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By James Lee, Marine and Guest Columnist
As a veteran of a foreign war, I revere Memorial Day. This sacred day, just passed, provides an opportunity to honor those who have died in service to the nation. Through attending ceremonies or demonstrating remembrance we actively preserve their memory and sacrifice. However, our tribute must be founded on truthful accounts of their deaths. As a democracy we must be vigilant about and critical of events that contribute to the deaths of those serving in harm’s way — including friendly fire.
According to a 2007 report by the inspector general of the U.S. Marine Corps, 91 casualties have resulted from friendly fire since the start of the Iraq war. Of those cases, less than 5 percent complied with military notification procedures: The Marines repeatedly failed to provide families with accurate information about injuries and deaths. In response to these findings, the Marines revised their policy and began making notifications in past cases of injury or death by friendly fire. This included my file.
In August 2007, I was notified by phone. The caller identified herself as a captain in the Marine Corps. The call served as my official notification that injuries I sustained while on active duty in Iraq were caused by a “friendly fire engagement.” As the call ended, I recalled a restive afternoon — 10 days before the Iraq war began.
An outline of a building drawn in the sand was our battleground. In early March 2003, we anxiously stood in line. We waited for our chance to train for war. At the line’s end, I found myself partnered with a young Marine, Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez. This midday exercise was designed to teach us how to fight as a team. As our rifles scanned for imagined threats, we walked together in the sands of Kuwait. “Clear right,” Gutierrez said with a heavy Spanish accent.
In turn, we lowered our rifles and got back in line. Gutierrez had a long history of standing in lines. At the age of 9, he stood with other street kids at Guatemala’s Casa Alianza orphanage. He had been orphaned the previous year to the streets. In 1997, he fled north toward the United States. He survived the 3,000-mile trek and crossed the border into California. Gutierrez was 22 at the time.
At the front of the line, I found myself paired with a different Marine. I would never see Gutierrez again. On March 21, 2003, Jose Gutierrez became the first U.S. serviceman to die in combat in Iraq. An investigation into his death revealed that he was killed by non-hostile fire. Another Marine had fired the fatal bullet.
Cemetery of the Americans
One year later, four charred corpses hung from a bridge that spanned the Euphrates River. On March 31, 2004, a broadcast news program depicted an Iraqi mob as they stoned the suspended remains of four private security contractors employed by Blackwater USA. Several hours earlier, insurgents had killed the men during a daylight ambush. “Fallujah will be the cemetery of the Americans,” the crowd chanted atop the bridge. These four contractors would not be the last Americans killed in Fallujah.
By April 4, I was staged with other Marines outside Fallujah in one of the city’s sprawling dumps. Our mission was to re-establish security in the city. Apprehensive about the battle ahead, I walked to a nearby vehicle checkpoint manned by two Marines.
Lance Cpls. Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder stood together on a long stretch of road. “This is bull,” Shuder said as he unfastened his helmet’s chin strap. “The rest of the battalion is moving up to the edge of the city and we are stuck in the rear.”
Born in South Korea, Shuder was adopted when he was nearly 2 years old by an American couple. Shuder and I exchanged a few words as Zurheide remained quiet, perhaps thinking of home. His wife, Elena, was pregnant and expected to deliver the couple’s first child within the next few weeks.
Later that afternoon, my platoon was ordered into battle. Inside the city, my rifle fire was mistaken for an insurgent. Several Marines fired from the street at my position on the second floor of an abandoned schoolhouse. I was shot.
The bullet cleaved through my left hand, severing two fingers. My fight had ended. During the medevac flight to Germany I stared at the dark fuselage beneath my feet. Dried blood marked my left boot. Around me, tubes and intravenous lines spilled over the edge of dozens of stacked stretchers. Pulsing red lights illuminated the broken bodies of Marines and soldiers, their injuries earned by hostile fire. I wanted to hide my hand.
Nine days after I was shot, the Department of Defense announced that both Brad Shuder and Robert Zurheide were killed by hostile fire on April 12. More than two years after their deaths, the Marine Corps revealed the pair were killed by friendly fire. Misguided mortar rounds fired by Marines killed Shuder and Zurheide while they sought cover during a battle. They died together at the abandoned schoolhouse I had bled in only days earlier.
Out of Basra
During the first week in April 2008, I returned to Iraq as a civilian photojournalist. As I landed in Baghdad, the MahdiArmy launched mortars from inside Sadr City against the heavily fortified Green Zone. This attack was part of a large-scale insurgent offensive that included the city of Basra. A few days later, I embedded with a team of Marine Corps military advisers and headed toward Basra.
Scores of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces already in Basra had refused to fight against the Mahdi Army. U.S. military officials had reported systemic problems with the Iraqi ground forces. Basra was not going well. After arriving in Basra, I was instructed by the Marines to put away my cameras. Orders had been issued that prohibited me from photographing the combat operations.
In Iraq, all credentialed embedded media sign a list of U.S. military ground rules. “These ground rules recognize the inherent right of the media to cover combat operations and are in no way intended to prevent the release of embarrassing, negative or derogatory information,” states page one of the guidelines. Indifferent to these guidelines, the Marines ushered me onto an aircraft headed back to Baghdad.
One week after I was forced to leave, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander, Multi-National Force-Iraq, testified before a Senate committee. Petraeus described the fighting in Basra as a “flare-up” and did not mention that more than 1,300 Iraqi Army soldiers refused to fight the Mahdi Army.
Like the actions taken to avert media coverage of the flawed operation in Basra, truthful accounts of military personnel killed by friendly fire are seldom made public. This trend is perpetuated by countless Memorial Day ceremonies across our nation that exclude accounts of friendly fire in their programs. Our tradition of silence hides the tragic truth of armed conflict, which is that in every war a significant number of casualties are from friendly fire.
As a country, we must recognize the benefits of incorporating true accounts of war fighting into public memorials and discourse. Fratricide does not diminish the level of service or sacrifice exhibited by members of the armed forces during war fighting. Honoring our dead must not come at the expense of the truth.
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