and attempted to flee. Waddell ordered the snipers to hit the engine block of the tractor, disabling it so the man believed to be a bomb maker would not escape. The tractor was hit but no civilians were injured.
Then, about three weeks later, the civilians who helped remove the wounded man from the area were found to be teenagers.
As a result, Waddell was demoted from executive officer, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Seth Folsom, determined he had violated rules of engagement that governed when Marines could fire, and at whom. Folsom said Wadell “is not recommended for promotion” and “in violation of [combat rules] during an engagement.” The report stated that “noncombatant local nationals” were in the area of direct fire and that “the engagement resulted in a damaged local national vehicle.”
A Marine brigadier general who reviewed the case was sympathetic to Waddell, whom he described as a “superb and heroic combat leader. But the general said the decision on whether Waddell should be promoted was “the commander’s prerogative,” noting that the battalion commander on the scene had lost “confidence in [Waddell’s] abilities.”
Marine Maj. Shawn Haney, spokesman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said Waddell’s fitness report will go before a review board at the time of any promotion “and everything is under scrutiny, so Waddell will have a chance to defend himself against the accusations.” Still, Haney conceded, Waddell’s fitness reports play a “significant role in future promotions.”
The upshot is that Waddell’s career has been effectively blunted, his chance for promotion blocked.
Waddell is just one of hundreds of cases of troops who have suffered under stringent rules of engagement, said Jeff Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to U.S. Army Special Forces.
“We have hamstrung our military with unrealistic ROEs that do more harm to our soldiers than the enemy, and now a Marine’s career is on the line because he disabled a tractor,” Addicott said. “In many ways our military is frozen in fear of violating absurd self-imposed rules on the battlefield, How can you tell if it’s a teenager or a man, a farmer or an enemy when you’re fighting an insurgency?”
A Marine stationed in Afghanistan who does not know Waddell, but who has operated under the same rules, said, “The rules of engagement are meant to placate [President Hamid] Karzai’s government at our expense. They say it’s about winning the hearts and minds, but it’s not working. We’re not putting fear into the enemy, only our troops.”
Waddell’s father, Mark Waddell, who served more than 25 years in the military and retired as a commander of a Navy SEAL team, said his son and other Americans fighting in Afghanistan are being victimized by these rules.
“I feel what’s happened to my son is a complete betrayal, and he isn’t the only one,” said Waddell, of Fort Worth, Texas. “Josh is a hero. We expect them to go out and make instantaneous combat decisions, then we Monday-morning quarterback their decisions. It’s an outrage.”