The party was winding down around 4 a.m. when the fight erupted. The crowd at a bar in northern Iraq - including Special Operations Marines, defense contractors and civilians - had been drinking and dancing for hours, ringing in the new year.
A conversation between two Americans turned sour. A burly, bearded defense contractor speaking to a Navy corpsman screamed at least one profanity at him, witnesses later said. Bouncers ejected the contractor, an Army Special Forces veteran, who threatened to hurt the sailor when he came outside.
Bouncers told the sailor and two Marine friends to wait five minutes before leaving. But that did not de-escalate the situation.
The three men approached the contractor and his colleagues outside, and a brawl ensued. One of the Marines punched the contractor in the side of the head, and the contractor spun around and landed on the back of his head, suffering a nine-inch skull fracture, according to previously unreported military documents and security video reviewed by The Washington Post. He died a few days later, on Jan. 4, 2019.
The contractor's death is at the center of military trials of the sailor and the two Marines, all members of the elite Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). It is one of several recent incidents that have raised concerns about the conduct of America's elite combat forces, including an alleged sexual assault by a Navy SEAL in Iraq last summer, cocaine use and the strangulation of a Green Beret soldier in Mali in 2017.
The incidents prompted a review last year by Army Gen. Richard Clarke, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, which found an erosion of leadership and ethics after nearly 20 years of combat. The resulting report did not cite any specific case but said combat deployments have been "valued above all others things," including professional development and personal maturity.
"We have often been too complacent as we build, train and certify our teams for the rigors of operating in a complex world," Clarke said. "We are renewing emphasis on proper accountability and supervision, and setting conditions for leader presence in the right places."
While military leaders say they are pursuing a culture change, they shielded details of the MARSOC case from public view. Evidence was presented at an Article 32 hearing at Camp Lejeune, N.C., last October, but the session was not announced in advance and no media covered it.
The hearing went unannounced "in accordance with service regulations that prohibit including the name of accused in routine disseminations," said Maj. Kristin Tortorici, a Marine spokeswoman. Hearings in such high-profile cases are typically disclosed.
The lack of transparency, as well as inaccurate rumors about the case that spread in the Special Operations community, have stoked suspicions that the Marine Corps is hellbent on obtaining convictions to send a message.
Ten other Marines were punished for "collateral misconduct" uncovered during the investigation, Tortorici said. She declined to describe the punishments, which have not previously been reported.
Some of the Marines punished administratively were present during the fight and have "credibility issues" after making false statements to investigators, according to a military report detailing the case, which was first reported last year by the New York Times.
As in several of the other recent cases, alcohol appears to have played a role, even though with few exceptions it is banned for deployed service members.
The contractor, Richard A. Rodriguez, 45, of Raeford, N.C., was a retired master sergeant and married father with four children. He served 21 years in the Army, deploying to Afghanistan four times and earning a Bronze Star with V for valor in combat in September 2009. At the time of his death, he was working for Lockheed Martin.
Charged in his death are Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric S. Gilmet, Gunnery Sgt. Daniel A. Draher Jr. and Gunnery Sgt. Joshua S. Negron. They are accused of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, obstruction of justice and drinking while deployed in violation of a general order. They each have lengthy service records in combat and are married with children. Draher also has a Purple Heart for being wounded in Afghanistan.
Rodriguez's sister said their mother was devastated by his death and died about a year later.
"I don't think her heart handled the sadness of losing one of her kids," Lori Rodriguez said.
The three service members declined interview requests, but their lawyers said they were acting in self-defense and helped Rodriguez after he was knocked out.
"The fact that a tragic accident happened here does not entail that a crime has been committed," said Brian Bouffard, Negron's attorney.
A night spirals out of control
Details in the case are laid out in a previously unreported 21-page document, dated last November, that includes the evidence reviewed at the hearing and recommendations for senior commanders.
The Americans gathered at the T-Bar, a pub that featured cocktail waitresses, loud music and a Christmas tree. U.S. personnel were allowed to go out for dinner if they got approval and signed out, but were expected to adhere to alcohol prohibitions and meet a midnight curfew.
It isn't clear when Rodriguez and his friends arrived, but video shows that they were in the bar shortly after midnight. The Marines - known as Raiders within the Special Operations community - and a sailor arrived an hour or two later, and can be seen on video greeting other patrons.
Gilmet said hello to Rodriguez, who worked on the same base. Rodriguez laughed at one point during their conversation.
The bar was emptying at 4:15 a.m. when Rodriguez appeared to struggle to get Gilmet's attention and erupted at the sailor before he was thrown out.
"The evidence establishes that Mr. Rodriguez initiated the situation that eventually escalated into the incident charged," the officer in charge of the Article 32 hearing, Col. Glen Hines, wrote in the report. Hines did not respond to interview requests.
The three service members approached Rodriguez outside a few minutes later.
Rodriguez asked, "Are we going to continue this?" or words to that effect, according to a contractor who was there with him, and Draher, one of the Marines, responded, "Yep," the report says.
Draher told investigators in an unsworn statement that Rodriguez poked him in the chest and was close enough that Draher could feel spittle landing on his face.
On video, it appears that Draher approached Rodriguez with his hands at his sides. Rodriguez then moved his head toward Draher, and Draher pushed him away. Rodriguez lunged and swung at Draher, and Negron moved in and punched Rodriguez in the left side of his face. The three men, and possibly others, went down in a heap, video shows.
The fight was over in 15 seconds.
Draher and Negron got up, but Rodriguez was out cold on the street and snoring, witnesses said. He had a small cut on the back of his head.
Draher, Gilmet and Negron brought the contractor back to their base in their pickup truck, as others out after curfew scattered, the report said.
Another contractor told investigators that the service members said they would have Rodriguez's injuries "looked at," which he thought meant they planned to take him to a nearby military hospital. But they took Rodriguez to his room, and Gilmet, who was trained in combat medicine, stayed with him overnight, the report said.
Negron told at least one other Marine the following morning that he had knocked Rodriguez out with one punch after the contractor became aggressive with Draher.
At 8:30 a.m., Gilmet asked another American to watch out for Rodriguez. The contractor stopped breathing at 10:15 a.m. and was taken to a military hospital. The severity of his injury soon became apparent.
He was flown to Germany for additional care but died there with family members present.
After the hearing last fall, Hines recommended that the men face charges of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and violation of a general order. A conviction on the first charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
While Rodriguez was an instigator that night, Hines concluded, the killing was "unlawful" and a "reasonable person" should have seen that his injuries were "serious enough to warrant immediate medical treatment."
But Hines also wrote that the service members could be acquitted if a jury finds they acted in self-defense.
Possession and consumption of alcohol, he added, "have always been prohibited, with a few narrow exceptions, none of which are applicable here."
MARSOC announced charges last December, adding obstruction of justice, and the trials are expected to begin this fall.
Inside the tightknit Marine Special Operations community, some believe the military has mishandled the case by pursuing criminal charges and telling other Marines not to speak on their behalf.
Aaron Vanderbeck, a Marine Raider veteran, said the accused have been ostracized within MARSOC for months, after inaccurate rumors circulated - and subsequently were reported in media accounts - that they had either pummeled or stomped Rodriguez to death.
"Danny, Josh and Eric, that could have been anyone of us," said Vanderbeck, who recently completed a cross-country bicycle ride to raise money for their legal defense. "How many of us have been in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
Rudy Reyes, a Marine veteran turned fitness celebrity, said he also initially heard the rumors that Negron, an old colleague, was accused of "boot-stomping" someone in Iraq.
"Then I find out that he was just defending his boys," Reyes said.
Lori Rodriguez called the allegations against her brother nonsense, describing him as a "protector" who would "never intentionally start a fight."
In a motion, Bouffard accused MARSOC leaders of interfering in the cases, citing conversations that Negron had with other Marines. Commanders pressured "subordinates and others not to assist or testify" on behalf of the accused, and decided they were "not simply guilty, but also apparently unworthy of a fair trial," Bouffard wrote.
A hearing on those allegations was held July 13, and the case was allowed to proceed. Tortorici, the Marine spokeswoman, said MARSOC is "committed to ensuring this legal process is conducted in a fair and impartial manner."
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The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.