Richards’s life stands as an example of both the immense personal sacrifice and controversial nature of the Afghanistan war. He deployed there three times between 2008 and 2011, and was nearly killed by an improvised explosive device while on a foot patrol on March 19, 2010, in the district of Marjah in Helmand province. He sustained shrapnel wounds to his legs, arms, groin and throat, the latter of which required at least six surgeries to fix.
“Rob was a tenacious warrior who endured three combat deployments, losing brothers in all, and nearly giving his own life on one,” said former Capt. James Clement, who deployed with him in 2011 and also was disciplined as a result of the video’s release. “Despite grievous physical and emotional wounds, Rob never fled, and never surrendered.”
In an exclusive 90-minute interview with this reporter for Marine Corps Times in September 2013, Richards acknowledged intense struggles with post-traumatic stress and night terrors afterward, and taking a variety of medications to deal with it. In one ugly night in Florida, he said he was caught off-guard by a celebration involving replica cannons being fired, and fired a pistol in his hotel room while his wife, Raechel, was present. He thought he was under attack, he said.
Nevertheless, Richards’s skills as a sniper were sought out afterward for a third trip to Afghanistan. He deployed as part of a sniper platoon with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, of Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Musa Qala district in Helmand. The snipers earned praise for killing more than 200 insurgents, expanding the battalion’s influence on the battlefield.
In the midst of that deployment, however, a sniper team led by Richards recorded a video on July 27, 2011, of him and other Marines urinating on the remains of Taliban fighters they had killed. It was never intended to be seen by the public, but Richards later said that the Marine who owned the camera stepped on an IED a couple weeks afterward, and it ended up in the hands of another Marine in the unit. It was posted online, causing an international uproar that led to eight Marines facing discipline.
Richards, then a sergeant, faced court-martial, and eventually reached a plea deal in July 2013 in which he pleaded guilty to failing to obey a lawful order and violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, effectively acknowledging he did not maintain good order and discipline and brought discredit to the U.S. military. The agreement reduced his rank to corporal, but allowed him to avoid a bad-conduct discharge and keep his medical benefits from the military.
His case, and those of other Marines charged, were ensnared in further controversy when a Marine attorney involved in the prosecution, Maj. James Weirick, filed a whistleblower complaint in March 2013 alleging Commandant Gen. James F. Amos and other members of his staff had inappropriately inserted themselves in the military justice process to ensure harsh punishment for the snipers. The Defense Department Inspector General recently cleared Amos of wrongdoing, but the case remains deeply controversial and polarizing in the Marine Corps.
Clement, the former Marine captain, was not present when the video was recorded in 2011, but failed to stop other bad behavior that day, an investigation later found. He wanted to stay in the service, but was forced out with an honorable discharge earlier this year. He expressed frustration Thursday for the way the cases were handled, and linked it to Richards’ death.
“It is important that all future Marines remember Rob for who he was as a man, husband, and Marine,” he said. “It is the responsibility of all future Marines to remember Rob and what his leaders did to him, so what happened to him never happens again.”
Asked for comment, officials at Marine Corps headquarters released this statement: “We are aware of reports regarding the tragic passing of retired Marine Cpl. Robert W. Richards. We offer our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”
In the September 2013 interview, Richards expressed regret for the attention the video brought the Marines in his battalion and attributed their decision to the desecration of the body of one of their fellow Marines by insurgents a few weeks prior. That Marine had been killed in an IED explosion.
“When you’re under that much stress and in that environment, your whole mental being changes. You’re no longer Joe the Family Man,” he said. “You’re a warrior, and if you read back to biblical wars and wars since the dawn of time, men have been doing this to men for millennia.”
After retiring, Richards expressed an interest in becoming a private military contractor, but remained in North Carolina. He and his wife were in the process of selling their home and returning to their home state of Florida, she said on Facebook this week. She could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Richards expressed confusion about what his life after the Marine Corps would include upon retiring last year. He hoped he wouldn’t be remembered just for appearing in the video, he said in the interview for Marine Corps Times.
“That’s the only thing I was really good at in life, being a Marine sniper, and I’ll miss it every day,” Richards said. “I wish I could go back if I had known all this would happen, but I don’t know what I would do. I guess the only thing is, I can’t have any regrets. Everything happens for a reason.”