LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A group of U.S. Marines who survived a suicide bombing of their convoy in Afghanistan were then falsely accused of murdering innocent women and children in 2007.
Three of those 30 Marines from Marine Corps' 1st Platoon, Fox Company, traveled to Los Angeles to speak with Eyewitness News exclusively. Retired Major Fred Galvin and two active-duty Marines, who wished to remain anonymous, said they felt betrayed and continue to struggle with what happened nearly a decade ago to this day.
"Years after the fact they're still writing that we murdered innocent civilians," Galvin said.
Their ordeal began on March 4, 2007. Part of their mission that day was to meet with village elders in the eastern district of Shinwar. Galvin was the Fox Company's commanding officer at the time.
"There was intelligence reports that confirmed this was a bad area," Galvin said.
Under his command that day was a Marine from East L.A., who spoke to Eyewitness News but wished to remain anonymous because he's still on active duty.
He said it should have just been like any other patrol, but the day took a different turn. As their six-vehicle convoy rolled through the small Taliban-controlled village of Bati Kot that morning, they suddenly came under attack.
"The car bomb blew up right in front of our second vehicle. Having been involved in multiple explosions and roadside bombs, this was the largest I'd ever seen," Galvin said.
All five men inside were presumed dead, but through the smoke and flames - as enemy gunfire erupted - the Marines in the second vehicle showed they were very much alive.
The whole ordeal was over in minutes. They had survived a suicide bomber and an ambush with only one Marine suffering a shrapnel wound.
The group was lucky to be alive, but the day only got worse. Wildly inaccurate reports of as many as 19 Afghan civilians being killed by drunken Marines were circulating on the Internet before the group had even got back to base.
"The Afghan locals said that we went into homes and were shooting people inside their homes and businesses. We didn't even dismount from our vehicles," Galvin said.
What followed next was a nightmare as media coverage of the reports exploded. Within days, the entire 120-man platoon was ordered to leave Afghanistan and superiors were publicly apologizing for the shootings.
"I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry," Army Col. John Nicholson said.
Two months after the attack, Nicholson met with families of the alleged victims. He also briefed the Pentagon later that day.
"The death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hands of Americans is a stain on our honor," he said.
Members of Congress took issue with the accounts, according to North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones who spoke with Eyewitness News over video message. He said Nicholson should not have apologized because the investigation into what occurred was still ongoing.
But Galvin, then a Marine of nearly 20 years and who is still brought to tears talking about graduating boot camp, was ordered to relieve himself of duty in front of his platoon.
"It was very humiliating. I'd loved the Marine Corps," Galvin said, adding that he had wanted to be a Marine since he was 10 years old.
Then the interrogations began. The Marines said they faced tactics of deception, coercion and even threats of deportation from members of their own military.
"If I don't cooperate with them that they were going to do everything in their power to ensure that my mother would be deported. I would lose my family. That was the most depressing time of my life. It left a lot of emotional scars that to this day I'm still trying to fight to get over," according to the Marine from East L.A. who wished to remain anonymous.
A second Marine who wished to remain anonymous because he's also still on active duty told Eyewitness News he felt the same way.
"It was a rough time with my family. I didn't know if I was going to be thrown in jail for not doing anything wrong, or what was going to happen," he said.
The two anonymous Marines were lucky. Only seven Marines wound up facing any charges, one of them being Galvin. They came to be known as the MARSOC 7.
"They were coming after the seven of us. It said homicide, Article 138 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice negligent homicide, max punishment death," Galvin said.
After more than three weeks of testimony at Camp Lejeune, the Court of Inquiry concluded in January 2008 and decided not to bring charges. The findings weren't made public until May 2008, buried late on a Friday of a holiday weekend.
"Five months later on Memorial Day weekend, they released a one-sentence statement, 'The Marines acted appropriately,'" Galvin said.
Those four words still haunt the MARSOC 7. They were exonerated but still feel they're considered guilty of mass murder in the eyes of millions.
"If they don't want to have the guts to say that we're innocent, if they're worried about some Afghans protesting or going crazy, grow a spine," Galvin said.
Eight years later, major news outlets are still reporting that Fox Company killed innocent civilians. The Marines that are still enlisted say they're passed over for promotions and now approach battle with hesitance.
"I'm like, you know what? I just won't shoot my gun, and if they shoot me I think it's easier to take a bullet than to actually have to go through all these interrogations," the East L.A. Marine said.
Those who are out say they can't find jobs, many are in failing health and divorce is common, the stress too much for several marriages. They say the stigma of murder allegations follows them everywhere.
"This has radically, adversely affected the lives of Marines, and we just want it to be known that we are innocent," Galvin said.
He's asking the Marine Corps for several things, among them that the commandant of the Marines publicly announce that the MARSOC 7 are 100 percent not guilty.
When reached for comment, the Marine Corps told Eyewitness News that a Court of Inquiry is a fact-finding procedure that doesn't have the power to determine guilty or innocence. They added that the commandant will have nothing further to add. Further requests for comment and clarification went unanswered.
Marines cleared of killing Afghan civilians in 2007 say murder stigma remains