Tuesday, February 19, 2008

IG: Families not told in friendly fire cases

By Andrew Tilghman - Staff writerPosted : Monday Feb 18, 2008 13:25:32 EST

Friendly fire incidents have caused six Marine deaths and at least 85 other casualties since the beginning of the war in Iraq — a total that is roughly 1 percent of the Corps’ 9,000 reported casualties, according to a report from the Inspector General of the Marine Corps.

In all but four of those 91 cases, the Corps failed to promptly notify the Marine’s family that the casualty resulted from friendly fire, according to the report, obtained by Marine Corps Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

While the 25-page report was just released publicly, it was completed in October and distributed internally among senior Marine officials.

The report resulted in the creation of a Corps-wide “Combat Casualty Cell” in December, when responsibility for all casualty notifications was centralized in the Personal and Family Readiness Division office in Quantico, Va. The office doubled its staff from 11 to 22 to handle the new duties.
Previously, the Corps expected individual commanders to notify families when friendly fire investigations began.

“The IG found a disturbing lack of understanding and compliance” with the rule requiring commanders to send family members formal letters updating them on the status of investigations, the report said. The failures between 2003 and 2007 to properly notify family members resulted from “unclear procedures, outdated directives and a confusing chain of command,” but not from “negligence, personal indifference or professional incompetence,” according to the report.

Military policies for full-disclosure of friendly fire incidents came under scrutiny after the death of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

Tillman, a former safety for the Arizona Cardinals, turned down a multimillion-dollar National Football League contract to join the Army after Sept. 11, 2001. Army officials initially told Tillman’s family that he was killed by enemy fire, but the family later learned he was mistakenly killed by another Army Ranger.

Policy change lauded

Families of fallen service members say full and timely disclosure about casualties is a welcome policy change.

“People can handle the truth. People can find peace with circumstances of the loss if they are given accurate and honest information in a supportive and compassionate way,” said Bonnie Carroll, chairman of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an advocacy group for families of fallen service members.

“The steps by the Marine Corps and the Army leadership to ensure that families are given honest information have made a tremendous difference in the families’ ability to cope with the loss,” Carroll said.

The only cases in which a Marine’s family was promptly notified about the results of a friendly fire investigation involved four Marines who were killed in action. In all other cases of friendly fire casualties, families were either not notified at all or not notified until the Corps’ Inspector General launched its investigation last year, the report said.

Sixteen of the injuries were listed as “SI,” or serious injury, which included a Marine who was shot in the arm and abdomen during a combat operation and another who was struck by an artillery round after the wrong grid point was identified as an enemy target.

In 65 of the friendly fire incidents, the injuries were categorized as “NSI,” or not a serious injury, such as a shrapnel wound to the leg.

In two deaths resulting from friendly fire — those of Lance Cpls. Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder, who were killed by a misguided artillery round on April 12, 2004 — their families were not told that the cause was friendly fire until July 2007, after the IG began its investigation, according to the report.

A new 24-hour hot line for family members seeking information about a casualty report or incident investigation was set up in December as part of the new procedures at the Personal and Family Readiness Division. It is (800) 847-1597.

‘You can’t bring him back’

Such a hot line was not available for Glenn Shuder, who remembers the day, April 13, 2004, when a Marine officer and Navy chaplain showed up on his doorstep near Sacramento, Calif., and a told him and his wife that their son, Brad, 21, had been killed near Fallujah while serving with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.

“They never told us what actually happened. They said it was hostile fire. We sort of kind of left it at that. I guess with all the shock and grief, we just went on,” Shuder said in a telephone interview Feb. 6.

About six months later, the Shuders met informally with several junior Marines who served with their son. The Marines told them that their son had not been killed by enemy fire, but was struck by an artillery round misfired by other Marines. Brad Shuder and Zurheide were killed, while several others were injured.

The Shuders made no effort to contact their son’s command for confirmation or explanation.
“We didn’t know who to contact. We had no access; there was no information that came to us for how to do this. It was six months later, and I just didn’t want to known about it,” Shuder said.

“My wife and I talked about it and she said, ‘What’s it going to change? You can’t bring him back. He’s dead.’ So we sort of didn’t pursue it.”

According to the Marine Corps’ procedures at the time, Lance Cpl. Shuder’s commander should have written the parents a letter informing them that the Corps had initiated a friendly fire investigation. After the investigation was complete, the results should have been reported to them.

Instead, the Shuders heard nothing from the Corps until last year, after members of Congress began inquiring about the Corps’ policies for disclosing the existence and results of friendly fire incidents.

More than three years after Brad Shuder’s death, the Inspector General’s review found that the Marine Corps had never notified his family that he had not been killed by enemy fire, as the family was initially told.

In July 2007, a general and several other high-ranking Marines from Camp Pendleton, Calif., went to the Shuders’ home and gave them a complete explanation. The Shuders listened, but asked few questions.

Glenn Shuder said the circumstances of his son’s death have not changed the nature of his grief. But he does sometimes think about the Marine, whose name he does not know, who misfired the fatal artillery round.

“It’s the fog of war, and things happen. I completely understand that,” he said. “The individual who made that mistake knows what he did, and it’s something he has to live with for the rest of his life.”

--submitted by Patti Woodard

No comments: