Sunday, November 26, 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

Marines staying mum on training death investigation

Monday, November 20, 2006
Last modified Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:44 AM PST

Marines staying mum on training death investigation

By: JOE BECK - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- The continuing investigation into the shooting death of a Marine in a training exercise at Camp Pendleton won't be complete for three to six months, according to base officials.

The Marines have made few details available on what caused the shooting of Cpl. Seth M. Algrim on Oct. 30. It was at least the third incident since 2000 in which a Marine was injured or killed in a training exercise at Camp Pendleton. The latest comments from camp officials on the investigation came in an e-mail responding to questions submitted by the North County Times Tuesday.

Investigators are continuing to treat Algrim's death as an accident, according to the e-mail message.

Camp officials said last week that Algrim, 22, was shot to death while training on a firing range that is normally limited to blank ammunition. His father, Bruce Algrim of Garden City, Kan., said Marine officials had told him that his son was shot in the head by someone in his unit.

The shooting happened while Algrim was training with 50 to 100 other Marines around small, mock cinder-block buildings intended to simulate urban combat conditions.

Lt. Esteban Vickers, a Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton, said last week that the training is a standard exercise conducted to prepare Marines to search buildings and conduct other activities in cities inhabited by hostile forces.

Algrim's death came four years after Pfc. Jeremy R. Purcell, 19, died under similar circumstances at Camp Pendleton. That case resulted in disciplinary action taken against several members of Purcell's unit. Purcell's father filed a lawsuit against the government that was later dismissed. Marine officials at the time also said they were changing the way ammunition on the base was being handled to prevent further accidental shootings.

Purcell was killed on Aug. 28, 2002, during a training session on another shooting range reserved for blank ammunition, according to accounts in newspapers and legal documents at the time. Purcell, a military policeman from Provo, Utah, was one of several Marines playing the role of enemy combatants in a simulated urban combat exercise involving members of the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company.

Marine officials at the time said the training was supposed to involve blank ammunition.

A subsequent investigation blamed Purcell's death on negligence by four Marines in Purcell's unit and weak safety measures. The investigation found that his platoon had been using live rounds in another exercise earlier in the day. Investigators said Sgt. Cody W. Ottley grabbed separate magazines, including one with live ammunition, and carried them to the firing range where Purcell was killed. Ottley then inadvertently loaded the live ammunition into his M4A1 carbine rifle and shot Purcell without realizing the gun contained live bullets.

Ottley later pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, was sentenced to a year in prison and received a bad-conduct discharge. Staff Sgt. Chad R. Chalkey, Ottley's team leader, received nonjudicial punishment for dereliction of duty in Purcell's death. Capt. Andrew Horne, Purcell's platoon commander, and Gunnery Sgt. Richard Kerkering, the platoon sergeant, were relieved of their duties and reassigned.

Marine officials at the time said they were establishing added safety precautions in the handling of live and blank ammunition, including more help for range safety officers who are responsible for controlling how ammunition is issued and stored.

Jon Purcell, the father of Jeremy Purcell, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Utah, accusing the Marines of negligence in his son's death.

"The death of Pfc. Jeremy R. Purcell resulted from a complete and total institutional failure on the part of the Marine Corps, at Camp Pendleton, to have in place, and enforce proper policies for use, storage, and accountability of ammunition used in training activities," Purcell said in court documents.

U.S. District Judge David Sam dismissed the case, citing previous court cases that exempt the military from paying damages for most injuries that a member of the military may suffer in the course of training or combat.

Purcell's death came after Lance Cpl. Waightstill Avery, 20, was accidentally wounded by live ammunition fired from a machine gun during a training exercise on Camp Pendleton in 2000. Newspaper accounts from the time reported that the live ammunition had been inadvertently loaded into a machine gun that had been modified to fire only blanks.

Avery, who underwent three surgeries for internal injuries, survived his wounds.

-- Contact staff writer Joe Beck at (760) 740-3516 or

Submitted by Patti Woodard

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Flag

We all know the history of the American flag. We know its
symbology. White signifies purity and innocence; red signifies
valor and bravery; and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance and
justice. Each star represents one of the states in the Union .

Driving through my typical American neighborhood, I see that many of
my neighbors fly American flags in their front yards. They fly
their flags to show their support and love of their country. To
them, displaying the flag in their yards is a sign of patriotism.

I do not ever fly or display my flag. My flag is encased in a
triangular shaped wooden box on the top of a bookcase in my living
room. It is easily visible to all who enter my home. Also encased
in this wooden box are the medals my son earned during his service
in the Army and the bullet casings from a salute done at his
funeral. Each of those casings represents a different element
taught in the United States Army: Duty, Honor, Country.

The American flag means many things to many people. Some wrap
themselves in the security of the flag and call
themselves "patriotic". Some people burn the flag in an effort to
show their displeasure with the American government.

These days, the flag carries and entirely different meaning for me.
My flag was my son's last blanket. It covered his wooden coffin,
used to signify that he died in the service of his country. My flag
carries on it tears of sorrow and mourning for the loss of the son
that I will never see again. I followed the colors of my flag in
the funeral procession to my son's last resting place.

While the flag is traditional symbol of our nation for some it is a
symbol of the lies told to families. There are those who like to
believe what our nation does is above reproach. You have to remember
our leaders are just ordinary people that have the same flaws as
anyone else. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Perry Monroe

Monday, November 06, 2006

Henry Kissinger said...

Today, a member of our list sent an email mentioning Senator Kerry’s public gaff which has been characterized by some as an insult to the troops.

Now, I’m a registered Independent voter, and I don’t have much confidence in politicians in general -- regardless of party affiliation. In no way to I want this to be taken as a defense of Kerry. In short, I think we can all believe that as a comedian, John Kerry is clearly incompetent.

Somehow, however, I’m able to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept that he botched a “joke” aimed at George Bush’s policy and the Iraq War. Kerry served in the military during the Vietnam War, and if he were casting aspersions on military personnel, he would be including himself in the general grouping. To his credit, Kerry apologized publicly to any whom he had offended.

It does remind me, however, of a statement made by a man who has advised several US Presidents, including the present resident of the White House. The man is Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger said: "Military men are just dumb stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy."

I don’t think this was the punch line to a botched joke. I think he meant it, and that in this quote, Henry Kissinger revealed the attitude of most politicians eager to wage war in the name of the people of the United States of America.

I venture a guess that the members of this sadly exclusive club, consisting of family and friends of military members killed while on active duty, will find Henry Kissinger’s statement to be far more offensive than Kerry’s. Let us work together to prove to the powerful in our government that they must change their attitude about the young people who are willing to fight and die in our country’s name.

In that vein, the US Military must begin to take the investigation of suspicious non-combat deaths as a serious matter.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

From the New York Times

November 5, 2006

Anger Joins Grief as Marine’s Family Feels Misled

DAGSBORO, Del. — When Tricia and Gregg White were told by the Marines in 2004 that their son, Lance Cpl. Russell White, had been killed in Afghanistan in a gun-cleaning accident, their hearts went out to the marine who had been holding the gun.

Corporal White’s brother Adam memorized a prayer of forgiveness, the Whites said, and headed to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to visit the marine, Lance Cpl. Federico Pimienta. The Whites had been told he was on a suicide watch.

“I immediately put myself in his parents’ position, and I just couldn’t imagine,” Mrs. White said. “We didn’t want two people to die because of what we thought was an unfortunate accident.”

But their outpouring of forgiveness came months before they learned that, whatever had happened, their son’s death did not result from a gun-cleaning accident. It was before they learned that Corporal Pimienta had lied to investigators and that he had been repeatedly chastised for mishandling weapons. It was before he failed to appear at his court-martial, having fled to Europe.

And it was before persistent questioning, guided by intimations of a darker explanation from their son’s platoon mates, enabled the Whites to piece together a picture of what had happened at Bagram Air Base on June 20, 2004, when Corporal White, 19, was killed by a single shot to the head.

What they learned did not, to their minds, add up to a simple accident. But it did leave them feeling alone, forsaken by military authorities, and incredulous at what they say was the incompetence of the initial investigation into Corporal White’s death.

“I had lost faith in the entire system,” Adam White said at Corporal Pimienta’s June court-martial on unauthorized absence charges. “I figured we were never going to receive any justice.”

The Marines say that there was no attempt to mislead the Whites and that the investigation and the prosecution were appropriate.

More than a dozen families have publicly said they were misled or overtly lied to about the cause of their loved one’s death in Afghanistan or Iraq. These families — about half from the Marines and half from the Army — said the military was slow to investigate or take possible violations seriously, or that the information they did receive was riddled with contradictions. What should be the military’s most careful duty, these families say, has for them been a painful ordeal.

The best known such case was in 2004, when Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former professional football player, died in what the Army first said was a heroic firefight. A month later, officials told the family that he had actually been accidentally shot by members of his own platoon. The Defense Department is now completing the fourth investigation of his death, this time examining the possibility that a cover-up followed.

But cases like Corporal Tillman’s are not unheard of. A recent study by the Army shows that the families of seven soldiers were misled about their deaths.

The Whites said they had expected better treatment from the Marines, a smaller, select force that goes out of its way to welcome the families of recruits into the fold.

“They started out real good, and then they stopped — they stopped giving me information,” said Gregg White, a construction contractor in Dagsboro. “The door kept shutting, and I was like, No, you’re not going to slam the door on me.”

Lt. Col. Curtis L. Hill, the chief spokesman for the Second Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, said in an e-mail message that there was no intent to provide inaccurate information to the Whites or to the medical examiner, who was also told the death had resulted from a gun-cleaning accident.

“When a unit loses a marine, there is a flurry of activity as they make every attempt to gather as much information as possible in order to release a message back to casualty branch at Headquarters Marine Corps,” Colonel Hill said, adding that initial assumptions sometimes proved false.

“Although I normally don’t speculate,” he said, “I believe that it would have been a valid assumption made at the time that a negligent discharge of a weapon could have been tied to weapons cleaning.”

After complaints from parents and publicity over the Tillman case, the Army recently revised its casualty notification procedure, adding safeguards like an accuracy check of the casualty report and a requirement that the unit commander call the family within seven days.

The Marines have made no such changes, said Bryan J. Driver, a spokesman for the Marine Casualty Branch. “No one that we’ve heard of is having a problem — it’s all Army, not Marines.”

Mrs. White likes to say that Russell, one of three boys, was “a born soldier” who as a small boy patrolled the family’s dock. Another son, Dennis, is in the Navy, but the Whites said that being a Marine family felt special. The couple owns two English bulldogs — the Marine mascot.

The Whites said their first inkling that they were not being told the whole truth came about a month after their son’s death. They learned, through a friend of their son’s, that Corporal Pimienta, who they thought had been confined at Camp Lejeune, had been seen off the base.

“My heart started racing,” Mrs. White said. “First we think he’s in a rubber room somewhere, and he’s walking around. He’s not even in the brig.”

Corporal Pimienta was released because he had attended his pretrial hearings and committed no additional misconduct and was not judged a flight risk by his commanding officer, Colonel Hill said.

Then the Whites received a copy of the initial investigation report, prepared by the Army Criminal Investigation Division, which conducts investigations for other service branches. Contradictions in witness statements were not explored, they said, and no one said Corporal Pimienta had been cleaning his gun, a 9-millimeter pistol, at the time of the accident.

In fact, Corporal Pimienta’s own statement in the report said that Corporal White had been playing with the pistol and had left it on Corporal Pimienta’s bed. When Corporal Pimienta went to holster the gun, he told the investigator, it went off.

Chris Grey, a spokesman for the investigation division, rejected criticism of the inquiry, noting that it included gunshot residue testing, sketches of the crime scene, interviews and forensic laboratory work.

But in phone calls and e-mail messages, Corporal White’s Marine buddies warned his parents that they were not hearing the full story, Mr. White said. Some who had left the service and could speak freely told the family that Corporal Pimienta was known for mishandling his gun, practicing quick-draw techniques, aiming at other marines and regularly violating basic principles of safety.

Ultimately, a dozen marines testified or gave sworn statements that they had seen Corporal Pimienta break the firearms rules, and two of his superiors said they had given him repeated verbal reprimands.

“I would inform him that the way that he is handling his pistol would be — was unsafe,” Cpl. Alfred E. Riley testified at the court-martial. “And that eventually he’s going to end up hurting someone, sir.”

Colonel Hill said that he could not speculate about why Corporal Pimienta was permitted to continue carrying a weapon, but that the Marine Corps took gun safety “very seriously.”

“As evidenced by the repeated counselings,” he said, the corporal “was being corrected when he failed to properly handle his weapon.”

The confusion only fueled the Whites’ suspicions of foul play. But military prosecutors decided to treat the shooting as a pure accident, charging Corporal Pimienta under a catch-all provision for “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.” The maximum sentence he could have received was three years.

“We pleaded, begged and demanded” that the investigation be reopened, Mr. White said. “The prosecutors were very reluctant.”

But after the unit returned from Afghanistan in November 2004, prosecutors did interview some witnesses again, including the only other person in the bunkhouse at the time of the shooting, Lance Cpl. Steven Groover. Corporal Groover said that immediately after the shooting, Corporal Pimienta asked him to lie about what had happened.

The charges against Corporal Pimienta were increased to include making a false statement to investigators, which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years, and manslaughter with culpable negligence, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. In addition, Corporal Pimienta was charged with reckless conduct and assault based on new accusations that he had pointed a loaded gun at another marine, Cpl. Ian R. Dunton.

A Marine spokeswoman, Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, said the Whites “had no influence” over the decision to increase the charges.

The Whites hoped the trial would finally bring them justice and a sense of resolution. But two days before it began, Corporal Pimienta fled the country. The Whites and their friends learned of his absence not before the trial, but that morning at Camp Lejeune, on a closed-circuit television showing the proceedings.

In absentia, Corporal Pimienta was convicted of making the false statement and of manslaughter, and acquitted of the charges involving Corporal Dunton. The court-martial recommended a sentence of 12 years and a dishonorable discharge, and the defendant was demoted to the rank of private. But to the Whites’ bitter disappointment, Maj. Gen. Richard A. Huck, then the commander of the Second Marine Division, reduced the sentence to six years and the dishonorable discharge to a bad-conduct discharge.

Lt. Barry Edwards, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said the sentence was decreased “in the interest of justice, discipline, mission requirements, clemency and other appropriate reasons.”

When Mr. White found out about the change via e-mail, he kept the news from his wife for two days to spare her the shock.

“We were astonished and sick,” he said. “Basically, General Huck was saying that Russell is just a number. He also, in my opinion, discredited the integrity of the people that made up that trial.”

“The Marines aren’t bad,” he added. “It’s the bureaucracy. It’s the brass.”

According to e-mail messages provided by the Whites, General Huck, who has since retired, declined without explanation a request to meet with them. The Marines declined to make General Huck available for comment.

Private Pimienta turned himself in on Feb. 15 in Spain. He was returned to the United States, where he began serving his six-year sentence and faced an additional charge — not desertion, as the Whites had hoped, but “unauthorized absence.”

Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Adam told the court how painful it had been to think that Private Pimienta would never serve his sentence. “You have to understand,” Mrs. White said, “that we’re not the people that we were before this event happened and we will never be, again, the same.”

Private Pimienta was sentenced to 10 additional months in the brig, out of a maximum of 12. When he addressed the court, appearing for the first time in the same room as the White family, he did not mention the gunshot that killed Corporal White.

“I am truly sorry,” he said, reading from a piece of paper, “for all the hardship my absence has caused.”

Thursday, November 02, 2006

From the Lincoln County News

Soldier’s Mother Moves Past Autopsy to Advocate Legislation

Story date: 11/01/2006
by Judi Finn

The autopsy report on her 41-year-old Maine Army National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon who died June 15 while serving in Afghanistan, is completed, said his mother Barbara Damon Day of Newcastle, but not definitive.

Day met last week with Army Col. Paul Cordts of the U.S. Medical Corps and director of health policy and services, and with two medical examiners, Navy Capt. Craig Mallak and Army Reservist Maj. Donna Hunsakker, who performed the autopsy, both of Dover, Del., where the military mortuary is located. The meeting was held in Falmouth at Hilde Halley’s home, widow of Patrick Damon.

Initially Damon’s sudden death after collapsing on his bunk was believed to be due to a heart attack. “There was a slight amount of scarring in Pat’s heart,” Day was told at the briefing, but not enough to cause arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or to stop his heart from beating. “He had no coronary disease,” she said. Prior to his death, Damon went for a run. The temperature was in the 80s with low humidity.

Day was most surprised by one piece of information – her son weighed 186 pounds when he died, more than 20 pounds heavier than normal, she said. “Pat weighed in the 160s,” said Day, and in Army physical records his weight ranged between 158 and 162.

A photo of Damon her daughter-in-law retrieved from Damon’s computer taken sometime in the three months he was in Afghanistan shows a different person. “I would have walked past him,” said Day, and not recognized her own son. His lips, face and neck were swollen as well as his body. “They have no explanation of that.” She said changes began prior to his deployment. “He was always short of breath.” His allergies were acting up, too.

Day has from the beginning believed drug and immunization reactions contributed to his death, that and a poor medical response time on June 15, 35 minutes. Fellow reservists administered CPR but responders with proper equipment and drugs were delayed.

“They gave Ciproflex to Pat, 5mg for 30 days, and the only use we know of is for a urinary tract infection or anthrax exposure. They gave it as an anti-malarial drug, but Pat didn’t believe it,” she said. Day researched the drug and said it can cause heart problems. In the last Internet posting by Damon his face had sores from the drug and his breathing was labored in Day’s last conversation with her son.

“He did not have a pre-deployment physical,” Day said, and should have had a strict physical as called for when a reservist is over 40. “He had no EKG.” She said her son filled out a health assessment. “Sign here, you’re ready to go.”

On Oct. 20, U.S. Representative Mike Michaud came to Day’s home to pay his respects. “He knew Pat and worked with him,” when both men were in Augusta, Damon as an aide to four different Speakers of the House and Michaud as a legislator.

“I gave him seven pieces of potential legislation, related to the next mother who gets a visit at the door,” Day said.

The most important one to Day is due to its immediacy. Within the next 60 days there could be a mandatory anthrax vaccination law for the military and she wants this stopped. She wants both pre- and post- deployment physicals mandated by Congress to make the military comply. There should be adequate medical care and supplies for sick soldiers to reduce non combat deaths.

Also, lines of communication should be improved between families of dead soldiers and government/military officials. The scope of next of kin services needs to be broadened. Day said she was included at meetings because her daughter-in-law signed a release. As it stands now, services are extended to a soldier’s spouse, or if single, the parents. Technically, as the pro-tocol stands, “I couldn’t find out why my son died, the woman who gave birth.”

“Pat’s family – what we have received should be included as the model,” Day said.

Day wants the National Institute of Health to be linked with the military and given power over all medical issues.

Congressional action could also insure access to the Defense Medical Surveillance System Data Base. Day explained that since 1988, all diagnoses of out patients and in patients at military treatment facilities for active duty and reservists have been recorded.

The data could be used to track possible immunization and drug reactions and long term effects. Right now the Department of Defense will not relinquish control, according to Day, and only allows the Center for Disease Control to study subsets of data extended out 18 weeks.

“I think for the future protection of folks in the military it is key to be able to access the data base,” said Day.

Following the autopsy meeting, Day said, “We all felt the military was there, the two medical examiners, to tell us the military had done nothing wrong.” They do not have an answer to why Damon died, and Day was told “if we have any ideas to let them know.”

Day used the contacts she made during her personal meeting with President Bush in Kennebunk on Aug. 24, and called Brigadier Gen. Richard Tubb, assistant to the president, and asked him, “What if they say ‘we don’t know’.” His advice was to write a letter to President Bush and document the answers she has received and indicate what questions remain unanswered so a record is established, which she plans to do.

In the meantime, the Congressional inquiry into Damon’s death that Day requested has been forwarded to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

“I’m at the point now where I have to think confidently and clearly about how to proceed,” said Day.