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The Press-Enterprise May 05, 2005

Families Frustrated in Quest for the Truth

By Gregor McGavin

They paid the ultimate price on the battlefields of Iraq -- some killed by the enemy, others by their own side.

For that sacrifice, some families of slain troops say the U.S. military has paid them back in lies and a lack of information.

Two years after the official end of a war in Iraq hailed for its few incidents of fratricide, a Press-Enterprise investigation has revealed that twice as many troops as reported might have fallen to "friendly fire."

But the U.S. military -- which vowed after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to both curb and be more open about its deadly mistakes -- is still keeping secret a report designed to lessen the risk of repeating them.

"It's not right to keep it a secret," said Dorothy Halvorsen, whose son Chief Warrant Officer Erik Halvorsen was one of six soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in central Iraq on April 2, 2003.

Since then, Halvorsen has gotten varying accounts from the military of what happened that night, and she and other relatives of the slain troops have had to fight for information.

"They're putting more restrictions on what we can know," she said. "And we have a right to know."

Across the country, many mothers and fathers, wives, siblings and grandparents -- including some who remain staunchly pro-war -- say they feel they've been kept in the dark. These families question the military's commitment to decreasing friendly fire, and to telling them the truth of how their loved ones died.

Recent news reports that the military deliberately concealed that Pat Tillman -- a professional football player turned Army Ranger, and one of the highest-profile casualties -- was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan have amplified those questions.

The "lessons learned" report from U.S. Joint Forces Command is said to provide the final word on all suspected fratricide incidents and steps to avoid repeating them. The report, completed more than a year ago, has yet to be declassified, or made available to the public.

It is "the Department of Defense look at friendly fire," said Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a department spokesman. "I don't know that there is any intention to release the lessons-learned report."

The Press-Enterprise investigation, meant to parallel the work of military investigators, uncovered that as many as 24 Marines, soldiers and sailors -- 18 percent of the 139 combat deaths during major fighting from March 19 to May 2, 2003 -- might have been killed by their own side.

The numbers rival those from the Gulf War in 1991, when 35 U.S. troops, or 24 percent, were killed by fratricide. Relatives of Gulf War friendly fire victims had to wait nearly six months to learn the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths.

In light of those casualties -- the highest percentage of friendly fire deaths ever recorded by U.S. forces -- and the delay in informing relatives, the military promised to do better on both fronts.

But two years after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the official war in Iraq -- the military still has publicly acknowledged only 12 possible fratricide deaths. Military leaders have claimed those low numbers showed their anti-fratricide efforts have paid off.

The yearlong Press-Enterprise investigation, based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, official military releases and interviews with scores of families, was limited to the same period covered by the military's lessons-learned report. About 1,600 U.S. troops have died to date in Iraq; it is not known how many might have been killed by friendly fire since the war ended and the occupation began.

'Information Warfare'

It has been two years since his helicopter crashed in the Iraqi desert, but Lila Lipscomb says she still doesn't know what killed her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Pedersen.

The casualty officers came to her Flint, Mich., home to tell her Pedersen was dead, along with Halvorsen and the four other soldiers aboard. In the months that followed, she would get more calls and letters from the military.

Each time, the story seemed to change.

First, it was a hostile incident that brought the Black Hawk down, less than two weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then it was nonhostile, a catchall term that includes accidents. The pilot's spatial disorientation, they said next. And from the start, the families wondered if it was friendly fire.

Worse for Lipscomb than her fear that Pedersen and his comrades might have been killed by their own side was the growing belief that the U.S. military was not telling her and other families the truth.

"It is an attempt to keep us uninformed," said Lipscomb, part of whose story was featured in the Michael Moore documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Some experts say the military has long been plagued by an institutional unwillingness to own up to its mistakes. Others say defense officials have taken misinformation to new levels, "spinning" casualties to downplay the negative.

"They've gone into a turtle shell, and they only want to talk about the good things that happen in the war," said Steve Robinson, a veteran Army Ranger who now heads the National Gulf War Resource Council, a military watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

Robinson, who has done extensive research on this war and past conflicts, said the Pentagon has engaged in a public-relations campaign.

"It's part of the strategy in war, and it's something we employ in Iraq to gain the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," Robinson said.

"And in some cases it looks as if the Department of Defense is employing information warfare at home by not releasing accurate information or making it difficult to obtain information," he said.

Robinson said he thinks now the military is covering up the number of troops killed by friendly fire.

Defense officials bristle at such claims.

"We don't have an issue of people covering things up," said Venable, the defense spokesman. "I know the accusations. That may have been true back in the Vietnam War and other eras."

It is not true today, he said.

"Is there a policy of keeping quiet about friendly fire incidents? No, they're investigated fully," Venable said. "The results are released once the investigation" is completed.

The military's final report on the incident that killed Lipscomb's son came to her more than a year later and only after she had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. The parts that weren't blacked out said the soldier flying the Black Hawk might have become disoriented and lost control.

The report said the six soldiers were killed, not by friendly fire, but by an accident. Lipscomb still doesn't know whether to believe it.

Lipscomb, 50, originally from Big Bear Lake, comes from a military family -- her father, grandfather and brothers all served in the military. She was proud of that. She encouraged her son to sign up as a way to serve his country and earn money for college.

Military Language

Friendly fire is an unavoidable part of modern warfare, military officials and experts agree.

No matter what training and high-tech systems are used to combat fratricide, experts say some troops will be lost in the so-called "fog of battle" -- the cloud of dust and smoke and fatigue and urgency that hangs over the battlefield.

"It will never go to zero. It's never going to go away," said Ivan Oelrich, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. "You've got lots and lots of guys out there with guns, and they're shooting them. Mistakes are always going to happen."

But critics say even the language the military uses in discussing casualties is purposely confusing.

One hundred and thirty-nine U.S. troops were killed during the period of major combat operations -- March 19 to May 2, 2003. Of those, 115 were classified as hostile, the others nonhostile.

The military lists as nonhostile those deaths not directly attributable to enemy or friendly fire, or terrorist activity. They include accidents such as vehicle crashes, as well as suicides and homicides.

Casualty reports include categories such as combat and noncombat deaths, the first being those related to direct or indirect fire from the enemy, even if the victim is killed by something other than that fire. Thus, a soldier killed in a jeep that crashes after swerving to avoid a hand grenade is a combat death.

It all makes for a confusing picture, critics say.

'It Takes Time'

Venable said defense officials do their best, often with limited information from the battlefield, to let families know the fate of their loved ones.

Each soldier's death sparks a "line of duty" investigation by that unit's chain of command.

Once relatives are notified, the names of the dead are announced publicly, Venable said. More detailed investigations can follow, often ordered by U.S. Central Command, which oversees all combat forces.

"I can understand a sense of frustration. You want answers, and you want them quick," Venable said. "But you've got to understand, these things are complicated and they're detailed. It takes time."

Though families speak highly of the casualty officers who deliver the bad news, many -- even those who supported the war -- say they don't think the military has been straight with them.

A Patriot missile brought down Navy Lt. Nathan White's fighter jet on April 2, 2003, killing the 30-year-old from Mesa, Ariz.

"In spite of everything, his father still supports the president and our troops," said Dennis White, Nathan's father.

The military acknowledged that it was friendly fire that killed White, but his father said he has not gotten any straight answers from the military or the government as to why the Air Force is still using the Patriot, which has caused several friendly fire deaths of U.S. and allied troops.

Others say they believe the government has lied to them.

"I don't believe anything the government says," said Johnny Burkett, a Vietnam veteran whose nephew, Lance Cpl. Tamario Burkett, was one of 18 Marines killed at An Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

Burkett and nine other Marines were hit by so much enemy and friendly fire that it was impossible to tell which killed them, a military investigation concluded.

Robinson said the Defense Department has a history of not coming clean.

Defense officials "lied, misled and withheld critical information" about Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, he said, and he believes they did so again regarding Gulf War veterans' exposure to chemical and biological warfare agents.

Friendly fire became a military priority after the first Gulf War, when the number of victims prompted the Pentagon to pour billions of dollars into satellite and computer technology aimed at giving troops a better view of the battlefield.

Critics say the military recommitted itself to eliminating friendly fire only after several high-profile incidents -- including one at An Nasiriyah and another in Afghanistan in 2001 that killed four Canadian soldiers.

"They had been very concerned after Desert Storm, and then it kind of wore off," said John Pike, who heads the military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org. "I think it is back on their screen."

Suspicion Confirmed

Army Spc. Donald Oaks Jr., Sgt. 1st Class Randall Rehn and Sgt. Todd Robbins died on April 3, 2003, when an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle dropped a bomb on the multi-launch rocket weapon they manned for the Army's C Battery, 3rd Battalion, 13th Field Artillery regiment.

U.S. Central Command announced within days that the incident was under investigation, but the findings were not officially released.

"I don't think they've learned anything at all since the first Gulf War," grandfather Sam Oaks, 63, said of military officials.

The younger Oaks, a 20-year-old from Erie, Pa., had joined the Army for college money, his grandfather said. He and the other relatives of the three men were told it might have been friendly fire, but it took more than a year for the final report confirming that suspicion to be delivered.

"His grandma told him when he went over to Iraq, 'Be careful for friendly fire,' " the elder Oaks said. "We talked about it all the time, because we know what happened in the first Gulf War."

Rehn, 36, was married with a 3-month old daughter when he shipped out to Iraq.

Back home in Longmont, Colo., his brother Joe said he remains in favor of the war, which he says is necessary to combat terrorism. But he thinks the military had other reasons for delaying its report.

"I'm sure it wasn't at the top of their priority list to figure out what went on, if you know what I mean," Rehn said. "The No. 1 priority is to make sure more people don't know, not to figure out what went on."

Report Delayed

Joint Forces Command focuses on research, experimentation and training.

In June, more than 28,000 U.S. service members and troops from Britain, Canada and other allied nations took part in Joint Forces Command exercises at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. In simulated combat, they tested anti-fratricide technology that could one day be used on the real battlefield.

Joint Forces Command spent nearly a year developing its report on lessons learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"They identified friendly fire as one of those things which need substantial improvement," Venable said.

Lipscomb and other loved ones of the six soldiers killed in the Black Hawk crash say they feel they may never know what really happened.

"Some days I think, 'Oh, maybe I can buy this,' " she said of the military's finding of pilot disorientation. "Other times it just doesn't add up to me. There's a lot of covering up, I'm sure. Sometimes you have to say, 'I'll never know.' "


Copyright 2005, The Press-Enterprise