Sharky’s and “The Golden Boy”—Military Justice Abandons the Vulnerable to Protect the Powerful
Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a multipart series. Read part one, part two, and part four.
On March 23, 2003, Lt. Col. John “The Judge” Ewers ordered five Marines to prepare for an 80-mile mission to search for an individual.
It was the third day of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
They had two unarmored vehicles: El Bandito and Chow Hall.
They had little ammunition and no machine guns or rockets to counter an ambush.
And they had no medic or Navy corpsman to help if anyone was wounded.
At 10 a.m., the six Marines left a combat outpost near an-Nasiriyah, and, as they drove past small villages and towns, they saw civilians and soldiers fleeing the Iraqi military roaming the shoulders of the highways. People begged for food and water.
“Their eyes told a tale of torture, poverty, and subjugation,” wrote Joe Plenzler, a Marine Corps officer involved in the mission who later served as the spokesperson for three commandants. “I saw embarrassment and defeat in its lowest form. They were nomads in a wasteland.”
As the two-vehicle convoy approached the village of Safwam, the six Marines conducted a “fruitless search” for the British forces they intended to link up with. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the troops had relocated the night prior.
A few miles down the road, the Marines stumbled across a British checkpoint. When they asked for directions, the British soldiers told them to continue driving and they would arrive at their location just down the road.
But their convoy never made it.
Instead, Ewers got lost, and the six Marines—who all specialized in law and public affairs, not infantry tactics—became the first Americans to drive into the city of az-Zubayr, Plenzler wrote.
As they sped into the winding streets, they drove past rooftop firing positions and machine-gun bunkers reinforced with sandbags. They saw civilians scatter to safety as enemy fighters began to grab their weapons. Rubble and debris littered the streets.
“We were being canalized into a series of kill zones,” Plenzler wrote.
They saw the enemy laugh as they sped by.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Bullets smashed through the Marines’ windshield and pinged across the vehicle’s thin metal body. Volley after volley of gunfire and rockets rained down on them. The Marines returned fire out the windows.
Ewers took the first bullet—a through-and-through to his left forearm. He switched his pistol hand and continued to fire at the enemy.
Ewers took another bullet, this time in his right forearm. Another through-and-through. Their Humvee’s tires screeched around corners as they fled the barrage of bullets and prayed to escape alive.
“I don’t like to say we were ambushed, because we expected contact—but we got ambushed,” Ewers said at a news conference in Bethesda, Maryland, days after he was wounded, according to The Washington Post.
“At each turn, we were hit with another attack, similar to the first,” Ewers said.
“I don’t think it dawned on me that I was in as much danger as I was and I had, again, the good fortune to have some pretty good Marines with me who were doing a lot of shooting to make sure that we got through,” Ewers explained during a 2020 interview with the nonprofit Americans in Wartime Experience.
“I was just trying not to shoot the driver because I was shooting my [nine-millimeter pistol] across the front of the vehicle with gunshot wounds to my arms.”
Lance Cpl. Henry Lopez was the second Marine to get shot. A bullet ripped through a case of water bottles and a two-by-four before it entered his back and barely missed his spine.
Then the rifle Lopez borrowed for the patrol malfunctioned.
The group noticed a British tank in the distance. As they sped toward it, the enemy lobbed rockets in a last-ditch attempt to kill them. When they made it to the tank, two Marines from Ewers’ vehicle got out to check on Lopez.
“He’s hit,” one of the Marines said.
“We need a medic!” another yelled.
Meanwhile, Ewers asked for a lip of snuff as the Brits injected him with Morphine.
As British troops cared for Ewers and Lopez, the Marines could hear the sounds of a Black Hawk helicopter as it arrived to evacuate the wounded. They used an orange-smoke grenade to mark the landing zone.
After they loaded Ewers and Lopez onto stretchers and placed them inside the bird, the helicopter took off. They watched as the two Marines disappeared across the horizon.
“We failed in our mission,” Plenzler wrote. “Thank God and thank God for Brits. We should be dead.”
“His Purple Heart Gave Him Street Cred”
Ewers’ carelessness and lack of preparedness for combat operations not only jeopardized the Marines’ lives but exemplified why military attorneys should not lead service members in combat, two Marines involved in the mission told The War Horse.
One of Ewers’ Marines described the mission as “a fool’s errand” and said the decisions were “tactically unsound.” The other agreed.
“Things were super fluid, and one way of looking at it is there is the fog of war and the chaos of the battlefield,” said a Marine involved in the patrol. But the incident should have been investigated, and Ewers should have been held accountable in the same way an infantryman or enlisted leader who had made similar mistakes would, he said.
“I was just doing what I was supposed to be doing, and it just happened that I went through a bad place, and fortunately we all got out of it alive,” Ewers explained during his 2020 interview.
“The truth is that every Marine is a rifleman, and that’s more of a mindset,” Ewers continued. “I mean, truthfully, you couldn’t drag me out of a prosecutor billet saying, ‘Throw me in to be infantry, a platoon commander, or company commander,’ and expect me to go in and equip myself exceptionally.
“You learn a lot about small-unit leadership and you learn a lot about small-unit infantry tactics at The Basic School, but it’s a mindset,” he said. “The idea is that you’re a Marine first and you’re there to do Marine things, whatever it is the Marine Corps asks you to do, and I think that that’s really the difference between being a Marine and being in another branch of the service.”
Instead of a liability for which he was never held accountable, Ewers’ combat experience that day and the Purple Heart he was awarded for the incident became envied, the Marines said.
“Ironically, what saved his ass is getting shot,” one of the Marines from the patrol told The War Horse. “It made him more similar to the grunts. It, in fact, gave him something that a lot of them didn’t have and that they see as a badge of manhood.”
Multiple Marines and attorneys say Ewers’ failures in a combat zone are just one example of how some Marines are able to thrive within a justice system that rewards a “good ol’ boy” culture among attorneys who champion—or at least doesn’t punish—misconduct and, in some cases, manipulation of the court system they’re meant to defend.
A system where defense attorneys feel threatened for trying to do their jobs.
A system where Marines can often be punished for mental health issues rather than cared for.
And a system where officers play by a separate set of rules.
Ewers’ story shows that Marine Corps attorneys who don’t follow the rules may move up. That high-ranking Marines who handle cases dealing with overconsumption of alcohol and fraternization aren’t immune from engaging in those activities themselves.
That officers ignored, obfuscated, and may have improperly influenced murder charges after civilians were massacred. That leaders at the highest level of the Marine Corps know about the behavior and have let it slide.
And that, even when the very honor of the Marine Corps is at stake—and when the outcome could affect how the world sees generations of warfighters—the “good ol’ boy” culture holds stronger than that of the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.
“Since you first contacted me in February, you have demonstrated that you have no interest in fairly and accurately reporting on the military justice system, on the Marine Corps judge advocate community, or on my service as a U.S. Marine,” wrote John Ewers in an email response to The War Horse on April 26, following a series of interview requests to discuss all allegations included in this reporting.
“Instead, our correspondence and your reporting have demonstrated that you have an agenda—and truth is irrelevant to your agenda. Thus, I have nothing more to say to you.”
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
During the course of this investigation, nine Marines who served alongside Ewers throughout his career—both subordinates and colleagues—spoke on the record with The War Horse, but feared retaliation if their identities were revealed. In addition to some of the Marines he led in combat, other sources include Marines who worked with Ewers during his time as a prosecutor and judge, a member of his staff during the time he led the Judge Advocate Division, a Marine who played poker in his home, and Marines who worked closely with him at the Pentagon.
The sources share a combined total of 165 years of military service and their ranks span from field grade officers to senior enlisted Marines.
“It was pretty common knowledge he was a hot mess,” said one retired lieutenant colonel who worked in public affairs.
The War Horse has unearthed dozens of instances where the Marine Corps has hidden the track records of attorneys whose misconduct and disregard for the rule of law has jeopardized the welfare of Marines both in and out of the courtroom.
All but one of the Marine sources said Ewers is a prime example of a senior officer who has been promoted and awarded prestigious duty assignments despite numerous eyewitness reports of overconsumption of alcohol, misconduct, and unethical legal practices condoned by his superiors.
A Marine who worked with Ewers while he was the Corps’ senior attorney described his legal style as “combative” and said he was known for his stubbornness. Two Marines said he often yelled at people in his office at the Pentagon and had many strained relationships with senior officers outside the legal community.
All the Marines interviewed reported numerous instances of overconsumption of alcohol and fraternization over several years at multiple bases. Multiple sources described Ewers as a Marine with a blatant willingness to bend the rules.
“I never had an issue with Ewers,” said a major in public affairs who worked with him in the Pentagon. “He was always super professional with me. Can’t say the same about all general officers I worked with, but won’t get into that.
“He was very professional, easy to work with, and always listened,” she said.
Three Marines allege Ewers withheld information from Congress and repeatedly covered up the misconduct of his friends and fellow general officers. The Marine Corps declined to provide copies of disclosures. Officials with the Senate Armed Services Committee did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting information.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Court records reveal Ewers’ abuses of power in his legal roles—and that his behavior during a notorious war crimes case led a military judge to criticize his unprofessional demeanor and improper conduct. As a result, the case against the highest-ranking Marine charged in the war crimes incident was thrown out.
But instead of holding him accountable for his failed mission in Iraq or how his improper presence at a series of meetings led to certain charges in a notorious war crimes case being thrown out, the Marine Corps promoted Ewers again and again.
Throughout his career, Ewers oversaw more than 500 court-martial cases. He also held the highest position for a Marine attorney: The staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps.
And following his retirement in 2018, Ewers was selected to serve on the Defense Department’s Military Justice Review Panel.
“He was great at a bar but a terrible lawyer,” a retired high-ranking judge advocate told The War Horse. “He was known as ‘The Golden Boy.’ He could do no wrong.
“Leader of the Place Through Charm and Swagger”
Decades before being wounded in Iraq, Ewers attended the prestigious Gonzaga College High School, where he is an Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. Upon graduation, Ewers earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Delaware, and then his juris doctor from Georgetown Law.
In 1984, Ewers was commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduating from Officer Candidate School, where a military career littered with accolades was born. During his decades in uniform, Ewers earned a master’s degree from the Judge Advocate General School—where he earned the distinction of honor graduate—and was competitively selected to serve as the Department of the Navy’s assistant judge advocate general for military justice.
“He was very charming,” said one field grade officer who worked with Ewers at the Pentagon, but she added that his “frat boy” demeanor, intense eye contact, and habit of standing too close always made her feel awkward.
She likened his magnetism to that of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.
Another judge advocate who worked with Ewers described him during a phone interview as “literally Otter from Animal House—leader of the place through charm and swagger.”
Five Marines agreed.
In the mid-1990s, then-Maj. John Ewers was stationed in Southern California and preparing for a tour of duty as a military judge for the Sierra Judicial Circuit, a military court that oversees hundreds of cases each year.
After hours, Ewers could be found at Sharky’s—a bar located near the bachelor officer quarters on Camp Pendleton—with a couple of drinking buddies, multiple colleagues said. Marines told The War Horse that together they often fraternized with their junior Marines.
The two other members of the trio, both retired from the Corps and whose names were shared with The War Horse, did not respond to interview requests.
“They sounded like they had marbles in their mouths and would fall over in front of their junior Marines,” said a retired lieutenant colonel who witnessed their drinking habits for years.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
During a mess night on a summer evening in May, Ewers attended a celebration with his superiors and peers. “It was a privilege to go to this kind of event,” which included nearly two dozen people, said a witness, a retired judge advocate. But young captains and others in the crowd saw a major act inappropriately under the influence of alcohol and Ewers’s leaders appeared to ignore his behavior, the witness said.
The behavior continued. The following year at Camp Pendleton, judge advocates from across the Corps participated in a “career day.” The event brought together the Corps’ most promising attorneys—including Ewers, his drinking buddies, and another future staff judge advocate to the commandant, according to attendees who spoke with The War Horse.
After the event, the group headed to Sharky’s, where a witness said their subordinates watched in disbelief as the alcohol flowed.
“You’ve got to grow up sometime,” the retired officer said. “You’ve got to start getting serious. You are the system. You are the embodiment of the system.”
“Exasperated, Frustrated, and Mumbling”
Two years after Ewers was wounded in Iraq and nearly a decade after the incidents near Camp Pendleton, Ewers was assigned as an investigator for the 2005 war crimes investigation known by some as the “Haditha Massacre.”
After a young lance corporal died when a roadside bomb exploded, Marines executed 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. The media widely described it as one of the most egregious war crimes cases in the history of the Corps. Four Marines were charged with murder, and four officers were charged with failure to fully investigate the incident.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was the squad leader accused of leading the attack, which began when a taxi pulled up after the explosion. As five men emerged unarmed from the vehicle, witnesses said Wuterich shot them one by one. He was ultimately charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder. The squad leader and his Marines were then accused of attacking the occupants, including children, of several nearby homes. Capt. Randy Stone was accused of not adequately investigating the shooting. First Lt. Andrew Grayson was accused of trying to cover up the civilian deaths.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander whose Marines killed the civilians, was also charged with not properly investigating the accusations. It took months for an investigation to even begin.
Ewers was also an early investigator in the incident, and he took Chessani’s statement. But he also attended weekly legal meetings held by then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who decided who would be charged in the alleged massacre, during which the Haditha cases were discussed and briefed. The charged Marines accused Ewers of improperly influencing Mattis’ decision.
During the judicial proceedings, which lasted more than five years, defense attorneys alleged that Ewers’ behavior after serving as an investigator on the case was so improper that he and Mattis—who later became the 26th secretary of defense—were called to testify in court.
When asked about his service with Ewers—which included his own improper conduct—as well as about improvements he’d like to see made for military attorneys, Mattis declined to comment.
“Sounds like you’ve already written your story,” wrote Mattis in a March 4 email. “I make it a habit not to engage when someone’s mind is clearly made up on the fundamental focus and tone of a story.”
But according to a report by The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010, Mattis seemingly not only fostered the environment for the unlawful influence to occur, but he did so knowingly, despite his testimony that Ewers did not taint his impartiality nor improperly advise him.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
“I intended to have a better grasp than anyone before I subject Marines to the kind of situation we are in today,” Mattis told the courtroom. “But I also needed legal advice.”
Investigative reporter Gretel Kovach wrote that Mattis said “he spent nights, weekends, and long flights analyzing the Haditha reports, and consulted with military lawyers who stepped in to fill Ewers’ shoes.” Prosecutors had Mattis flip through an exhibit containing pictures of the Iraqi civilians who died in the attack.
“They asked him if the photos affected his understanding of the case,” Kovach wrote. “Mattis pressed his lips, nodded, and said yes.”
In the fallout, a general and two colonels were censured by the secretary of the Navy, a civilian, for failing to properly investigate the incident, Kovach wrote.
During testimony in a proceeding involving the charges against Lt. Col. Chessani, the battalion commander of the unit, attorneys also questioned Ewers, an investigator of the crimes, about his presence during conversations where Mattis and his senior Marines discussed the case and how it should be handled. Mattis testified that he didn’t talk to Ewers about the Haditha case, but acknowledged that Ewers had been at briefings where the case was discussed.
In documents from the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, the appeals judge noted that the military judge described Ewers’ demeanor while testifying during that proceeding as “exasperated, frustrated, and mumbling under his breath prior to responding to questions” that posed a different version of the facts than Ewers’ own.
“The military judge’s observations regarding Col. Ewers’ demeanor on the stand are not to be taken lightly,” an appellate judge wrote in the opinion, in which two fellow appellate judges concurred. Multiple attorneys familiar with the case agreed.
Ewers’ conduct under oath revealed the demeanor some senior attorneys exhibit when interacting with their subordinates—even in a trial setting. This signaled to the junior judge advocates, whose careers Ewers could impact, that he was irritated with their questioning, said a Marine familiar with the case. That, in turn, could influence what questions they asked him even while he was on the stand.
In the end, the failures in the case were so widespread that none of the eight Marines involved in the killings faced time in prison.
Wuterich, the squad leader who led the attack, was demoted in rank and discharged. The Corps dismissed the murder charges against Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, as well as the charges against Stone, the attorney who was accused of not adequately investigating the shooting. Charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz and Capt. Lucas McConnell were dropped in exchange for cooperation in the remaining prosecutions. First Lt. Andrew Grayson was acquitted by a jury panel for allegations that he tried to cover up the civilian deaths. The Corps also dropped the murder charges against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum. Officials gave no explanation.
But in the case against Lt. Col. Chessani, the judge dismissed the case because Ewers improperly attended meetings where the cases of the eight Marines were being discussed and legal advice was given—conduct that the military judge said, and the appellate court affirmed, created a conflict of interest.
“Ewers changed after he was wounded and embroiled with Haditha,” said a Marine who played poker in Ewers’ California home. “Ewers was one of the most thoughtful leaders I’d met. He was a great listener and a dynamic leader. He had the ability to bring people together and boost morale. But afterward, he became much less tolerant and shorter with people.”
Two Marines involved in the case told The War Horse the wrongdoing was far worse than reported, and they alleged that the government wrongfully suppressed some of the photographs from the massacre, which depicted children praying at the time of their execution.
“I’ve seen the pictures,” one of the senior Marine attorneys said. “That’s all I’ll say. …They’re breathtaking.”
“Leaders Never Stood up to Punish Him”
The same year the appellate court filed its opinion in the Chessani case, discussing Ewers’ behavior during the investigation into the Haditha cases, and two years before his confirmation hearing to be promoted to a two-star general, Ewers served as the trial judge who oversaw the prosecution of Joshua Fry, a Marine who was arrested for possession of child pornography just months after joining the Corps.
The charges could have led to 42 years in confinement and a dishonorable discharge.
But during the 359 days that Fry spent in the brig awaiting court-martial, Ewers and the other Marines involved ignored glaring concerns about the case, court documents reveal.
Fry is autistic and was ineligible for military service. His condition was so severe that his grandmother was approved for temporary conservatorship because he “lacked the capacity to fully care for himself or enter into contracts on his own behalf,” according to an ABC News investigation published in 2009. He has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the Los Angeles Times.
When a Marine recruiter contacted Fry’s grandmother, she explained his disability and told them to look elsewhere.
“He is not Marine material. Please take him off the list,” the grandmother told the recruiter, according to the ABC report.
But court records show that the recruiter didn’t listen. Instead, Fry’s recruiter picked up Fry from the group home for people with disabilities where he lived and drove him to the Marine recruiting station. Court documents allege the recruiter took advantage of Fry to meet his recruitment quotas and that the recruiter, who instructed Fry to omit information about his mental health problems from his application, was aware of Fry’s history of mental disability. Yet Fry was ultimately charged with fraudulent enlistment for not telling his recruiter he had received treatment for addiction to child pornography.
The day he enlisted, the government approved Fry for social security benefits for his disabilities, his grandmother told the Los Angeles Times.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Ten days later, the Corps shipped Fry to boot camp, where he repeatedly requested to be discharged.
“Immediately it was clear to Fry that he could not keep up with the day-to-day pace of boot camp,” Fry’s lawyer said in a 35-page motion to dismiss the charges, which was first reported by ABC News. “Several times Fry informed his staff that he did not want to be a Marine. Each time he was told that was not an option.”
During his time at boot camp, Fry repeatedly stole peanut butter packets from the chow hall, lied to his drill instructors, and urinated in his canteen, according to court records.
“At one point during recruit training, the appellant notified a corpsman that he had asthma and autism,” a court record reveals. “Despite medical receiving verbal confirmation of the autism diagnosis from [his legal conservator], the appellant was returned to duty.”
After Fry disclosed his cognitive disability, a medical officer called his legal conservator and told her that her grandson would be sent home. But because Fry told the medical officer he wanted to return to training, he was deemed “medically fit to do so,” according to court records.
Roughly two months later, Fry became a Marine and was stationed in California, where he reported to the School of Infantry. Within his first two months, military police arrested him. Less than two years later, Ewers sentenced Fry under the terms of a plea bargain to one year of service in the brig with credit for the 359 days already served since his arrest.
Ewers also gave Fry a bad conduct discharge.
“The American people rightfully expect a lot of their Marine Corps,” an unidentified Marine familiar with the case told ABC. “If there is a perception that something is afoul, we will aggressively root out the truth.”
But a former judge advocate said truth and justice were never the objective.
“What it really boiled down to was that if Ewers ruled any other way, then he would be indicting the entire Marine Corps,” said Kevin McDermott, a Marine judge advocate-turned-whistleblower who first spoke out about wrongdoing in the military justice system four decades ago.
“They were doing everything they could to look the other way to get bodies onto active duty,” McDermott said. “Fry was probably the most egregious example that was out there. The number of shortcuts during that time frame that were taken to get people on active duty would surprise a lot of people.”
“The Military Judge Abused His Discretion”
Following the trial, Fry’s case was appealed to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington D.C., which affirmed Ewers’ ruling and “accept[ed his] well-founded and detailed findings of fact and adopt[ed] them as [its] own.”
Fry was “suffering from obsessive compulsive symptoms” and “cannot control his impulsivity,” Ewers wrote in his findings, which were summarized in the ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the majority of which, in February 2012, upheld Fry’s sentence and punishment. The appellate court noted that Ewers “did not specifically cite either expert witness’s testimony in his written findings or analysis.”
Ewers also wrote that “the accused largely (and ultimately) managed to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law (and orders and directives) throughout recruit training.”
Ten months later, Fry’s appeal was argued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. In February 2012, the majority of the judges voted to uphold the sentence and punishment.
In a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Charles Erdmann, Chief Judge James E. Baker wrote that he was unable to determine if Ewers applied the correct legal standard and that “evidence running counter to the Government’s position was not addressed in [Ewers’] analysis of [the] motion to dismiss” the case.
“First, ‘all the evidence’ does not indicate that [Fry] had the capacity to enlist or do so voluntarily,” according to the dissent, which added that the evidence from Fry’s psychologist indicated the opposite. According to the dissent: “Hinging the capacity to ‘submit voluntarily to military authority’” on an insanity prohibition “turns the nuance of mental health and the spectrum of developmental disabilities into a yes or no question, rather than the spectrum of conditions that actually exists.”
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
Baker wrote and Erdmann agreed that “such a standard is inconsistent with the approach of the Supreme Court and this Court in assessing whether pleas are voluntary.” Baker explained that “equating capacity and voluntary action to insanity runs counter to our common understanding of not only developmental disabilities but the plain meaning of what it means to act in a voluntary manner.”
“To the extent [Ewers] equated the capacity to enlist with the simple presence or absence of insanity, he erred,” the dissent states. “The capacity to do something voluntarily requires contextual analysis, not a simple determination that someone is legally sane.
“As recognized by the United States Supreme Court and this Court, this is especially important where the spectrum of developmental disorders is at issue.”
In his 2020 interview with American in Wartime Experience, Ewers explained what it meant to him to serve as a judge.
“There’s really not quite anything as professionally rewarding for a lawyer than being a judge because your client is finding the truth,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about whether your guy is guilty or the commander really wants to prosecute this guy. You’re just trying to figure out the right way, so I had a lot of good ones.”
“I’ve Seen Enlisted Marines Court-Martialed for Less”
Following the Fry case, Ewers continued to be promoted through nearly all leadership positions in the Corps’ legal community. During that time, some of the Marine attorneys Ewers served with—many who were his friends—also became entangled in problematic cases or accusations of wrongdoing both in and out of uniform.
None of them appear to have been punished.
Two years after the Fry case, a colleague of Ewers’ named Col. Daren Margolin was fired after he negligently fired an unauthorized firearm on base.
“He was a rising star,” said one of Margolin’s coworkers. “He was talented, super smart, and capable.”
But instead of charging Margolin, the Marine Corps moved him to an air base in Miramar, California—referred to as a “coveted gig” by Marine attorneys. At the time of his transfer, in August 2014, Ewers served as the staff judge advocate to the commandant and was directly involved with what duty stations his judge advocates were assigned to, attorneys said.
“When [Margolin] didn’t get processed for separation, you could have knocked me over with a feather,” said a retired judge advocate who served with Margolin. “If you think people didn’t notice the clear and abundant favoritism, in the words of the immortal Judas Priest, ‘you got another thing coming.’ But it was par for the course with that group: You were either in their little tribe, or you were sucking eggs.”
Margolin retired two years later with full benefits.
“I’ve seen enlisted Marines court-martialed for less,” said a retired senior defense attorney. Margolin is currently serving as a supervisory immigration judge in Santa Ana, California. He did not respond to interview requests.
But it wasn’t just Ewers’ peers who were exposed for wrongdoing. In 2013, now-retired Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary served as the Corps’ senior attorney during the prosecution of the Marines who urinated on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan after counterinsurgency operations in which at least seven Marines were killed. Robert Hogue, the civilian counsel for the commandant, asked that photos and video of the events be classified so the public couldn’t see them, according to a court decision in the case. And when one of the lawyers in the case, Col. Jesse Gruter, protested the classification, Gruter said Ary told him he wanted to replace him.
Hogue, who currently works in the office of the secretary of the Navy, declined to comment and cited attorney-client privilege.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
The failures of the Corps’ lawyers—and its most senior officer—to ensure the integrity of criminal proceedings and that the rights of the accused were preserved led to all of the cases being compromised and the sentences being overturned years later.
In one case, it took former Capt. James Clement a decade to clear his name. But he was never able to salvage his career. Clement was executive officer for the Marines, but despite not being present or knowing the incident took place, his time in the Corps was cut short for “substandard performance,” according to Marine Corps Times.
Seven years later, the Marine Corps cleared his name, but his military career was over.
The following year, Ary was chosen to serve as a civilian member of the military commission at Guantanamo Bay. He resigned the post a few months later, after a military judge found that he unlawfully attempted to relocate military judges to the island to speed up trials. A spokesperson for the Defense Department told The Washington Post that the judge believed that the relocation decision based on Ary’s recommendation created an “inappropriate perception” that the order was an improper attempt to rush justice.
“While the desire to speed up this process is understandable, Mr. Ary failed to recognize that this untested system that values secrecy more than efficiency simply cannot move quickly,” a defense counsel told The Washington Post in 2015.
“Only moving these cases to federal court will advance the goal of swift, fair trials whose results are likely [to] withstand appellate review.
“I Would Have Told the Truth”
In 2013, four years after he oversaw the Fry case, Ewers was selected to be Maj. Gen. Ary’s successor as staff judge advocate to the commandant. Ewers was required to undergo a Senate confirmation for his promotion to major general.
A Marine directly associated with Ewers’ nomination process said the Marine Corps deliberately withheld from Congress mandatory disclosures about Ewers’ involvement in Haditha, as well as other damaging information. The behavior was not uncommon at the time. A report published by the RAND Corporation found that failures to disclose mandatory information were rampant across the Defense Department.
“Why swear an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, if you consciously avoid supporting constitutional processes?” asked a senior Marine involved in Ewers’ hearings.
“The requirement for Senate confirmation is in the Constitution. Does that not, therefore, command the highest and most ethical effort to comply? Do senior officers not cite Senate confirmation as one source of the significance of their posting? How can it be, then, that the very officers that cite its significance avoid its requirements? Is that not fundamentally dishonest and therefore dishonorable? Is the oath not rendered meaningless?”
Regardless of whether the information was disclosed, five senior sources said a glaring problem remains. If any information was suppressed, the Marine Corps violated disclosure policy to deceive lawmakers and taxpayers.
But if information was not suppressed, or if the Corps thought the behavior did not reach the threshold of being reported, it was “a wink and nod” from Marine Corps leadership that Ewers’ pattern of behaviors—and the blatant hypocrisy of accountability, justice, and the rule of law they represent—was acceptable, the five senior sources added.
“When you’re talking about senior officers and their favorites inside the community, they’re not there to follow the law and ensure that professional responsibility rules are followed,” a lawyer with decades in the Defense Department told The War Horse.
“They’re there to cover the back end of the big ship.”
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
In an email to The War Horse, Ewers denied that information was improperly withheld as part of the confirmation process and did not provide requested documents confirming proper disclosures were provided to Congress.
Marines who served with Ewers during his career said that if the confirmation process had included due diligence and officials had conducted a random survey of the officers and senior enlisted Ewers served with or reviewed any of the cases he had worked on, he never would have been confirmed.
“If I had been contacted, I would have told the truth about his overconsumption of alcohol and his character,” said a Marine who worked with Ewers for nearly a decade.
Two other senior Marines said they would have done the same.
“There’s an Incentive to Look the Other Way”
In 2014, Ewers was promoted to two-star general and assigned the billet of staff judge advocate to the commandant, the highest position a Marine attorney can hold.
During his four years in the position, Ewers frequently fraternized with multiple junior officers. Many of the men and women were two or three ranks his junior, a Marine who worked in his office at the Judge Advocate Division said. Occasionally, Ewers would go to baseball games with them and sleep in their spare rooms if they lived near the evening’s watering hole, the Marine said.
His behavior under the influence of alcohol was frequently a topic of discussion in the office: namely, the junior officers’ observations that if enlisted Marines had fraternized similarly, their careers would have been ruined, the witness said.
Two years into his time as the Corps’ senior attorney, Ewers helped obscure that George W. Smith Jr., then a decorated brigadier general—and the son of a revered Marine—did not recuse himself from participating in his brother’s promotion board, two senior sources who worked in Marine Corps headquarters and a former senior Navy official familiar with the events.
A Marine familiar with the events said that in his role, Ewers would have been required to report any alleged misconduct on the part of a general officer that could have potentially required investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general. His failure to report Smith’s conduct violated that policy, the Marine added.
“Instead [the Marines] appointed a command investigation and robbed the DOD inspector general of the opportunity to investigate it,” said the Marine familiar with the events.
“Did Ewers help obscure? Yes—he laid out the strategy,” the Marine said.
When the revelation came to the attention of then-Secretary Ray Mabus, he ordered the Corps to reconvene the selection board, the sources said. An internal letter written by Mabus was provided to The War Horse and confirms that a Marine with a familial connection violated policy by serving on the board.
“Federal law and regulations pertaining to promotion selection boards require they act without prejudice or partiality and act to maintain the integrity and independence of the promotion selection board,” Mabus wrote. “An officer serving as a promotion selection board member when a close relative is among the eligible officers considered for promotion creates, at least, an unacceptable appearance of partiality and potential for prejudice.”
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
The general does not appear to have been reprimanded. In fact, he has since been rewarded with two promotions and serves as the commanding officer of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, where he is responsible for the lives of tens of thousands of Marines and sailors. Smith is a contender to become a future commandant of the Marine Corps, according to a senior Marine attorney.
“The commandant has made it clear that we can tolerate many things, but not integrity violations,” Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin, a Marine spokesman based at the Pentagon, told Marine Corps Times in 2010 when then-Col. Smith oversaw the investigation of a cheating scandal among Marine officer hopefuls. “Personal integrity is the heart of Marine Corps leadership.”
Lt. Gen. George W. Smith Jr. did not respond to interview requests, and Marine officials declined to answer questions about Smith’s involvement in the promotion board.
For the next two years, Ewers continued to serve as the Corps’ senior attorney, and in 2018, he retired after more than three decades in uniform.
Upon leaving active duty, Ewers was hired as an adjunct professor at American University’s law school and was selected as one of the Corps’ representatives on the Military Justice Review Panel, where he now serves.
The creation of the panel was ordered by Congress and launched in 2020 by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, and is a powerful 13-member committee charged with periodically conducting in-depth reviews of the military justice system.
The panel was created to ensure a designated body, apart from Congress, would thoroughly review the system and offer proposed updates and changes, including to the UCMJ—the body of laws enacted to guarantee the military justice system comports with the U.S. Constitution—to the Defense Department.
In other words, Ewers is part of a panel that ensures the system is fair and just.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
“There is great irony and tragedy in this story,” said the retired judge advocate who played poker in Ewers’ home. “You had a Marine judge advocate colonel who was found to have committed unlawful command influence in a high-profile war crimes case. But instead of punishment, he’s later promoted to major general, made the staff judge advocate to the commandant, and placed as the head of all Marine Corps lawyers.
“And in 2019, the same year that now-retired Major General Ewers is appointed to serve on the Military Justice Review Panel, the law of Article 37 of the UCMJ is changed in order to limit the ability of future accused servicemembers from raising unlawful command influence,” he said.
“The reforms and changes to military justice are going in the wrong direction. The rights of servicemembers are being gutted more every year.”
This War Horse investigation was reported by Thomas J. Brennan, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines. Research was contributed by Daniel Langhorne. Five senior military attorneys volunteered their time to review this story for accuracy. All interviews were recorded and all sources included in the reporting verified the accuracy of The War Horse’s reporting prior to publication during a secondary interview process. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler.