Frank Wuterich knew before he finished boot camp that he didn't want to be a Marine for life, but he may wind up one anyway. Wuterich is the central suspect in the Iraq war's most notorious massacre, at Haditha, where 24 Iraqis were killed by U.S. Marines--Marines led by Wuterich. During his first media interview, the former high school band member and honor student is exceedingly polite. Wearing jeans, black sneakers and a light blue polo shirt, he shows a visitor around his two-story semidetached house at Camp Pendleton in southern California, patiently answers questions and waits good-naturedly for a photographer to set up his equipment. There is no military paraphernalia cluttering his home, which is filled instead with family pictures, knickknacks, and souvenirs from his wife Marisol's sorority days. His 4-year-old daughter is just up from her nap, and he kisses her forehead. He allows Marisol, who is expecting their third child in January, to finish his sentences.
Wuterich, 26, who grew up in Meriden, Conn., signed up for the Marines at 17 and volunteered for the infantry, the grunts who are the heart and soul of the corps. Finding boot camp a dull grind compared with what he felt the recruiting videos had promised, he asked to switch out of the infantry. "I thought I could use my mind a little differently," he says. But he was turned down. He tried again in 2002, requesting a transfer to counterintelligence, but his eight tattoos disqualified him; those kinds of markings make a man too easy to identify. Among the tattoos on his arms, chest, neck and leg are a series of musical notes, the kanji character for endure and a heart for an ex-girlfriend. The one tattoo he's reluctant to exhibit, on the inside of his right forearm, is of a skewer running through a bunch of severed fingers and eyeballs. "That's the one I really don't like," Marisol says sternly but with a smile.
Wuterich long imagined the corps as just a stop on the way to a career as a music producer, but he re-enlisted after 9/11, in part to support his family while Marisol finished her nursing degree but also because he was itching for action. With the rank of sergeant, he was dispatched to Iraq with Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, in September 2005. He saw his first firefight that month in the town of Hit when his team suddenly came under fire. "Was I scared? Sure," he says. It turned out that the shots were com-ing from a Marine officer, who quit shooting once Wuterich's guys sent up three red flares letting him know they were friendly. While under fire, the squad members, none of whom were hurt, took cover and waited to identify the threat before shooting back. They performed just as they were supposed to, Wuterich says. His remark hangs in the air.