NPR investigation reveals coverup of a deadly friendly fire accident in the Iraq War
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A new NPR investigation reveals the cover-up of a deadly friendly fire accident early in the Iraq War when a U.S. mortar hit American troops. NPR's Tom Bowman and Graham Smith of the Investigations Unit spent years discovering what really happened, and they tell the story in a new podcast called Taking Cover. A warning - this story contains the sound of gunfire.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)
GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: April 2004. Marines from Echo Company are hunkered down in a schoolhouse in Fallujah, Iraq. Down the street, they spot insurgent fighters rolling tires out into the street, piling them up.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Then they rolled out another tire, and another guy took a knee with an AK.
G SMITH: Soon, the insurgents set the tires on fire, creating a smokescreen to shield their movements across the street.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Marines from 2nd Battalion 1st Marines exchange fire with the insurgents from the schoolhouse window and prepare for an attack. A decision is made to destroy that tire barricade by firing a mortar.
JOHN SMITH: As I'm lifting my flak jacket up to put it on, boom - big shockwaves. Shrapnel's ripping through everyone.
G SMITH: The Marine round didn't hit the barricade. It exploded in the courtyard of the schoolhouse. Lance Corporal John Smith.
J SMITH: Everything was in slow motion, and, you know, I'm crawling across the ground, trying to get my rifle. I didn't even realize I had got injured. I knew I fell. I knew an explosion went off. But everything hit so quick and fast, I felt no pain. It was just happening.
G SMITH: Immediately, a massive firefight breaks out. Bill Skiles was the company first sergeant. He remembers the confusion.
BILL SKILES: I thought some enemy blew himself up in our compound - my first thought. And that means we have people coming in the wire. So it was smoke. I couldn't see - flashlights everywhere and screaming everywhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Inaudible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Medic - need a medic.
BOWMAN: We learned there was an investigation and that officers knew instantly it was friendly fire. Two Marines were killed - Brad Shuder and Robert Zurheide - and a dozen U.S. troops wounded. But when we requested documents about the incident, the Marine Corps told us they couldn't find any. As it turns out, the investigative report was hidden for years. It was never shared with the public until we forced it to release with a federal lawsuit.
G SMITH: John Smith lost a leg and use of his left eye in the blast. Though he'd heard rumors it might have been friendly fire, he didn't know the truth until NPR told him.
J SMITH: The fact that nobody has said anything concrete, no paperwork the whole time and I'm just now finding out there was even an investigation - like, what was so big about this incident? What did y'all have to hide?
BOWMAN: What did they have to hide? Well, we learned something else about this incident. A young officer in the command center that day plotting mortar targets was Marine Lieutenant Duncan Hunter Jr. His father, Duncan Hunter Sr., was then a congressman, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
G SMITH: One of the other officers in the command center was Lieutenant Colonel Gregg Olson.
GREGG OLSON: Good to see you.
BOWMAN: Good to see you.
G SMITH: He's now a three-star general. We arranged to talk with him at the Pentagon.
OLSON: I had a chance to get out to Illinois and collect some contemporaneous notes.
G SMITH: Wow.
G SMITH: Olson recalled confusion in the command center that started with Lieutenant Hunter pointing to the wrong mortar target. Hunter was the artillery liaison officer.
OLSON: My recollection is that the artillery liaison officer identified the target on the big photographic map that we used.
BOWMAN: But months later, after we started reporting our findings, Olson called us back to the Pentagon, telling a completely different story.
G SMITH: So are you saying that your recollection, having looked at your contemporaneous notes, of seeing Duncan Hunter point at the larger map out of the two maps - you don't actually...
OLSON: I have no contemporaneous notes. My recollection was based on memory, and I didn't have it right the first time I talked to you.
BOWMAN: So what was Duncan Hunter doing? What was he pointing to?
OLSON: I don't recall him pointing to anything.
G SMITH: Now, the congressman's son was never singled out for punishment. Olson and Hunter told the investigator he was still in training. After reviewing the report, Olson's boss, Colonel John Toolan, recommended Olson and two junior officers be disciplined. But Toolan's boss, Major General James Mattis, who later became secretary of defense, rejected all that. He cited the fog of war, saying he saw no intentional misconduct or criminal negligence. His decision effectively closed the book on the whole incident.
BOWMAN: We asked officers up the chain of command why the families and the wounded men weren't properly informed.
JOHN TOOLAN: Well, to be honest, I mean, I think I lost sight of this incident.
BOWMAN: John Toolan retired as a three-star. He still has a battle map from Fallujah above his desk in his study and a basket of memorial cards for all the men who died under his command.
TOOLAN: I mean, I can see how it happens, but should it happen that way? No. Your instincts, I think, are correct, and those questions should be answered. But the worst thing in the world to happen is to break that bond of trust between us and the public, the mothers and fathers who send their sons to war.
G SMITH: And what about the congressman's son? Toolan remembers he was surprised when Hunter Jr. was reassigned to his lead combat unit after they were already in combat.
BOWMAN: What are your thoughts about people who say, maybe they buried it because of Duncan Hunter?
TOOLAN: I lost complete faith in Duncan Hunter, but Duncan Hunter Jr. was a pain in the ass when he was the second lieutenant. Let's put this way. I mean, most second lieutenants in artillery units don't get their butts chewed out by the regimental commander.
G SMITH: Toolan says when Hunter showed up, he was poorly prepared. He describes a reckless young officer with disregard for basic safety protocols - not wearing his body armor or his helmet when he should have.
TOOLAN: Very cocky, didn't really - he wasn't the kind of guy that you would want your son to be led by.
BOWMAN: We asked General Mattis why this case was so mishandled. He remembered the incident, but he wouldn't give us an interview - just referred us to his comments in the report. The top Marine officer in Iraq at the time, James Conway, later went on to be commandant of the Marine Corps. We sought an interview with him for months, but he wouldn't return our calls and emails.
G SMITH: Finally, we went to his house.
BOWMAN: Hey, General.
JAMES CONWAY: Howdy. How you doing?
BOWMAN: Hey - Tom Bowman with NPR.
CONWAY: Yeah, sure. How you been?
BOWMAN: I've been trying to get a hold of you. How you doing?
CONWAY: Yeah, not too bad - long time, no see.
G SMITH: Other Marine generals have characterized this as the worst Marine-on-Marine friendly fire in decades, but Conway told us he didn't even remember the incident.
CONWAY: Guys, I'm telling you. I'd be happy to sit down, but I don't have any direct knowledge. And I'll be honest. I don't remember it even as the commandant.
CONWAY: So, you know, shame on me, I guess.
BOWMAN: Well, Conway never did sit down with us for an interview. He only sent a brief statement saying the Marine Corps corrected their failures to inform families as soon as it was discovered. What Conway didn't say was Congress forced the Marines to tell the truth during an obscure subcommittee hearing back in 2007 that happened because of the problems with other friendly fire deaths like Pat Tillman. Tillman left an NFL career to join the Army Rangers only to be accidentally killed by members of his own platoon in Afghanistan.
G SMITH: Most of the men we talked to had no knowledge of the investigation until we gave them a copy.
SKILES: I know now. You guys provided me this. I never saw this.
G SMITH: This is Bill Skiles, the first sergeant who helped evacuate wounded Marines from the schoolhouse.
BOWMAN: How do we explain this? - because we're looking at this - again, never told when the investigation wrapped up. And the only reason it appears they were told about the investigation was only because of Pat Tillman.
SKILES: And they covered that up, too, for a while.
BOWMAN: But what do - how would you explain...
SKILES: So that means Shuder and Zurheide are nobodies, but Tillman is a household name.
BOWMAN: And what of Duncan Hunter - actually, both of them? We sat down with Hunter Sr. at a Washington-area hotel. He wrote a book called "Victory In Iraq," and it includes details about that fight in Fallujah but nothing about the friendly fire incident.
DUNCAN HUNTER SR: Don't know about it. Yeah. Yeah.
G SMITH: We told him his son had given a statement in the report.
BOWMAN: And your son - 'cause he was with 2-1 - did he ever mention it?
DUNCAN HUNTER SR: No. I mean, my...
G SMITH: And so one person had said that they wouldn't be surprised if they buried it because they didn't want to piss you off.
BOWMAN: Do you buy that? Does that make sense to you that they would have...
DUNCAN HUNTER SR: You know, I don't buy being sucked into an incident that I know nothing about.
G SMITH: We only learned after our interview that, as part of a congressional delegation to Iraq, Chairman Duncan Hunter Sr. traveled to Fallujah back in 2004, and he met with General Conway just days before Conway signed off on the Mattis recommendation to drop all punishments.
BOWMAN: And Duncan Hunter Jr. - after the Marine Corps, he ran for his father's seat and won but resigned 11 years later after pleading guilty to a felony for misusing campaign funds. President Trump pardoned him. Hunter Jr. dodged us for months. Finally, our colleague Steve Walsh caught up with him in San Diego.
DUNCAN HUNTER JR: The Marine Corps handled this. They've looked into it. I was a lieutenant.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Can you describe what you did that day? You were in the fire control room.
DUNCAN HUNTER JR: There was no fire control room. It was an apartment complex in Fallujah.
WALSH: And so what did you do that day?
DUNCAN HUNTER JR: I did artillery.
G SMITH: Of course, there was a fire control room. And we know from the documents we've found that he was there, plotting targets. Hunter wouldn't answer any other questions. One other big question emerged for us. Guys kept telling us about a third man killed by the mortar that day, an interpreter. He was never mentioned in the report, but a U.S. soldier who was there finally helped us unlock the mystery.
DUANE JOLLY: I had my two soldiers, and then my interpreter was Shihab.
G SMITH: And Shihab...
G SMITH: Was he - he was a Iraqi national.
JOLLY: He was. Yeah. Yeah, he was.
BOWMAN: Duane Jolly recently retired as a sergeant major. He's still haunted by the memory of hiring Shihab, who initially didn't want to go to Fallujah, where violence was escalating.
JOLLY: But I told him - I said, you know, don't worry, buddy. You know, people start shooting at us, you just get behind me. I guarantee you I'll take care of you. And that's the part, you know, in therapy that I really have had a hard time with and still do - that I told him he'd be fine and he gets killed.
G SMITH: Yeah. You know, my hope has always been to find his family and maybe to get to Baghdad at some point.
JOLLY: Man, if you do, you have to tell me. I would be so happy just to, you know, tell them - I don't know - just how much his memory still lives within me every single day.
BOWMAN: Well, we did find Shihab's family in Baghdad. And when we gave them a copy of the report, they were shocked to learn he was killed by friendly fire. They said a U.S. officer told them he was killed by terrorists. I'm Tom Bowman.
G SMITH: And I'm Graham Smith, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.