Bloody Scenes Haunt a Marine
Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones says he is tormented by two memories of Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha, Iraq.
The first is of the body of his best friend and fellow Marine blown apart just after dawn by a roadside bomb. The second is of the lifeless form of a small Iraqi girl, one of two dozen unarmed civilians allegedly killed by members of his Camp Pendleton unit -- Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Briones, a wiry, soft-spoken 21-year-old interviewed Sunday at his family home in this Central Valley city, said he was not among the small group of Marines that military investigators have concluded killed the civilians, including children, women and elderly men.
However, Briones, who goes by Ryan, said he took photographs of the victims and helped carry their bodies out of their homes as part of the cleanup crew sent in late in the afternoon on the day of the killings.
“They ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I’ll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart,” Briones said.
He said he erased the digital photos he took at the scene after first providing them to the Haditha Marine command center. He said Navy investigators later interrogated him about the pictures and confiscated his camera.
At least two military investigations are underway into the incident at Haditha, which is emerging as possibly the worst case of alleged criminal misconduct by U.S. forces in the 3-year-old Iraq war.
Of the 12 Marines being investigated, three or four are thought to have done the killing, according to officials briefed on the investigation. The others are being investigated for failing to stop the killings or for not reporting the incident truthfully.
Briones is the first of his unit to speak publicly about the events. His account provides background on the atmosphere and activities that day in the Euphrates River town and the traumatic memories it left in its wake.
Shortly after 7 a.m. on Nov. 19, Briones, who received a Purple Heart during a previous tour in Iraq that included fierce fighting in Fallouja, said his team of five men was called to respond to a roadside bomb explosion about 300 yards outside Kilo Company’s Firm Base Sparta, located in an abandoned school.
When they arrived about 10 minutes later at the smoky, chaotic scene in a residential neighborhood, he said he saw the remains of his best friend, Lance Cpl. Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas, his body split in half, resting in the destroyed Humvee in which he had been riding.
“He had a giant hole in his chin. His eyes were rolled back up in his skull,” Briones recalled of the 20-year-old Texan. Briones said he draped a poncho over the body of his drinking buddy and workout partner and said a short prayer over his body: “Rest in peace. You are my brother by another mother. I love you, man.”
After the explosion, Marines began a methodical sweep of homes looking for the bomber or people who knew his identity, according to officials briefed on the investigation. At some point during the sweep, Marines entered three nearby homes, killing the people inside.
But Briones said he didn’t see any of this.
“It was such a blur. Smoky and smelled like an explosion,” Briones said. “I only saw T.J. because he was right there. I practically walked into him.”
He said his team evacuated two other soldiers in Terrazas’ unit who were wounded in the explosion, including one, whom he identified as Lance Cpl. James Crossan of Washington state, who was pinned under the wreckage.
Briones and his team, including a Navy medical corpsman he identified as Brian Witt, evacuated the two wounded to a nearby soccer field where they were picked up by a Black Hawk helicopter. He said he and his team then returned to the Sparta home base.
“We went back to the firm base and just waited,” Briones said. “A lot of people were mad. Everyone had just had a [terrible] feeling about what had happened to T.J.” Still in shock over the death of his best friend, Briones said he retreated to a dark corner of the camp to collect his thoughts. Only 20 at the time, he said he didn’t want his even younger 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon team members to see that he was grieving.
He said he and his team remained at the camp until they were called back to the scene of the explosion about 5:30 p.m. the same day.
When they arrived, Briones said that most of the Marines on the site were sergeants or above, including several officers: “I remember because they didn’t have enough lance corporals to deal with the bodies.”
Briones said his team was assigned to mark the bodies of the victims by number and place them in body bags. He said a sergeant or a junior officer, he couldn’t recall which, asked if any of the Marines carried personal cameras and that he and another Marine, whom he identified as Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright of Novato, said they did.
“You are going to be combat photographers,” Briones said they were told.
Briones said he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before his camera batteries died. He said he then helped other Marines remove the bodies and place them in body bags. He said his worst moment, and one that haunts him to this day, was picking up the body of a young girl who was shot in the head.
“I held her out like this,” he said, demonstrating with his arms extended, “but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs.”
As he spoke, his mother, Susie Briones, 40, a Hanford community college teacher, who was sitting beside him at the kitchen table, silently wiped away tears.
Earlier she confided to a reporter that her son called frequently from Iraq after he experienced nightmares over the little girl.
“He called me many times,” she said, “about carrying this little girl in his hands and her brains splattering on his boots. He’d say, ‘Mom, I can’t clean my boots. I can’t clean my boots. I see her.’ ”
Ryan Briones said that he and other members of the cleanup crew remained at the site until about 11 p.m. When he came back he said he dropped his Olympus 3.2 megapixel camera by the unmanned Sparta base command operations center. When he returned a few hours later he said it looked like the camera had been moved so he assumed someone had downloaded the pictures and he erased them all.
But whether the photos ever reached authorities, who also have pictures from an intelligence investigation team and another source, is not clear.
Briones also said that he did not want to give the impression that he still had copies of the photographs because he did not want his possessions or those of his family searched by Navy investigators. He said there had been several examples recently of Navy investigators confiscating computers and PlayStation consoles capable of storing photographs.
The photos later became the main focus of questions by investigators who interviewed Briones for several hours in Iraq in March, shortly before he returned home. In the second interrogation, which he said took place at the battalion headquarters at Haditha Dam north of the city of Haditha, investigators showed him photographs of the bodies similar to his but shot from different angles.
“They wanted to know if the bodies had been moved or tampered with,” Briones recalled. He said he had not been interviewed by Navy investigators since his return, although other Marines in his company had been interrogated repeatedly for hours at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service at Camp Horno, part of sprawling Camp Pendleton.
In early April, less than 36 hours after his return from Iraq, Ryan Briones got into serious trouble in his hometown that he and his family say was related to stress from the Haditha incident.
Briones was charged with stealing a pickup truck, crashing it into a house, leaving the scene of the accident, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. A picture of the spectacular crash with a white Ford F-150 lodged in a Hanford living room appeared on the Hanford Sentinel’s front page April 4.
Released from Kings County jail April 5 on $35,000 bond, Briones has a court date set in mid-June.
His mother said that her son has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and is being treated by a San Diego physician for his post-traumatic symptoms.
“My son saw what the Marines did, and he knew who did it before the Haditha investigations began,” the mother wrote in a long letter to local authorities seeking leniency in the criminal cases.
“He saw the killings and knew who sent the word out to do the killings, he had to clean up the bodies of children who were sleeping in their beds and he saw his best friend die in front of his eyes.”
Susie Briones said she is angry at what she described as the Marines’ failure to adequately “decompress” him and other Marines when they come home from combat. She said she was writing a book to help other families avoid what she and her son are going through.
“I used to be one of those Marines who said that post-traumatic stress is a bunch of bull,” said Ryan Briones, who has prescriptions for anti-depressants and sleeping pills. “But all this stuff that keeps going through my head is eating me up. I need immediate help.”
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.