- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

BROCKTON, Mass. (AP) — Patrick Barnes still wears a crew cut and sits ramrod straight in his chair. Before clamping his cell phone shut, he says “semper fi.” instead of “bye” to a buddy.

Mr. Barnes, a 58-year-old Marine veteran of Vietnam who earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered during the 1968 Tet offensive, is still military through and through. He knows that in war, things happen, and triggers are pulled in split-second decisions.

That is why Mr. Barnes and fellow Vietnam veterans are starting a legal-defense fund for Americans charged with war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re not concerned with guilt or innocence,” he said. “We just want to make sure they have the best defense possible. Sitting here in Brockton or Quincy or New York or California, we don’t know what happened.”

Similar defense funds have sprung up. The mother of a Marine from New York who was cleared of murder charges created a fund, as did a group led by a retired Marine officer in Greensboro, N.C., who was twice wounded in Vietnam.

The funds have been set up in reaction to a series of cases in which U.S. servicemen have been charged with murder.

The Pentagon has contended that many of these cases do not involve split-second decisions made in the fog of war, but were deliberate, vengeful killings.

Among the major cases: Marines are under investigation on suspicion they deliberately killed 24 Iraqi civilians in a revenge attack after one of their own died in a roadside bombing Nov. 19 in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold.

Separately, seven Marines are awaiting trial at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on charges of killing an Iraqi last spring in Hamdania. Prosecutors said that Marines, frustrated in the search for an insurgent, dragged a civilian from his home, stuck him in a hole and fatally shot him. They are accused of leaving a rifle and shovel nearby to make it look as if he had been caught digging a hole for a roadside bomb.

The Brockton veterans say they respect the Judge Advocate General Corps, the legal arm of the military, but fear the corps’ young officers won’t provide the best defense, especially against higher-ranking, experienced prosecutors. The defense fund would enable the servicemen to hire civilian defense attorneys if they choose.

“I try more cases in a month than some guys try in their careers,” Charles W. Gittins, a civilian lawyer who specializes in defending servicemen, said of JAG Corps lawyers.

The public affairs office at JAG headquarters did not return calls for comment. The Marine Corps Forces Central Command declined to comment.

The Brockton-area men have raised $6,000 so far for the Military Combat Defense Fund. Any U.S. military personnel charged in a violent crime in Iraq and Afghanistan is eligible.

At least 14 U.S. servicemen have been convicted since 2003 on charges resulting from the deaths of Iraqis, according to information compiled by the Associated Press.

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