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Baltimore Sun January 18, 2006

Military probing death of Arundel Marine in Iraq

By Annie Linskey and Bradley Olson

A Crownsville Marine died in Iraq during the weekend of "apparent non-hostile gunshot wounds," according to statements from his family, the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command.

Cpl. Justin J. Watts, 20, was found dead Saturday at Forward Operating Base Haditha Dam in Iraq. It was his second tour there, according to his family. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating the death.

The military declined to release any further details about the circumstances of his death.

At the Watts home in Crownsville, a small American flag was stuck in a potted plant by the doorway, adorned with a yellow ribbon. Five trucks crowded the driveway -- many had yellow "support our troops" magnets stuck to the bumpers.

In a written statement handed out by a woman who answered the door, the family said that their son was "serving his country proudly in Iraq at the time of his death."

The statement goes on to say that the family is "extremely proud of Justin and will miss him dearly."

The woman declined to identify herself and said family members were too upset by the news to talk to reporters.

Laura Zlatos, whose son John played lacrosse with Watts at Old Mill High School, said her son joined about 18 of Watts' high school friends who gathered to console one another Saturday night after they learned Watts had died. The group was "devastated," she said.

Zlatos noted that Watts had been home over Christmas and had reconnected with his school buddies then.

"It's really ... it is really just difficult for the kids," Zlatos said. "They saw someone so recently, and suddenly [he's] just gone.

"They just don't understand how things like this happen. ... The whole world just collapsed a little bit on them," Zlatos said.

John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, said the military's preliminary description of Watts' death indicates he died in one of three ways: murder, suicide or friendly fire.

"It would be the same as any criminal investigation," Pike said.

Watts, a 2003 graduate of Old Mill High School in Millersville, was a lacrosse player and also swam, raced BMX bikes and played ice hockey, the family statement said. He joined the Marines shortly after graduating.

"We certainly celebrate any of our students who decide to honor our county by serving in the armed forces," said Kathryn L. Kubic, principal of Old Mill High School. "The whole Old Mill community would like to rally around the family in support at this time."

One month before shipping off to Iraq for his first tour of duty, Watts married his high school sweetheart, Nicole Seaton, according to the statement. The wedding was in May 2004. He was 19, she was 18, according to a wedding announcement in The Capital of Annapolis.

The first tour was from June 2004 to January 2005, according to the family's statement.

In a photo on the statement, Watts is smiling broadly, wearing sunglasses and desert fatigues.

Watts was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., but his unit had been attached to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Watts joined the Marine Corps on Sept. 15, 2003. His personal awards include the Combat Action Ribbon, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, the Good Conduct Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal, according to Marine Corps officials at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Thirty-eight soldiers with Maryland ties have died in military service since the Iraq war began almost three years ago. As of late Monday, 2,218 U.S. troop deaths had been confirmed by the Defense Department, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks Iraq casualties.

Last week, Sgt. Michael J. McMullen, 25, of Salisbury, became the first Maryland National Guardsman to die in combat since World War II. He died Jan. 10 from wounds sustained after a Christmas Eve roadside bomb in Ramadi. He and two other members of the Baltimore-based 243rd Engineer Company had been seriously wounded by a roadside bomb Dec. 24. Burial for McMullen will be Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.


Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun