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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2006 | The smell of barbequed meats and the sound of children playing drift over the neighborhood as one of the final days of August comes to a close.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Pacific Beach, the Admiral Hartman community is one of those rare Southern California neighborhoods that boasts ample parking, tree lined streets and actual homes with neatly kempt yards big enough to run around in.
A cluster of more than 400 ranch style homes built in the 1960s, the community straddles Garnet Avenue and is home to officers and non-commissioned officers in the Marines and Navy as well as their families. Orderly and uniform, life here on and around Pendleton Street, the neighborhood’s main artery, seems eerily idyllic.
But 30 miles to the north, at Camp Pendleton, seven Marines and one Navy medic are facing murder charges for their alleged roles in the April shooting death of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamdaniya. The first in a string of preliminary hearings began last week for two of those Marines and while those cases have garnered international headlines, they haven’t received much attention here.
Most of the servicemen who live here are stationed at Miramar, the 32nd Street Naval Station, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot or Coronado’s North Island Naval Base. Many are assigned to aviation or training related duties, while all of the Marines facing charges at Camp Pendleton are members of the infantry – the foot soldiers. Despite the difference in duties, Marines as whole have a reputation for holding a lifelong bond. Yet many of those who live here aren’t following the drama that’s swirling around their fellow Marines to the north. Those who are say they’re reserving judgment.
Chief Warrant Officer Rob Czikalla took a time out from playing hockey with his son in the breezeway between his house and garage to say he’s aware of the hearings but not paying attention to them.
Czikalla, a Miramar-based pilot who’s served in the Marines for 16 years and just returned from a seven month deployment in Iraq in July, said he’s too busy at work to focus on the hearings, which are the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceeding.
With potential disgrace hanging over the Marine Corps, Czikalla said he doesn’t feel the alleged acts of others will tarnish his branch of the service.
“Hundreds of people go to the grand juries and never get charged with anything,” he said. “If they are convicted of what they say, it wouldn’t be good but we’ll have to wait and see what the evidence is.”
Many of the Marines who live off of Pendleton Street didn’t want to comment on the record. Others were only willing to comment based on the condition of anonymity because they said their statements could get them in trouble with their superiors.
One gunnery sergeant who is currently assigned to aviation maintenance at Miramar said the cases aren’t making waves in the neighborhood.
“It’s not like I’ve got my neighbor coming over to me saying ‘Hey did you hear what those Marines did?’” the gunnery sergeant said. “Pretty much everybody has their own sense of what’s going on, but everybody also has their own little piece of the pie in this war that they have to deal with.”
Calling the start of the hearings “a sad day” for the Marine Corps, the gunnery sergeant, who has served 22 years in Marine Corps, said he isn’t surprised that some troops are facing charges.
“We are at war. Whether people want to admit it or not we are at war,” the gunnery sergeant said. “As such, there are going to be things that are going to happen that are good, there are going to be things that happen that are bad and there are going to be things that happen that fall into the gray area in between.”
The gunnery sergeant said he isn’t ready to prejudge whether the actions of the accused Marines have fallen into any one of those three categories.
A staff sergeant at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where he works as a drill instructor, was one of the few Admiral Hartman residents who said he’s followed the cases in the news.
Because he hasn’t been to Iraq, the staff sergeant said he can’t put himself in the shoes of the accused but he said he’s giving them the benefit of the doubt simply because they are Marines.
The staff sergeant, who’s spent 13 years in the Marine Corps, said his coworkers have also been following the case closely but weren’t as optimistic about the guilt of the service men.
“People do talk about it,” the staff sergeant said. “Most are in disbelief. As a culture we believe what we hear initially.”
It’s the motivation of the prosecutors that has the staff sergeant concerned. He said comments made by Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., about the guilt of Marines accused in an unrelated but similar case, and unrelenting media attention have put military officials in the position of having to satisfy the public’s outcry.
The Marines should be prosecuted “because it’s the right thing to do, not because of any outside influences,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the cases, the staff sergeant said he hopes the Marine Corps can learn from the incident and that those lessons will filter down to the new recruits he’s responsible for training.
Another gunnery sergeant who maintains helicopters at Miramar said he doesn’t know the full story behind the cases and said he’s not sure the American public should either “because there is nothing pretty about war” and “the media and the general public have no clue what goes on.”
Heading to Iraq for the first time in March, the gunnery sergeant said he’s content to let justice run its course.
“I hope that no matter what, the truth comes out – the real story,” the gunnery sergeant said. “I hope for the best but if they did wrong I hope the punishment fits the crime.”