Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pentagon reforms casualty alerts

In a remarkable and welcome announcement, the Pentagon says that they are reviewing the death reports out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey ordered the Army to begin doing a unit-level investigation on every soldier's death. That was good news for those of us Gold Star Families who had doubt about the circumstances of the deaths of our loved ones.

I had accepted what the Army told me in May 2004; that Ken was killed by a single gunshot wound to the head from enemy fire, small arms fire. Yes, Ken was dead and the circumstances of his death weren't the awful part, it was that Ken was never coming home. I had waited and worried and cried for 384 days while he was in Iraq. And all of that worry, all of those tears were validated when I got that knock on the door on Memorial Day 2004.

One year ago, in September 2005, the Army came to my house in California in a surprise visit. Ken had been killed 15 months prior. I had no idea what the visit was for, there were no suspicions surrounding anything that happened that night in May. I did have questions about the specifics of the battle, but I didn't expect to hear anything surprising. Within 5 minutes of meeting me, the head of Army Casualty told me that Ken was not killed the way I had been told. He told me that Ken was killed by the accidental discharge of the M240 machine gun on his tank.
My world fell apart again and my heart was ripped open. ALL of the healing I had done had been erased. I was desperate to try and find some truth to anything I had been told in the past year. But the sun sets at night and it rises again in the morning and I would eventually get back on the path of healing. I will always be left with questions of why I was not told the truth during those first few days. Everyone in his platoon and battalion knew the truth. Honestly, I never asked any of them what happened that night. Ken was dead and nothing would change that. His unit was still in Iraq and I didn't want them to relive the horror of that night anymore than they already did. The stories would come out eventually, in a year or in 20 years.

I still hear from people who knew Ken, many of them are apologetic for not writing sooner, but that is not a concern of mine. They will contact me when they can and when they are ready.

Last September when I was told the truth, only one other case of delayed truth was known. The Tillman family from San Jose, CA was also not told the truth about Pat's circumstances; they were told the official "true" story 5 weeks after Pat was killed. To this day, they are waiting to hear the whole truth. Most recently this past June, the McCaffrey family of Tracy, CA was told the truth of their Patrick's death 2 years after he was killed. Nadia, Mary & I know that there are more untold stories of the truth than ours; that there are more families that have no clue their lives are ready to re-explode and now the Pentagon has admitted that we were right.

There is some validation that we strong woman who have been so vocal about knowing the truth have paved the way for other families. It is easier to change a policy than a culture and it will be difficult for the military. Let's hope these investigations will result in ALL families knowing the truth from the beginning. For now, we remain skeptical. Pat, Patrick and Ken would be proud of their moms.

The Army connected the dots with our stories and knew that they had failed Army families. As I told the Secretary of the Army when I met with him last September; the Army can do better. I hope they will.

The NBC Nightly News did a nice story with me about this last night. You can watch the clip here. A local Bay Area Station, KTVU also did a good job in reporting the story


Chancelucky said...

I thought you came across very well in both clips. I agree, the truth matters, especially to the family.

Anonymous said...

When my brother died, we were so distraught you could have told us the sky was turning red and we would have believed you. In fact, we believed what the military had told us so blindly that it just ended up hurting us more as the weeks and months went on. First, they told us his tank rolled off an embankment and flipped - we heard from the news that it was a bridge. I know, it sounds like such a minor detail, but everything down to the second it happened was important to me. Then, during one of those "planning" conversations with the bereavement officer, he had said something about a closed casket. Mom cried hard and asked "Is he THAT bad?" and the Lt. Col. looked us right in the eyes and told us "No, it's nothing like that". As time went on, he started hinting more that we might not get to see my brother. The day before his first lay-out, the funderal director told us the military wouldn't even let him remove the bandages to see if he could give us that one bit of peace in seeing him one last time, whether he was in that body or not. So, we are forever scarred with seeing a Staff Sergeant's Army uniform over a mummy. He WAS that bad.

They told us there would be an investigation and offered us an in-person report. Of course, this didn't happen until a year after the fact, but they presented us with a slideshow and a giant packet of testimony and reports from those in my brother's unit. We'd asked for the packet in advance so we could look it over, but we were denied. We weren't allowed to have it until the presentation was over.

When his unit returned, we found out from the guys he worked directly with the gory details of the accident. And, that it wasn't just one of those things that "happens all the time", as we'd been told. We were told from the man who serviced the tank that he ordered a new part for the track because it was rusted and worn, causing the track to droop. The tank was deadlined for service, which was later overrode by a commanding officer. Do you think the military would have been honest with us about that? No, they told us my brother's tank was the best in the unit, and that we can feel good knowing that my brother's death has possibly saved the lives of many other soldiers because now they understand the importance of more frequent inspections. In fact, they said that so many times during the presentation that I had to scream in that room full of people, "If you tell me one more time that my brother's death was a good thing, I'm going to freak out on all of you."

You can't believe anything they tell you.