Soldiers' Families Haunted By Friendly Fire Families of three soldiers killed in Iraq in 2008 are pressing for a wider investigation. They want someone held accountable for what they say was a bungled mission that ended in a friendly fire killing.
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Soldiers' Families Haunted By Friendly Fire

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David Sharrett Sr. and his son, David Sharrett II, on graduation day at Fort Benning, Ga., in December 2006. Vicki Sharrett/Sharrett family hide caption

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Vicki Sharrett/Sharrett family

David Sharrett Sr. and his son, David Sharrett II, on graduation day at Fort Benning, Ga., in December 2006.

Vicki Sharrett/Sharrett family

Danny Kimme, left, and his father, Douglas Kimme, at Fort Benning, Ga., in January 2007. Corinne Kimme/Kimme family hide caption

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Corinne Kimme/Kimme family

Danny Kimme, left, and his father, Douglas Kimme, at Fort Benning, Ga., in January 2007.

Corinne Kimme/Kimme family

Lt. Col. Robert McCarthy in Bichigan, Iraq, on the day after the fire fight in which three of his men were killed. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

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Corey Flintoff/NPR

Lt. Col. Robert McCarthy, with a local sheikh in Bichigan, Iraq, on the day after the fire fight in which three of his men were killed.

Corey Flintoff/NPR

One thing reporters learn early is that stories rarely end as neatly as they may seem to on the radio or in print. Stories, especially unhappy ones, tend to ripple on, adding chapters and revelations as they affect more and more people.

In January last year, I reported a story about a military operation in Iraq in which nine men were killed, three American soldiers and six Iraqi insurgents. I had been embedded with the unit that was involved in that action — the Army's 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment — although I was in another part of the battlefield when it took place. I heard about the fight secondhand, so I wrote about it indirectly, focusing on the way members of the unit dealt with the shock and grief of losing comrades. The incident was under investigation, and the details were sparse.

More than a year later, the story is still rippling outward. This January, I heard from the father of one of the men who was killed. Doug Kimme is a police officer in Champaign, Ill. His son, 27-year-old Pfc. Danny Kimme, was shot in the head in a farmer's field northeast of Baghdad. Doug Kimme, an Air Force veteran and self-styled "gun enthusiast," insists that he is not anti-Army and not anti-war, but he is convinced that there was no reason for his son to die.

Kimme told me that an Army investigation showed that the maneuver in which the men were killed was botched from the very beginning. He said the report showed that his son and the other men in his team were marched into an ambush that could have been easily avoided. It also showed that one of the soldiers was shot dead by his own lieutenant.

Kimme says that he and the families of the other fallen soldiers weren't told about the blunders until well after their boys had been buried.

A Bungled Operation

The investigation Kimme cites is called an AR 15-6, based on witness reports, autopsies, weapons tests and video shot from helicopters or drones. The story it tells, briefly, is this: Before dawn on Jan. 16, 2008, the unit conducted an operation to clear al-Qaida fighters from the orange groves around a village called Bichigan. Six men had been observed leaving the village and taking cover in a thicket in an irrigation ditch.

A team of eight soldiers arrived near the ditch by helicopter. They walked up on the thicket and, as they surrounded it, the militants opened fire on them with rifles and grenades. In a matter of seconds, the area was lit up by deafening explosions. The soldiers' night-vision goggles were intermittently "whited out" by the blaze of light. Kimme and Spc. John Sigsbee were killed almost immediately. Two other soldiers were wounded.

As Pfc. David H. Sharrett II tried to move to a better position, his team leader, 1st Lt. Timothy Hanson, mistook him for an enemy fighter and shot him. A U.S. helicopter and other soldiers from Sharrett's platoon joined the fight, killing the insurgents and capturing their position about 50 minutes later. The lieutenant left the scene in a helicopter with two of his wounded men, but Sharrett lay bleeding as his fellow soldiers searched for him. He was not found until about 90 minutes after he was shot, and by the time he was evacuated to a field hospital, he had died from his wound.

David H. Sharrett Sr. is convinced that his son died because of incompetence on the part of his superiors. The elder Sharrett is a retired teacher who lives in Virginia. He and Doug Kimme have reviewed the Army's investigation over and over, and they've talked directly with the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Robert McCarthy, and with some of the soldiers who served with their sons.

'They Lied To Us'

Sharrett and Kimme cite a list of mistakes that were documented by the Army investigator. There was no need for the soldiers to approach the enemy position in the dark, Kimme says, "there was no hurry. They owned these guys." In other words, the regiment knew where the six insurgents were hiding and had them under surveillance by helicopter. The insurgents were pinned down. They could have been forced to surrender or killed from a distance. Kimme says the general consensus among soldiers he spoke with "was that [McCarthy] wanted those prisoners, he wanted his trophies," and that the effort to capture them was hasty.

There was also no reason to assume that the insurgents were unarmed.

"Looking at the casualty report," Sharrett says, "we compromised ourselves tactically, and we assumed that the enemy was unarmed, although we knew it was a well known tactic of these guys to cache weapons in the groves and then run to them."

There was no reason to approach a group of six suspected enemy fighters with a team of only eight soldiers.

"They violated the three-to-one rule," Kimme says, referring to Army guidelines that recommend soldiers outnumber their opponents by three-to-one when attacking.

The report said the unit should never have surrounded the thicket, a maneuver that, like the classic "circular firing squad," placed the soldiers in each other's line of fire.

The soldiers could have been visible to each other if they had all activated the infrared beacons known as "bud lights" attached to their body armor. The lights can be seen only with night-vision goggles, so they would have been invisible to the insurgents. The report said the lieutenant failed to order his men to turn on their lights, and as a result, only three of the eight men had them on. If David Sharrett had activated his bud light, the lieutenant may not have mistaken him for an enemy. Sharrett's teammates might also have found him sooner and treated his wound.

Finally, Sharrett's father says, Lt. Hanson should never have left the battlefield while one of his men was unaccounted for. The lieutenant accompanied two of the wounded men back to a field hospital and left the scene in charge of another officer.

Sharrett says he's angry that no one was held accountable for the mistakes that led to his son's death.

"They should have done what was right and honorable and charged Hanson. ... Our boys were betrayed by the men they took orders from," he says.

Sharrett says that the lieutenant was initially praised for his role in the attack. "Doug [Kimme] and I heard they were going to promote this guy to captain, and that's what ignited our rage," he says. Hanson, who is now a captain, declined to comment for this story.

Sharrett blames McCarthy for giving the initial order that led to the firefight and accuses him of not being honest with the families about what really happened. "They lied to us about our son," he says.

The unit finished its Iraq deployment in November and is now back at its home base at Fort Campbell, Ky. McCarthy and his boss have met face-to-face with the family members and discussed their complaints.

"As a father," McCarthy says, "I can't imagine what they're feeling."

A 'Hard Lesson' Learned

McCarthy acknowledges the mistakes listed in the investigator's report, and he says he has apologized to the families, but he notes that the report does not say that any of those mistakes was criminal or negligent. He says the operation was rushed, but that it wasn't his decision to approach the insurgents in the dark. He says he gave approval for the team to stop the enemy from getting away, but "the task to accomplish that was up to the leaders on the ground."

McCarthy says that soon after the operation, he gathered his commanders and used the video footage of the firefight "to highlight everything that [they'd] done wrong." He says it was "a tremendously hard lesson, but it became a lesson learned."

"In numerous offensive operations between the 16th of January and the last one in November, we killed a number of very bad men and captured many more, and did not receive another direct-fire casualty," McCarthy says. "We regret their loss. We made it matter with what we did later."

The lieutenant colonel says that, although the families of the dead soldiers want someone punished, he thinks it's unnecessary.

"I will tell you with absolute confidence [Hanson] shoulders this every single day," he says, then stops to collect himself. "Every day. I was the one that delivered the news to him that the bullet that killed Dave Sharrett came from his gun."

Kimme wants the lieutenant to face a court martial.

"You have a lieutenant that doesn't do his job and he won't be held accountable?" he asks. "We want accountability. We don't want this to happen again ... No one likes to be critiqued, but it's my son lying in the ground and my granddaughter without a father."

Sharrett says he and the other family members will ask their representatives in Congress for a further investigation.

"Why does this guy get a pass?" he asks. "Whose son is he?"

McCarthy's answer is that the lieutenant hasn't gotten a pass, and neither has he. "I see those young men every morning when I get out of my bed," he says.