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'Taking Cover' examines a friendly fire incident in Iraq and the ensuing cover up

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

An exclusive NPR investigation reveals a piece of history that never made it into the history books. It's been 20 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. And a new limited series podcast, Taking Cover, explores a terrible friendly fire incident early in the war that was buried for political reasons. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith from NPR's investigations unit brings us a piece of that podcast about the tragedy and the cover-up. And we should note, there are graphic descriptions of war and language that some may find vulgar.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: It's mid-April, 2004. Gunfire rips through the streets and alleyways of Fallujah, a city just west of Baghdad, where there's a growing insurgency. U.S. Marines are holed up at a schoolhouse. Suddenly, in the courtyard, there's an explosion, then a terrible firefight. The men of Echo Company told us how it started, just as the sun was setting.

JOHN SMITH: As I'm lifting my flak jacket up to put it on - boom - shrapnel is ripping through everyone.

CARLOS GOMEZ-PEREZ: And before I could turn to Tommy, we both got thrown forward against the freaking wall.

EVERETT WATT: And then everything went black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRIS COVINGTON: I knew who some of the guys were that got hit because I recognized their screams.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: Everett Watt, a Navy corpsman, treated men in the courtyard amid the firefight. Some couldn't be saved. Watt remembers treating a young Marine from California, Brad Shuder.

WATT: I got to Brad. And he was pretty much, like, making a joke about he was supposed to go back and go to the club. And he's not going to get to dance. And I'm like, no, man. Like, you're going to be good, dude. We're going to go downtown. And we're going to go dance.

G SMITH: In the end, three men died. A dozen more were wounded. And as it turns out, the officers commanding these men knew almost immediately what had happened. The Marines accidentally fired an 81 mm mortar on their own troops. But NPR learned that the investigation into what happened was never shared properly. In fact, it was covered up.

GREGG OLSON: I assume that all your recording stuff has been...

G SMITH: Cleared?

OLSON: Oh, yeah.

BOWMAN: Gregg Olson was a lieutenant colonel at the time, the battalion commander. He was given faulty information and then personally approved the mortar mission that killed his own troops.

And when did you realize it was a friendly fire?

OLSON: Almost immediately. I mean, it was a single round in adjust. Echo Company simultaneously reported taking incoming indirect fire. My heart sank. I knew exactly what happened. That round had landed in a friendly position.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOWMAN: Olson is a three-star general now. He told us an investigation was ordered. But he was instructed not to say anything, not even to the families of those killed, until the investigation was wrapped up. In fact, the families were told that the men were killed by enemy fire. They weren't even told there was an investigation until much later.

ELENA ZURHEIDE: It took them three years. That's three years too many.

G SMITH: Elena Zurheide is a war widow. Her husband, Robert, died almost instantly from the blast.

ZURHEIDE: And then they are like, oh, we want to tell you about the investigation.

BOWMAN: Did they say why it took so long? Did they say...

ZURHEIDE: We had to make a full investigation.

BOWMAN: Three years?

ZURHEIDE: Three years.

BOWMAN: We're really sorry. There was a big screw-up?

ZURHEIDE: Oh, no, they didn't apologize. And they said nobody is getting punished for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

G SMITH: Elena was right. And she gave us a copy of the investigation that had been done. When we asked the Marines for a copy of it, they told us they didn't have it in their records anymore. Although the regimental commander recommended discipline for three officers, that was all brushed aside by Major General James Mattis, later to be defense secretary.

BOWMAN: General Mattis was supposed to make sure that every wounded Marine was informed about the nature of the explosion. Our investigation found that didn't happen.

When did you hear officially that it was actually friendly fire?

WATT: I mean, it was officially - officially, officially - about, like, two minutes ago (laughter) when you guys said it.

BOWMAN: Corpsman Everett Watt took shrapnel to his shoulder.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

G SMITH: So until we just mentioned that there was an investigation a couple of minutes ago, nobody from the Marine Corps ever, like, gave you a copy of the investigation or told you that your wounds were the result of a friendly fire? Like, nobody ever contacted you and told you that?

WATT: No, sir. No, sir. I never got any notification or anything about anything.

BOWMAN: What do you think about that?

WATT: I mean, it almost, like - honest to God, it almost, like, devalues the fact that I got a Purple Heart.

BOWMAN: So why were Watt and the others kept in the dark? Here's one possibility. We found that a politically connected Marine was involved in the screw-up. His name, Duncan Hunter Jr. In 2004, he was a young lieutenant. His father, also named Duncan Hunter, was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees military policy, including the Iraq war and the budget.

G SMITH: Duncan Hunter Jr. eventually won his father's seat in the House. He wouldn't give us an interview, but here he is on a podcast talking about his time in Fallujah that spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUNCAN HUNTER: I got to go shoot artillery. And it was a wide-open area, too. I mean, you had a free fire area in parts of Fallujah for a month or two.

BOWMAN: It was during this time, when he says Fallujah was a free fire area, that this deadly mistake happened. Years later, Hunter pleaded guilty to felony misuse of campaign funds. He eventually resigned and was pardoned by President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

G SMITH: Mick Wagoner is a retired Marine lawyer who looked at the investigation Elena Zurheide gave us. He said the way it was handled is a stain on the organization.

MICK WAGONER: We do not lie to our Marines. We owe them that as an organization that effed them up that we tell them the truth.

BOWMAN: Well, not only that, it's in the Marine Corps hymn.

WAGONER: Yeah, it's in our motto.

BOWMAN: Keep your honor clean.

WAGONER: It's in our motto, Semper Fidelis - always faithful. And faithful means, you know, know your troops, and look out for their welfare.

BOWMAN: General Mattis wouldn't give us an interview. His boss at the time and later the top Marine officer, General James Conway, told us in a brief interview he didn't remember the incident. Months later, he sent us an email calling the friendly fire regrettable and saying the failure to inform the families was corrected. What he didn't say was the Marine Corps only corrected the record after they were dragged to Capitol Hill. And it took two hearings for them to finally acknowledge these friendly fire deaths. I'm Tom Bowman.

G SMITH: I'm Graham Smith. NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Tom Bowman and Graham Smith are hosts of the new NPR podcast Taking Cover. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Graham Smith
Graham Smith co-hosts NPR's serialized podcast Taking Cover, an investigation into a friendly fire incident from early in the Iraq war that was buried for political reasons. He is a Senior Producer on NPR's Investigations team and winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting.