Friendly Fire Deaths Haunt Families


March 27, 2007 — -- Soldiers slain by enemy fire are lauded as heroes and honored with parades. But those who die at the hands of their fellow soldiers in the fog of war usually don't get much attention.

Until the killing of former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman made headlines, friendly fire deaths occupied an unexamined niche in the annals of warfare.

The death of Tillman, who was killed in a lonely canyon in Afghanistan, was the subject of five separate military investigations. The most recent probe found no criminal negligence and recommended that nine officers, including up to four generals, be held accountable for blunders in the wake of the killing.

But most friendly fire deaths don't make headlines, and due to a combination of factors, from embarrassment to fear of disclosing mistakes on the battlefield, the Pentagon chooses not to give them much publicity.

Although dozens of soldiers -- including high-ranking officers -- knew within minutes that Tillman was killed by his fellow American troops, the Army told his family that he was shot during a conventional ambush. That claim was repeated during a nationally televised memorial service. It took five weeks before his family found out the truth behind his death.

That's not long compared to the ordeal of Peggy Buryj, who claims that the Pentagon waited a year to inform her that her son Jesse had been killed in a friendly fire incident in Iraq just 13 days after Tillman's killing.

Last month, another friendly fire incident in which an American warplane attacked a British regiment in southern Iraq, killing Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, made headlines. Although the attack occurred in 2003, a copy of the cockpit recording, on which American soldiers are overhead saying, "We're in jail dude," when they realize their mistake, was only leaked to the British press in February.

And last year, former Canadian Olympic relay runner Mark Anthony Graham was killed when two U.S. A-10 Thunderbolts fired on their own NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

Despite these high-profile cases, the number of overall friendly fire incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq is quite low. At least two dozen U.S. soldiers, and several British and Canadian soldiers, have been killed in such incidents, a small percentage of the total of 3,500 coalition deaths.

The ratio was higher during the Gulf War, when 17 percent of American casualties were killed or injured due to friendly fire. Of the 18 British soldiers who died during that war, half of them were killed by their U.S. allies during a single attack by an American A-10 aircraft.

In previous wars, friendly fire incidents were much more frequent. An Army captain who researched small-arms mishaps in Vietnam found that 398 soldiers were killed due to fratricidal or self-inflicted bloodshed. During World War II, tens of thousands were killed by their fellow soldiers. And by some estimates, 75,000 French soldiers alone were killed by their own troops in the First World War.

The course of the Civil War may have changed due to the well-known friendly fire killing of Gen. Stonewall Jackson. The brilliant military strategist was shot by his own Confederate troops, and he died several days later.

Although the military's advanced technology, from GPS to situation awareness systems, has helped reduce the chance of such incidents, it's also made it sometimes difficult to recognize friendly faces.

"The problem is our weapons can kill at a greater range than we can identify a target as friend or foe," Army Maj. Bill McKean, the operation manager of the Joint Combat Identification Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, told the American Forces Press Service. "Yet if you wait until you're close enough to be sure you are firing at an enemy, you've lost your advantage."

While Tillman's story has dominated headlines, Buryj has waged a lonely battle to uncover what really happened to her son.

And just as the Army misrepresented Tillman's death and took five weeks to reveal he died in a hail of gunfire from his fellow U.S. soldiers, Buryj says that she's been given conflicting information about Jesse's death.

But unlike Tillman's killing, the death of her son remains a mystery.

"At first, they told us that he was thrown from a Humvee," Buryj tells "But then a few months later, I got a copy of the death certificate and it said, 'penetrating gunshot to the back.' Then, at his death almost a year later, they kept saying that it was a Polish soldier who shot him [Buryj's unit was on a joint mission with Polish troops]."

But when Buryj called the Polish Embassy, it repeatedly denied the involvement of it soldiers. And a Polish government inquiry concluded that Polish soldiers were not positioned to shoot at the checkpoint where Buryj was posted, according to the Seattle Weekly.

After news reports about his death and after she threatened to call the FBI, the Pentagon opened up another investigation into Jesse's death. "And they said, 'Oh, we threw away the bullet, it was labeled wrong. There is no proving who shot Jesse. It's a tragedy of errors.'"

A report by the Army inspector general's office also concluded that ballistics samples weren't taken from the suspected weapons and that bureaucratic mistakes contributed to the delay in relaying information to Buryj and her husband.

Lt. Col. Kevin Arata of the Army's Human Resources Command in Virginia, did not respond for comment. He told the Seattle Weekly that last year the Army reviewed nearly 800 fatalities and found seven cases, including Tillman's and Buryj's, in which the families were misinformed. He said that the service has taken several steps to verify the accuracy of information about casualties, and that from now on battlefield deaths will be carefully examined "to ensure families ultimately receive the most accurate information."

Buryj, who supports the war, is outraged. "I understand friendly fire, I understand that things happen in the fog of war but you have to tell people in a timely manner."

She said that she just wants someone to take responsibility for her son's death. "I was strung along and strung along -- why does it take them a year to tell the family that the only people there shooting that night were the good guys?"

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