Families Frustrated in Quest for the Truth
By Gregor McGavin
The Press-Enterprise

Thursday 05 May 2005

Lila Lipscomb, 50, of Flint, Mich., holds the flag she received after the death of her son Michael Pedersen in the Iraq war in 2003. After appearing in the Michael Moore film "Fahrenheit 9/11," Lila has been an even stronger advocate against the war in Iraq.

They paid the ultimate price on the battlefields of Iraq -- some killed by the enemy, others by their own side.

For that sacrifice, some families of slain troops say the U.S. military has paid them back in lies and a lack of information.

Two years after the official end of a war in Iraq hailed for its few incidents of fratricide, a Press-Enterprise investigation has revealed that twice as many troops as reported might have fallen to "friendly fire."

But the U.S. military -- which vowed after the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to both curb and be more open about its deadly mistakes -- is still keeping secret a report designed to lessen the risk of repeating them.

"It's not right to keep it a secret," said Dorothy Halvorsen, whose son Chief Warrant Officer Erik Halvorsen was one of six soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in central Iraq on April 2, 2003.

Since then, Halvorsen has gotten varying accounts from the military of what happened that night, and she and other relatives of the slain troops have had to fight for information.

"They're putting more restrictions on what we can know," she said. "And we have a right to know."

Across the country, many mothers and fathers, wives, siblings and grandparents -- including some who remain staunchly pro-war -- say they feel they've been kept in the dark. These families question the military's commitment to decreasing friendly fire, and to telling them the truth of how their loved ones died.

Recent news reports that the military deliberately concealed that Pat Tillman -- a professional football player turned Army Ranger, and one of the highest-profile casualties -- was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan have amplified those questions.

The "lessons learned" report from U.S. Joint Forces Command is said to provide the final word on all suspected fratricide incidents and steps to avoid repeating them. The report, completed more than a year ago, has yet to be declassified, or made available to the public.

It is "the Department of Defense look at friendly fire," said Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a department spokesman. "I don't know that there is any intention to release the lessons-learned report."

The Press-Enterprise investigation, meant to parallel the work of military investigators, uncovered that as many as 24 Marines, soldiers and sailors -- 18 percent of the 139 combat deaths during major fighting from March 19 to May 2, 2003 -- might have been killed by their own side.

The numbers rival those from the Gulf War in 1991, when 35 U.S. troops, or 24 percent, were killed by fratricide. Relatives of Gulf War friendly fire victims had to wait nearly six months to learn the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths.

In light of those casualties -- the highest percentage of friendly fire deaths ever recorded by U.S. forces -- and the delay in informing relatives, the military promised to do better on both fronts.

But two years after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom -- the official war in Iraq -- the military still has publicly acknowledged only 12 possible fratricide deaths. Military leaders have claimed those low numbers showed their anti-fratricide efforts have paid off.

The yearlong Press-Enterprise investigation, based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, official military releases and interviews with scores of families, was limited to the same period covered by the military's lessons-learned report. About 1,600 U.S. troops have died to date in Iraq; it is not known how many might have been killed by friendly fire since the war ended and the occupation began.

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