It was supposed to be a night of joy, of promising futures, of new life, as three Raiders headed to a bar in Erbil, Kurdistan, to celebrate the end of 2018. But before the sun rose, one American was critically injured and would end up dying. Three more would soon be fighting for their innocence in court.
A Tragic Night
Gunnery Sgt. Danny Draher, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Negron, and Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet had far more to celebrate than the dawning of 2019. Gunny Draher’s wife was expecting a child, and he was getting promoted to head of his own special operations team. Gunny Negron was slotted to follow him on that assignment as Draher’s second-in-command.
The bar was packed with contractors, civilians from several agencies, and service members of all ranks. Their paths had merged in the fight against the Islamic State, which was still plaguing the area outside of Erbil, a city that has managed to remain mostly unscathed from the Global War on Terror.
According to Article 32 proceedings, Rick Rodriguez, a contractor with Lockheed Martin and a retired Green Beret, was also in the bar – Rodriguez was a regular at the establishment. As the night continued, Rodriguez got into an argument with an unknown person. Approximately two hours later, he again got into an argument, this time with Gilmet. Rodriguez was escorted out of the bar, but when the three Raiders left the establishment, things reportedly took a turn for the worse.
According to the proceedings, Rodriguez physically attacked the three commandos, punching Draher twice in the face and going for a third punch before Negron responded, knocking out Rodriguez with a single punch. The former Green Beret hit the pavement and stayed down.
By that point, the group Rodriguez was with had abandoned him. But the three Raiders stayed and provided Rodriguez with first aid. They then transported him to base for further medical attention. Gilmet, a Special Operations Independent Duty Corpsman, stayed with and monitored Rodriguez all night until he was relieved.
However, Gilmet was soon recalled to the housing unit – Rodriguez had become unresponsive. The retired Green Beret was soon transported to a hospital in Germany, where he died four days later. The cause of death was determined to be complications caused by his intoxicated state and from having choked on his own vomit.
A weak case
Eight months later, the Marine Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, pressed charges against the three Raiders.
An Article 32 hearing is the equivalent of a preliminary hearing in the civilian world. It determines whether a case merits a court-martial. After their hearing, the three Raiders were charged with involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, obstructing justice, and violations of orders. The charges went against all available testimony and evidence, including CCTV video that captured the whole incident.
The preliminary hearing officer recommended dismissing the obstruction charge, because he did not find any probable cause. However, Maj. Gen. Daniel Yoo, MARSOC’s commanding general at the time and the convening authority for the case, moved forward with all charges.
“What the prosecution is really attempting to do is pile on spurious charges of manslaughter, negligent homicide, and obstructing justice, and then send the defendants to a court-martial for what effectively was an accusation that the defendants were out past curfew and consuming alcohol while in-country,” Nick Coffman, a journalist with United American Patriots, told 1945.
During that New Year’s Eve night, the Raiders were out drinking, thus violating General Order 1, which prohibits alcohol consumption in the Central Command’s area of operations. The prohibition is there for cultural and religious reasons – Islam bans alcohol for its followers.
But while Erbil is located in Iraqi territory, its culture is anything but Iraqi.
“[Erbil is] a different area than the rest of Iraq. It’s much more permissive,” NCIS Agent Matthew Marshall said during the Article 32 hearing. “It’s controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. They generally do things differently and dance to a different tune than the different government sectors of Iraq. So it’s much more of a permissive environment.”
Gunnery Sgt. Draher told 1945 that the operational and cultural realities in Iraq have changed greatly from the time of the initial invasion to the time of the campaign against Islamist insurgents. “Iraq isn’t the same place as OIF I and OIF II,” Draher said. “Erbil could be a city in Europe, or even here in the States. Erbil isn’t Baghdad.”
Several other Marines were issued non-judicial punishments for drinking, or for being out without permission. Indeed, the three Raiders were the only ones who had taken the trouble to sign out and get that permission. And while they missed curfew – a violation typically punished by a slap on the wrist – curfew wasn’t enforced consistently enough to justify such a response.
“At the time that the incident took place, the Marines were allowed to be out in town and were permitted to visit the establishments in Erbil. To say the prosecution is being overzealous is an understatement. The command overreacted and aggressively tried to prosecute this case when, realistically, they should have pursued a non-judicial course of addressing the situation. They tried applying a tourniquet when a band-aid would have sufficed,” added Coffman, who has written a screenplay on the events surrounding the case.
The maximum punishment for violating General Order 1 is two to three years in prison. The maximum penalty for all the charges combined is 25 years behind bars.
The MARSOC 3, as they have come to be known, never accepted the prosecution’s several plea deals. They are confident in the facts of the case and their innocence.
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