Inaccurate reports on combat deaths hurt US military's credibility

While the Pentagon wants all the fallen to be seen as heroes, families push for the truth.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Pentagon noted the passing of the young officer in the kind of brief statement that has become all too typical: "1st Lt. Kenneth Michael Ballard, 26, of Mountain View, Calif., died May 30 in Najaf, Iraq, during a firefight with insurgents."

Lieutenant Ballard's mother, Karen Meredith, was told that her only child had helped to save the lives of 60 men before being shot in the head by a sniper, and for that, he would be nominated for a Bronze Star with a Combat 'V.'

But that wasn't true. It took 15 months before Ms. Meredith, suspicious of the level of the award her dead son would receive, found out what really happened that day in Iraq in 2004.

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As Congress looks into the case of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former NFL star who died when at least one member of his platoon shot him accidentally, families of other soldiers who died in combat and didn't receive the truth right away are asking why it's so hard for the military to give them all the answers. The mounting criticism has prompted the Army to change its procedures. But as public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wanes, the US military faces a credibility gap. In light of this week's damaging testimony in Corporal Tillman's case, that gap threatens to widen.

At the heart of the controversy: families' demand for the truth versus a military that instinctively wants all its fallen soldiers to be seen as heroes.

"They have to change the culture and it has to start at the top," says Meredith.

More than a year after her son's death, she learned that he died when a machine gun went off accidentally when the tank he was riding in backed into a tree, hitting him as he jumped out of the vehicle's hatch.

Jesse Buryj's family was told he was thrown from a Humvee in an accident in Iraq, also in 2004. Three months later, the soldier's mother, Peggy Buryj, was shocked to find that the death certificate she received indicated her son had died of a gunshot wound. Later, the family was told that a member of the Polish military, which had been working the same checkpoint, had shot him accidentally. Then the family was told someone in his own unit shot him accidentally.

Mrs. Buryj says she still doesn't know for sure what happened or who killed her son, despite an investigation.

The military has an attitude that your son died a hero – regardless of how he may have died, she says, and it thinks that should be good enough.

That view might have been acceptable for the World War II generation, but not anymore, she adds. "All we want to know is what happened. The truth is never worse than the lie."

The Army did an investigation last fall into more than 500 combat deaths and found that none showed significant discrepancies between what the family was told and what actually happened. The Army continues to review the issue.

Much of the focus on forcing the military to provide truthful information about battlefield casualties comes as a result of the Tillman family's determination to bring a higher standard to the process.

In congressional testimony Tuesday, Tillman's brother testified that the military deliberately told lies about his battlefield feats to inspire the nation and divert its attention from the Abu Ghraib scandal.

When the Pentagon released its report on the Tillman investigation March 26, Acting Secretary of the Army Peter Geren pledged to do better.

"We as an Army failed in our duty to the Tillman family, the duty we owe to all families of our fallen soldiers: give them the truth, the best we know it, as fast as we can," he told reporters. "Our failure in fulfilling this duty brought discredit to the Army and compounded the grief suffered by the Tillman family."

Since 2001, there have been 16 cases of fratricide, according to the independent Army Times newspaper, which based its report last fall on a Freedom of Information Act request. After a Defense Department Inspector General report on the Tillman death released last month that implicated nine soldiers, including four senior officers, the Army is still determining just what action it will take.

However, the Army last year did make a series of changes to the process by which family members are notified of a death. The Army now requires an officer to review information about a casualty and verify its accuracy as best as possible based on the information known at the time. All hostile deaths are now investigated.

Then-Army Secretary Francis Harvey also made other changes.

Now a soldier's commander must extend his condolences to a family within seven days and death investigations are provided to families. Chaplains are more heavily involved in notifying the family when a soldier dies.

"We go through twice the hell," says Nadia McCaffrey, the mother of Patrick McCaffrey, whose combat death near Balad, Iraq, in 2004 was also misrepresented to the family. "It is a horrible pain that could be spared."

Ms. McCaffrey says she knows other families who privately question the way they were told their sons died in combat but don't want to open old wounds. Others fear that asking questions of the military is seen as anti-military, so they stay quiet, she adds. "To me, the truth is patriotic."

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