Pentagon Shifts Story on Death of Soldier in Iraq

When Army Spc. Jesse Buryj died in Iraq in 2004, the U.S. Army told his family Buryj was the victim of a vehicle crash. But now military sources say Buryj was killed by the "friendly fire" of Polish troops. Madeleine Brand talks with Josh White, who reported on the story for The Washington Post, about the U.S. military's shifting account of the incident.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We're back with Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. The family of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq still wants to know just how he died. Army Specialist Jesse Buryj was killed when a dump truck slammed into his Humvee at a traffic circle checkpoint in Karbala. At first his family was told Buryj died from injuries sustained in that crash, but the military now considers his death a so-called friendly fire incident, involving Polish soldiers. In yesterday's Washington Post, reporter Josh White chronicled the evolving official accounts of Buryj's death, as well as his family's struggle to learn the truth. And, Josh White, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOSH WHITE (Reporter, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

BRAND: First, tell us what happened the night Buryj died.

Mr. WHITE: Specialist Buryj and his unit met up with a group of Polish soldiers who were going to jointly run a checkpoint in Karbala, and they were expecting the use of car bombs. In going to the checkpoint, they set up around a traffic circle. And, at a certain point in the evening, about 1:00 in the morning, actually, a very large dump truck came through the checkpoint and failed to stop. As the soldiers fired on the truck itself, it veered off and hit Specialist Buryj's armored vehicle. Initially, the soldiers on the ground thought that he had been injured by falling out, that he had sustained a back injury, and they took him away.

What they didn't know is that he had actually taken a bullet to the left lower back. What ultimately happened, however, is the Army told the family he had been in a car accident, that he had died from severe back injuries. And it was really several months before they knew that it was actually a gun shot, and then almost a year before they knew that it might have been friendly fire.

BRAND: Why did it take so long for his family to find that out? What was going on?

Mr. WHITE: Well, the only thing the family was told was that he might have been hit by gunfire. The family had really no idea what had happened, and had very few details about the incident itself. As time went on, the family really pressed to try to find out what had happened. The Army was investigating it, the Polish troops who were on the ground were also investigating it, and each side was blaming the other. This is, unfortunately, a dilemma that may never get solved, because the tests that could have been performed to find out where the bullet originated, which gun fired it, were not performed.

BRAND: Now, your story also takes a political twist, because much of this was happening during the 2004 election year. Tell us about that.

Mr. WHITE: Well, Peggy Buryj, Specialist Buryj's mother, is a Bush supporter, and is also a very strong supporter of the Iraq war, believes that it's the right thing to do, believes that her son did not die in vain, and believes in her Commander-in-Chief. What happened along the way, however, has gotten her quite upset. She went to meet with President Bush at a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, her home town, in the summer of 2004. She said, he promised to help, and she expected at least something out of that.

Well, as time went on, the Bush campaign actually contacted her to ask her if she'd be willing to do a campaign commercial, and she said no, she'd be willing, she said, to win him an Academy Award if someone could tell her what had happened to her son. Well, the reports did not reach their sort of official final status until several weeks after the election. And it wasn't until after President Bush was inaugurated that she was actually informed that this might be a friendly fire situation.

BRAND: So does the Army consider this case closed?

Mr. WHITE: Up until this point, yes. They did a series of investigations that were approved at very high levels that indicated, essentially, that most likely, Polish troops were responsible for firing that shot. Now there were bullet fragments taken from Specialist Buryj's body after his death that indicated, or that had enough information that would have allowed them to analyze them and match them to a weapon, had they taken the weapons and fired them for comparison purposes.

That was not done. One of the things that's interesting here is that the Army is often hesitant to investigate these friendly fire incidences. Largely because not much comes out of it. They know it was one of them, and experts that I've talked to say you may actually do harm if you single out a soldier who killed either a member of his own unit, or killed a coalition partner.

BRAND: Josh White is a reporter for the Washington Post. Thanks, Josh.

Mr. WHITE: You're welcome.

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