Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun yesterday made his first public statement since he disappeared from a military post in Iraq last month, declaring that he was captured by enemy fighters and is no deserter.
"I did not desert my post," Hassoun told reporters as he stood wearing a new Marine uniform with his name emblazoned on the right chest pocket. "I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me."
Hassoun's brief comments outside the front gate to Marine Corps Base Quantico offered few hints as to what happened after he was declared missing from his base near Fallujah on June 19, but it was the first time Hassoun presented any version of the story.
His story has attracted international attention. The Marines initially classified Hassoun, 24, as having taken unauthorized leave, but switched his official status to "captured" when a videotape surfaced purporting to show a blindfolded Hassoun being threatened with a large knife. At one point, statements posted on two Islamist Web sites proclaimed that he had been beheaded.
Hassoun, who was born in Lebanon, showed up safe and unhurt at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut three weeks after he disappeared, triggering more questions. He was transferred to Germany for medical exams and arrived in Virginia on Thursday.
U.S. military officials have been skeptical of Hassoun's story but so far have given him the benefit of the doubt. They have put him through a standard repatriation process at Quantico while periodically debriefing him. Marine officials said yesterday that Hassoun has been working with repatriation specialists, and that they have been pleased with his cooperation.
A Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe into Hassoun's ordeal has yet to interview the Marine. Investigators are expected to debrief Hassoun after he leaves Quantico in coming days for his home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Hassoun will stay while he works toward going back to active duty.
Officials said that Hassoun has not requested a lawyer and has not been assigned one, though he has worked with a Judge Advocate General lawyer as part of the repatriation process.
"I understand that there are many questions," Hassoun said, "and respectfully ask that the media respect my need to spend some private time with my family."
Hassoun was allowed to make the public statement after requesting the opportunity. He arrived at Quantico's main gate yesterday in a van filled with other Marines. An older brother, who lives in Utah, accompanied him and has been visiting the base since Friday. Lt. Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, said yesterday that the Marines are supporting Hassoun and his transition back to duty, but that they cannot endorse Hassoun's version of events.
"We're not in a position to make a judgment either way," Lapan said. "We're still gathering facts and information."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Hassoun's successful repatriation is the highest priority. Whitman said that the circumstances of Hassoun's disappearance are still unclear, but that the investigation should explain it.
"Clearly, there are a lot of questions that we want to ask him about his time when he went missing from his unit to the time when he came back under U.S. control," Whitman said. "All of that will be sorted out in the days ahead."
The most difficult part of the probe is tracking down witnesses and evidence overseas. Investigators, for example, are trying to establish the genesis and legitimacy of the videotape showing Hassoun in enemy custody. After the early reports that Hassoun had been beheaded, an Islamic extremist group announced it had released him with the promise that he would not rejoin U.S. forces to fight. Hassoun then ended up in his native country, underweight but unhurt.
"I thank everyone who was looking for me and give thanks to God for everything," Hassoun said. "I would like to tell all the Marines as well as all those others serving in Iraq to keep their heads up and spirits high. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi."