It was Christmastime 2005, during a family gathering in Encinitas. Private First Class John Jodka Jr., a 20-year-old Marine based at Camp Pendleton, was home for a holiday break before shoving off for his first tour of duty in Iraq. He wanted to assure his worried kin that he'd be OK; he knew what he was doing.
"He made a special point to bring his equipment-his flak jacket and some of the things that he'd be wearing-and he said, "I just want you guys to know that I've received training, and here's my equipment, so you have some confidence that I will be safe," recalled his mother, Carolyn Jodka. "And I thought that was so thoughtful of him."
The young Marine embarked in early January along with his mates in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, Kilo Company. But he returned to the States far sooner than anyone expected. In Iraq for just four and a half months, Jodka placed a collect call on Thursday, May 25, to his father, John Jodka Sr., from the brig at Camp Pendleton. He told his dad there'd been an incident in Iraq and he was under investigation. He didn't elaborate.
The next time his mom and dad saw him, two days later, he was sitting behind a prison-style glass wall, shackled at the hands and feet. He's been confined to "special quarters" ever since, awaiting court-martial locked up in what his dad said is an 8-by-9-foot cell with a drinking fountain and a toilet. He sleeps on a ledge equipped with an air mattress and gets one shower and one hour's worth of recreation each day. Visiting hours are 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. on weekends and holidays. It's not what John Jodka Jr. had in mind when he enlisted.
In the early-morning hours of April 26, Jodka's squad was on patrol in Hamdania, a village so small it doesn't appear on most maps of the country. About 70 miles outside of Fallujah, west of Baghdad and very near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, Hamdania is located in Anbar province, where much of the violent Iraqi insurgency has taken place. Suffice to say, Hamdania is a dangerous place for the Marines on the tip of the spear.
That morning, Hashim Ibrahim Awad, an Iraqi man in his 50s, died at the hands of Jodka's squad, and Jodka was one of the Marines who fired at him. On that everyone agrees. But that's where the U.S. government and the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman accused of murder and other crimes diverge in their accounts of what happened.
According to the government, some citizens of Hamdania complained to U.S. military officials in a regularly scheduled meeting on May 1 that the Marines had murdered Hashim. Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) have concluded that Jodka's squad, led by 22-year-old Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins of Plymouth, Mass., yanked Hashim from his home, took him out to the side of a road, bound his hands and feet and executed him. Investigators say the Marines dug a hole and placed a shovel, an AK-47 and some shell casings at the scene to make it look like Hashim had been planting a bomb and had fired on the squad when they suddenly appeared.
According to the Washington Post, Hashim was known in his village as "Hashim the Lame," a name given to him because of the metal bar in one of his legs. A Post correspondent interviewed members of Hashim's family, who said the Marines banged on his door at about 2 a.m. When the man opened the door, the Marines pulled him out. Shortly thereafter, the family heard shooting. In the morning, they found a large hole in a dirt road about 500 yards from Hashim's house, "wet with bloodstains and littered with discarded plastic gloves." They eventually recovered the body from a hospital at Abu Ghraib. They believe Hashim had been shot four times in the face. The Post obtained a photograph of a man identified by family members as Hashim. "What appeared to be at least four bullet holes could be seen in the photo-two in one cheek, one in the chin and one in the lip," the Post reported.
A neighbor told the Post that the Marines had stopped at his house first that morning and took a shovel and an AK-47. (Reportedly, citizens are permitted to have one such high-powered weapon per household for protection.) The Post also obtained a leaflet left by the Marines in Hamdania that said Hashim was a "saboteur" who was spotted digging a hole for a bomb, which is considered a hostile action, worthy of a response of deadly force. "The Marines fired at him and he returned fire from the AK-47 he had, which forced the Marines to fire back and kill him," the leaflet reportedly said.
Hashim's brother told the Post that American investigators who visited after the incident offered him an unspecified amount of money if he would say that Hashim was connected to the insurgency. A Camp Pendleton spokesperson told the Post that the U.S. military was unaware of any such misconduct but that the claim would be included in the investigation.
On June 21, Marine Col. Stewart Navarre announced at a press conference held at Camp Pendleton that Jodka and seven of his squad mates had been charged with murder, conspiracy, larceny, assault, housebreaking, kidnapping and obstruction of justice. Jodka and four others were also charged with making false official statements.
Jodka's alleged crimes made him eligible for the death penalty; however, at an Aug. 30 pretrial hearing, government prosecutors recommended against it.
Had Jodka not decided to join the Marines, it's unlikely he'd ever see the inside of a courtroom, let alone face the specter of life behind bars. In an interview at a park table in University City, Carolyn Jodka struggled to recall anything bad her son had ever done. She finally shrugged and said that sometimes he would come home late.
"It's unlikely that he'd ever get a speeding ticket," she said.
Carolyn, a scientist for a pharmaceutical company, spent her childhood in Cleveland, moving with her family to San Diego County when she was in high school. She met John Jodka at Torrey Pines High. John, a native of Del Mar, works at NASSCO, the shipbuilding company located at the Port of San Diego ("I buy the big toys that make ships go-engines, propellers, etc.," he said). The couple wed while they were attending USCD and were married for about 10 years before divorcing when their first child, John Jr., was 7.
John Jr.'s parents gave him the nickname "J.J." when he was a toddler. "When he was getting ready to go to kindergarten," Carolyn said, "he informed us, from now on, he would like to be called "John' in his very little, precocious 5-year-old way."
The youngster's request was apparently denied; his parents still call him J.J.
J.J., who's 20 years old now, was followed by two siblings, Devon (now 18) and Emily (15). Each did time at private Catholic schools. J.J. attended St. James Academy in Solana Beach through the eighth grade and graduated in 2004 from San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas.
Carolyn said her son was outspoken from an early age, which set him apart from his little brother, who was more introspective and reserved, although the boys have always been tight.
"You could not imagine two brothers who were not twins who were closer," Carolyn beamed. "From the minute Devon was born, J.J. just wrapped his whole being around him. Those two were like this, all their lives," she said, intertwining her index and middle fingers, "very protective of one another, respectful of their differences. It was, as a parent, very heartening to see."
Emily is more like her oldest brother, Carolyn said, very social.
J.J. enjoyed being the elder child, excelled in school and had lots of friends. He played sports informally, never in organized leagues.
"He had what I would call a relaxed childhood, not super-structured," his mom said.
J.J. became a voracious reader who developed a passion for history, particularly American presidential history. He'd hold court during family dinners, expounding on "anything and everything," Carolyn said. "He would be the one that was always last to finish because he would take a bite, then he would start talking. We'd all keep eating; he'd keep talking.
"He would sit up straight, speak clearly, look you right in the eye and make his point," she recalled. "He's a very eloquent speaker. As he was going through high school, I always thought he'd be a writer or a teacher. The spoken word, the written word, come very easily for him."
Early on, J.J. took an interest in the military; he talked about it some while in high school and met with recruiters. But "during his senior year, we kind of decided that the plan would be to go to college," his mom said. "He had a lot of choices."
J.J. enrolled at UC Riverside and did one semester before returning home for the holiday break with a big announcement.
"When he came home at Christmas, he was ready to tell us that he had made a decision. He had given it a lot of thought and really strongly felt the calling to service," Carolyn said. "To be honest with you, I was a little disappointed. For one, I was afraid-my son was enlisting in the military during a time of war. That made me afraid. But I was also hoping he would have finished college first."
Nonetheless, his parents trusted and had faith in their son.
"His father and I raised an independent thinker, and he was an adult at that point, and we both knew that he did not take this decision lightly," Carolyn said. "Even though it's not what I would have chosen for him, I respected him and we supported him in his decision."
J.J. enlisted and entered boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in May 2005, finishing at the end of July. "For him that was a huge accomplishment, because he was never an overly athletic guy, and boot camp was hard," Carolyn said. "I was so proud of him, and so proud of the fact that he made a decision and saw it through."
He went on to infantry training at Camp Pendleton and in 29 Palms before coming home at Christmas break for a couple of weeks. In January, 13 months after announcing his decision to join the Marines, he shipped off to Iraq.
It was cold when he arrived. Nighttime temperatures in Iraq can dip into the 30s in winter. A month or so into his tour, he was among the Marines who developed viral gastroenteritis, which had him "stuck under a blanket with an IV in his arm," his dad said.
It's apparently part of life during wartime, as are several weeks on end without a shower or a change of clothes, and getting used to a different clock. J.J.'s schedule had him working for eight hours, then four hours off, and on and on like that. He'd call his parents when he had a chance, often in the middle of the night, Iraq time.
He was the new kid, the "boot of the squad," John Sr. said. Most of his brothers in arms were on their second or third tours. His squad spent its time out in the field in Anbar province, in small towns around Baghdad, either in combat, monitoring roadblocks or interfacing with the locals. Carolyn said J.J. told her it seemed like an "appalling" place for children. He said they'd become giddy over gifts as mundane as a package of pencils. He'd hand out candy that the guys at the mess hall would otherwise toss out because the expiration date had lapsed.
His parents said he sounded tired mostly. He'd talk of his flak jacket being full of bullet holes. "Trying to make light of it, he says, "Yeah, you can tell, when the bullets are coming, how close they are, whether they hum as they go by you, or whiz,'" Carolyn said. "At one point, he said, "I can feel the heat as it passed my face.' That's about as close as it gets."
Must be a terrifying thing for a mother to hear her son say.
"Probably not as terrifying to hear as it is [for him] to live," she said, adding that J.J. says he now understands the power of adrenalin.
His father noted that the Marines are called "the bleeding edge." He said his son told him that Army troops never went out "past the wire" at the camp at Abu Ghraib, where J.J. was based part of the time, "because the Army leadership's figured out that they better not go out because something bad's going to happen to 'em if they actually engage in combat.
"If I were in the same position as those Army guys, knowing what I've seen happen to J.J., I'd do the same damn thing," John Sr. said. "I'd sit back and say, "You know what? Call in an artillery strike. I ain't going out there."
Upwards of 225 American service members died in Iraq during the four and a half months J.J. was there, according to Department of Defense statistics.
By May 25, John Sr. thought it was a bit odd that he hadn't heard from J.J. for about two weeks, since the day he'd asked his dad to send him a new camera, but he reasoned that J.J. was just out on an extended patrol and hadn't had a chance to call.
He didn't know that his son had been in custody at Camp Fallujah since May 12, where he was interrogated numerous times by NCIS agents, once for seven straight hours without a break, according to his lawyer, Joseph Casas. J.J. was flown to Camp Pendleton on May 24. His mom and dad first visited him on Saturday, May 27.
"When we went to see our son, I mean, it was appalling," Carolyn said. "He's in the jail suit, shackled at the hands, shackled at the feet." From behind the glass wall, he'd have to lower his head toward his midsection to push his glasses back up on his nose.
"It was surreal-like, how did this happen, why are we all here? It was like, I know this is a dream-I'm ready to wake up now. I'm really ready to wake up," she said.
J.J. didn't have a lot to say that day. For one, there are guards on hand during visitation time, so he was careful about revealing too much. But Carolyn thinks her son was also overwhelmed. "He was not able to tell us what his role was in this or why they felt he was involved," she said. "There's no such thing as a private conversation with him; there's always a Marine right there, so we don't have the confidentiality that our lawyers do, which is really frustrating."
J.J. looked on the bright side-at least no one was shooting at him, he didn't have to jump when heard loud noises, and he was getting regular meals.
Carolyn and John Sr. each said the same thing during separate interviews with CityBeat, something most parents would probably understand:
Carolyn: "The very first time I went to see him, he looked me right in the eye and he said, "Mom, you have nothing to worry about-I will walk out of here a free man.'"
John Sr.: "He looked me in the eye and says, "We were doing our job under the rules of engagement, in the best tradition of the Marine Corps.' That's not a canned statement-that came right back to me. He said, "Dad, I'm walking out of here a free man.'"
Every night on his way up the stairs to go to bed, John Sr. stops at J.J.'s picture on the wall and gently touches it. He does the same every morning on his way down. His son's predicament, he said, "is a nightmare that doesn't go away."
John Sr. is a passionate defender of his son's character. He and Carolyn have established a website (www.innocentmarine.com) that keeps visitors abreast of updates and solicits legal-defense donations. In a phone interview with CityBeat, he said the look J.J. gave him that day at the Camp Pendleton brig convinced him of his boy's innocence. He talked excitedly over the din of his surroundings at the NASSCO shipyard about how he believes J.J.'s case is nothing more than a political move designed show the new Iraqi government that the Americans are prepared to deal harshly with soldiers who go too far.
"This case is a case that shouldn't have gone anywhere to begin with," he said. "This is not only a rush to judgment, but a paying forward, if you will, of a political-correctness bill that's due and payable on the backs of these eight guys. The Marine Corps is trying to show that they are, quote-unquote, in control of their own."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has grown increasingly critical of the U.S. military, lashing out in the press over several allegations of rape and other acts of violence. He has said publicly that he believes such American misdeeds are a "daily phenomenon." A June 1 story in The New York Times quoted Maliki as saying the American armed forces "do not respect the Iraqi people. ... They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable." Maliki said American military attacks on civilians would play a role in how long the Americans would be asked to stay in Iraq, according to the Times story.
The Bush administration wants U.S. troops in Iraq until they're victorious.
Maliki, a Shiite, is said to be under pressure from Sunni members of the coalition government who are outraged by incidents such as the one that was revealed in a March issue of Time magazine. The incident occurred last November in the town of Haditha, where another group of Camp Pendleton Marines-from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment-allegedly gunned down 24 Iraqi civilians, including five women and six children, without provocation. The alleged slaughter occurred shortly after a Marine was killed in a roadside bomb attack. Lt. Gen. James Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton and commander of the Marines in Iraq-who has ordered courts-martial for Jodka and two other Marines so far in the Hamdania case-has not yet preferred charges in the Haditha case.
For John Jodka Sr., the timing between the two cases is no coincidence. The Haditha case created an uproar in March and April, leading right up to the accusations from the citizens in Hamdania. He believes the U.S. government is throwing a bone to Maliki.
"They were going to throw these guys in as deep and dark a hole as they possibly could to show the world that, "By god, we're on the ball,'" he said.
The United States is losing in Iraq, John Sr. reminded, adding that the only way out is through a "political solution, which they're counting on Maliki to provide with a stronger central government, and the only way they're going to get that stronger central government is to back him up"-and respond decisively to his complaints about rogue Marines.
Neal Puckett, the defense attorney representing Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, the leader of the squad of Marines involved in the Haditha case, said he believes that if there is top-down pressure being exerted, it's more likely that it's aimed making sure investigators have the resources they need to investigate allegations, rather than being aimed at making sure service members are convicted.
"I don't think Marine commanders are given too much to investigating and prosecuting people on sheer political reasons," said Puckett, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and a former military judge. "There's going to be some evidence before charges are brought."
Gary Solis, a law professor at Georgetown University, former Marine and former military judge, agreed. "Having been in the military-justice system for 20 years, and now having been a close observer for the last 15 years, I can't think of a case off hand where international politics or national politics has played a part in the prosecution.
"On the other side of the balance," he added, "there are many cases in Iraq where individuals have been murdered, and nobody's batted an eye, where no one's ever gone to trial, where no one's ever even been logged in to the unit's operations log."
The Washington Post has looked into how many military service members have been prosecuted for illegal killing of civilians in Iraq. The answer: surprisingly few. On Aug. 28, the paper reported that "only 39 service members were formally accused in connection with the deaths of 20 Iraqis from 2003 to early this year. Twenty-six of the 39 troops were initially charged with murder, negligent homicide or manslaughter; 12 of them ultimately served prison time for any offense."
The Post's examination included cases that were disposed of before the Hamdania incident occurred and before the Haditha incident was revealed, so the paper's numbers don't include the Marines involved in those cases.
John Sr. said his son's lawyers assure him that the military-justice system is fair. "And that very well may be the case," he said, "but from what I've seen, from a personal perspective, I can't say that I'm that impressed yet. Now, we'll see when it gets to court-martial, because I think that's the big variable that the Marine Corps can't control-and do I think that the Marine Corps and someone in the Defense Department has been controlling the script on this? I absolutely do."
In the Hamdania case, the positions of the defense and the prosecution are galaxies apart. J.J.'s attorneys, Joseph Casas and Jane Siegel, argue that his squad was following the rules of engagement. They say Hashim Ibrahim Awad was spotted, past curfew, digging a hole for an IED, and that in itself is considered a hostile action. They say the Marines gunned him down, and that they were right to do it.
But Solis believes the evidence must be awfully compelling for the case to have gotten this far. "The military does not send young men and women to general courts-martial on a he-said-she-said basis," he said. "There has to be some evidence of premeditation."
Solis noted the case of a Marine corporal based at Camp Pendleton who in November 2004 shot and killed an apparently wounded man in a Fallujah mosque. The incident was videotaped by a freelance journalist, and it looked to the world like the Marine took a certain amount of joy in killing a combatant who was lying on the ground and badly wounded. The incident was investigated and closed before it ever went to trial, because the Marine was able to convince an investigating officer, the official who presides over an Article 32 hearing-which is similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian justice, where the prosecution must show there's sufficient evidence to go to trial-that he believed the wounded man posed a threat to him.
At Jodka's Article 32 hearing on Aug. 30, Casas and Siegel acknowledged that the government had what they called "inflammatory" evidence, so explosive, they told the investigating officer, Col. Paul Pugliese, that he should bar government lawyers from reading it aloud, lest the assembled press disseminate it and potentially taint the jury pool. Pugliese agreed.
During a separate hearing held the same day-for Cpl. Marshall Magincalda-military prosecutors told Pugliese that they had confessions from three of the Marines. Defense attorneys objected to the term "confessions," preferring to call them "statements." Prosecutors didn't mention whether they had statements from the other five men.
(Based on Pugliese's report of the evidence handed over at Jodka's Article 32 hearing, Lt. Gen. Mattis ordered him to face court-martial on charges of murder, conspiracy, assault, housebreaking and holding a victim against his will. Dismissed were charges of making a false statement, larceny and endeavoring to impede an investigation. He pleaded not guilty on Oct. 4. Reportedly, he was moved to the Miramar Marine base, leading to speculation that he's ready to cut a plea bargain. However, his dad has told the press that there are no deals in the works.)
Casas and Siegel will argue that the statements were coerced.
"What this case is really about is these Marines' constitutional rights to a fair trial," Casas said.
Casas, interviewed in his office near Lindbergh Field, declined to discuss the defense strategy in specific terms. "Let's just say the completeness of the investigation is something that we're going to be putting under a magnifying glass," the attorney said.
J.J.'s dad put it more bluntly, saying he believes the NCIS investigation was a sham. John Sr. said his son and his squad mates, while confined at Camp Fallujah, were given pre-prepared statements to sign confessing to wrongdoing.
"That pre-typed statement wasn't the result of any investigation-it couldn't have been, because there wasn't enough time to do an investigation," he said.
The government will also have the testimony of 16 witnesses from Hamdania, witnesses defense attorneys can't get to because they've been denied military escort to the crime scene.
In fact, Casas has complained repeatedly in public that defending his client has been a little like fighting with both hands tied behind his back. He's quick to point out what the government hasn't provided to the defense: access to the crime scene, x-rays of Hashim Ibrahim Awad's body, the ability to talk to witnesses-the basic tools any lawyer needs to defend someone accused of murder.
Almost immediately after taking the case, Casas and Siegel found themselves in a battle over evidence as they prepared for the Article 32 hearing. In addition to their request to go to Hamdania under military protection, their request for the government to pay for forensic pathologists and ballistics experts were denied by Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who considered the requests premature, Casas said.
"In a preliminary hearing, you're entitled to a fair and impartial hearing," he told CityBeat, "and that should require you to have all the ammunition you need to put on the best defense possible."
There was no doubt in the defense attorneys' minds that the case would reach court-martial, and lacking key pieces of evidence, they asked to bypass the Article 32. That request, too, was denied. Three days before the hearing, the lawyers started receiving FedEx packages full of evidence, a move J.J.'s dad called "gamesmanship."
Casas says he's relieved, in a way, to be headed toward court-martial, because now he and Siegel will be making pre-trial motions before a military judge. He holds out some hope, for example, that some of his previously denied requests will soon be granted. Maj. Jeff Nyhart, a Camp Pendleton spokesperson, told CityBeat that the defense attorneys' request to visit the crime scene "is being considered; however a decision has not been made at this time." He also said there is a chance attorneys will be able to talk to Iraqi witnesses.
For his part, Puckett, the attorney in the Haditha case, told CityBeat that the capability to talk to witnesses is key, particularly because, he said, NCIS agents do their jobs assuming a crime has been committed. They collect only evidence that would assist prosecutors. And that's a problem, Puckett said, because initial reports are sometimes inaccurate or politically or personally motivated.
"With Hamdania, you would definitely want to do original interviews of so-called eyewitnesses. You'd want to re-interview witnesses that NCIS interviewed because there are whole categories of other questions that would never occur to NCIS to ask," Puckett said.
"Sometimes military criminal investigators will neglect to put in final witness statements things that are questionable or inconsistent with their original theory," he added. "If you don't get a chance to interview the witness, you're basically relying on the perspective of the NCIS agent as to what they thought was important, and what they thought ought to go in there, and what they thought would build a good case for military prosecutors because that's all they're interested in."
On that point, Solis disagrees. He believes NCIS does its job with an open mind because agents would be just as happy to not cause unnecessary trouble for the Marine Corps.
As one might expect from a defense attorney, Casas says he's undaunted.
"They think they have a lot of silver bullets," he said, "but the bottom line, whether they're going to be able to load those silver bullets into a gun, that's another story. That's why I thank God that we live in the country that we do, with the Constitution that we have. The Constitution is very strong, and when they can't bring the Iraqi accusers to trial, that says a lot."
Casas thinks he can help make the confident declaration J.J. gave his parents that day at the brig a reality.
"The facts are going to come out," he said. "The truth will come out, and at the end of the day, Pfc. Jodka is going to go home an innocent man."
That would be just fine with his mom, who doesn't recognize the guy the United States government says commited war crimes.
"The man that the government is accusing and portraying my son to be," she said, "is not the young man we raised and is not the young man that I know today."
The first letter J.J. sent his mother from Iraq:
SUNDAY 15 JAN, 2006
We made it safely into Iraq last week. We are busy, but have yet to start actual work. We are all anxious to get out there and get the job done. Right now we are stationed in Camp Mercury. Just outside Fallujah proper.
Believe it or not it is actually pretty fun here. It's nice to finally be out here doing the job we are trained for. We are all confident about our mission and glad that our brothers are here to take care of each other.
Time is short so I'll be brief. I miss you and I miss home. Please send letters as well as your thoughts and prayers. I don't need anything that could be mailed at the moment, but I will surely let you know. Please send everyone my love and pass along my address.
Love Your Son,