NPR receives a tip about an Iraq War Marine Corps cover-up in Fallujah : Taking Cover NPR's Pentagon Correspondent, Tom Bowman, receives a shocking tip from a trusted source: A deadly explosion during the Iraq War was an accident—friendly fire, covered up by the Marine Corps—and the son of a powerful politician may have been involved.

He partners with an old pal, Graham Smith, to investigate, and they discover the truth is even worse than the tipster realized. After dozens of interviews, the team patches together the story of the First Battle of Fallujah — the days and hours before the explosion — from the men who were there.

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Before we get started, you should know that this podcast contains graphic depictions of war. And we're talking to Marines, so there's a lot of cursing.



Camp Pendleton in Southern California is the West Coast home of the United States Marine Corps - 200 square miles of hills and wetlands and long stretches of beach just outside San Diego. On its edge, there's a sharp hill covered with scrub trees and bushes that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It's called Horno Ridge. And over the last 20 years, it's become a place of pilgrimage, where Marines sweat and suffer to honor their dead.


G SMITH: The hike up is steep and rocky, with two false summits and, at the top, a small field of crosses and memorials, dozens of them of all sizes, some pieced together from tree branches or lumber, some weighing hundreds of pounds, each one carried up by Marines and sailors. Scott Radetski has climbed Horno Ridge many times. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of keepsakes and mementos.

SCOTT RADETSKI: I mean, everything from a coin to a wedding ring to, you know, a medal, a Purple Heart, to, I don't know, bottles of liquor that were poured out, you know, a drink for their fallen comrade.

G SMITH: Radetski is a retired chaplain. He doesn't like the messy piles of empty bottles and cans, but he knows they're only part of what people leave behind on the ridge. More important are the unseen burdens - the sorrow, the sadness.

RADETSKI: The anger, regret. Ooh, here's a big word - shame. When someone dies and you don't, the grief that's there - survivor's guilt. And hopefully, the lingering that takes place on the hill is part of that - that you can move past the horrific things that you've maybe seen or done.

BOWMAN: Chaplain Radetski got the hilltop memorial started. In the spring of 2003, his unit lost a Marine in Iraq, killed just minutes after the invasion began. Months later, those Marines were back at Pendleton, preparing for yet another deployment to Iraq. And that death? It still hung over them.


BOWMAN: One day, the chaplain gets an idea. He finds some sections of old telephone pole and bolts them together. The Marines already trained on the ridge. He thought, maybe the pain and suffering of carrying this massive cross up the trail could create a bond, and they'd leave the cross itself on top as a memorial. So Radetski and six others - two officers, two riflemen and two medics - become the first to do just that. They carry the cross on their shoulders up until almost the end. The final stretch is so steep they have to push it, drag it, a foot or two at a time, until they reach the top. And they're the ones who inspired this field of crosses, which grows year after year as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on.


G SMITH: In time, three of the seven men who carried and pushed that first cross up the trail in the summer of 2003 would themselves be memorialized on Horno Ridge. One was killed in a firefight in Baghdad, another by a roadside bomb. And that last Marine - his death has always been kind of a mystery.

BOWMAN: A mystery we've spent the last three years investigating, not just because of this one man - others died with him - but because, as we started to find out, it was all part of a greater tragedy covered up by powerful people looking to keep the American public and even the families of those who died from hearing the truth. It's a story about mistakes, faulty assumptions, miscalculations, lies.

This is TAKING COVER from NPR. I'm Tom Bowman.

G SMITH: And I'm Graham Smith. This is the story of our efforts to learn about the lives lost and why families and even the men who were badly wounded still don't know the truth about what happened to them on the worst day of their lives.


DAVID COSTELLO: See the hole in that?


COSTELLO: The building? It's like a square. And when they launched that mortar, it hit - boom. I mean, one out of a million shot.

JASON DUTY: We're sitting on those stairs. And he looked really pale, and he looked shaken, and I don't think he'd slept. And he said, Doc, I think I f***** up. And I was like, well, what did you f*** up? And he's like, well, I can't really talk about it, but I think I fucked up. I think I fucked up.

ELENA: They're hiding something for a reason, and they don't - there's something that hasn't been disclosed yet. There's got to be some - why are they keeping it such a - why did they keep it a secret to begin with?

JOHN SMITH: The fact that nobody has said anything concrete, no paperwork, nothing, and I'm just now finding out there was even an investigation - that's kind of unsettling.

ARKAN: I don't care. So why he didn't tell us, why he lied to us, that's - I want to know.


BOWMAN: Well, for us, this whole thing started with a tip, a stunning and disturbing allegation from a trusted source.

How's it going?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, good. You?

BOWMAN: Good. All good. That was a final security check. Now I'm in the building itself.

The building - that's what people here call the Pentagon. I've worked here covering the U.S. military for the last 25 years.

Walking along the E-Ring.

Typical morning - you see people in the hallway.

How are things in China?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That report came out. I learned from NPR, the...

BOWMAN: I might run into a colonel I knew in Afghanistan or a general visiting from his overseas command who can tell me what's really going on. But there are some things, well, people just don't want to talk about in the building. So I might call them at home at night, or...


BOWMAN: ...We might meet up at a bar, which is what happened one night at a whiskey bar in D.C. Actually, this very bar, a guy who spent a lot of time in Iraq told me a story very few people knew. He told me that early in the Iraq War, there'd been this tragedy. U.S. Marines had dropped a mortar or a rocket on their own people. That's what they call friendly fire. Now, in this case, he said, one Marine was killed and another seriously wounded. Friendly fire deaths - they happen. They happen in every war throughout history. That's not what made his story shocking. Here's the thing - he said that the Marine brass had actually covered it up, burying the truth about this terrible incident because, he said, the son of a powerful politician was involved in the screw-up.


G SMITH: Tom came to me the next day, asked if I could help dig on this tip he'd just gotten.

BOWMAN: Since 9/11, Graham and I have spent years reporting from combat zones. We've gone on dozens of patrols...

G SMITH: Dug foxholes together.

BOWMAN: ...And come under attack while embedded with Marines and soldiers. He's working on the investigations team now, and it felt like we could team up again.


BOWMAN: The source who gave me this tip, he was, you know, a little fuzzy on the details - said this Marine had been killed in the spring of 2004 in Fallujah.

G SMITH: The Iraq War, if you lived through it, covered it, maybe fought there, it feels like it was just yesterday. But this was 20 years ago now. And we know for some folks this is ancient history. Maybe you were 5 when it kicked off - so very basics. The U.S. invaded at the beginning of 2003 and within a few weeks defeated the Iraqi army, though they never found any of the weapons of mass destruction that were the whole reason for going in. Chemical, biological, maybe nuclear - they found nothing. Still, the Americans occupied the country. They were running things. They figured they'd won. What they didn't realize - a new war was just beginning because a lot of Iraqis hated the American occupiers. They felt humiliated, brutalized. And this city of Fallujah - it's where the whole nature of the war started to change. It became the center of an insurgency that America would fight to this day, really.

BOWMAN: So was there a friendly fire incident there? There was a major battle there in 2004 in the spring - didn't last long, just a couple of weeks in April. And these days, there are pretty good online lists of casualties. So we did what anybody would do - a quick Google search. It was a deadly month both for Iraqis and for the U.S. Nearly 150 American troops were killed, 27 of them in Fallujah. That narrowed things down a bit, but still, none were listed as friendly fire. Nothing seemed to fit. For weeks, we pored through small-town newspaper obituaries and press releases the Pentagon sends out whenever a service member is killed. Finally, we got a break.


G SMITH: It was on one of those memorial web pages, like the ones funeral homes set up for family and friends to leave condolences. Only this site is for fallen Marines. And the entries for two different Marines killed on the same day - Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder - actually told a different story from the military press releases. Each of the two pages said the Marine was killed by friendly fire rather than hostile, like the military reported, and they were both from the same unit, Echo Company, Second Battalion, First Marine Division - or as the Marines would say, Echo 2/1. And another thing caught our attention - a comment from someone named Corporal Gomez-Perez. He wrote, April 12 is always on my mind, and every time I think about it, I just get mad. Man, it's bulls*** what happened.

BOWMAN: Now, the initial tip was one dead, one wounded, but here we have two Marines from the same unit who died on the same day. Was this the friendly fire? We filed a records request with the Marines looking for any information about this incident. Was there an investigation? Now, this is where things get weird. It usually takes months to get an answer from the government, but here, after just a couple of weeks, we got a response. A thorough search was made, the letter said. No records on file.

No records? It made no sense. Look; the military investigates and documents everything, whether it's a major screw-up or just someone losing a piece of gear. Two Marines killed? Even if it wasn't friendly fire, there should be some record of the day. We filed an appeal asking them to look again. It was incredibly frustrating. But you know what? There are other ways. I started asking around at the Pentagon, calling up both active duty and retired officers, especially those who served in Iraq. Have you guys ever heard about this? Who was involved? We'll hear more about that later.

G SMITH: With Tom working the brass, I went looking for grunts - the guys who served in Echo Company. I dug through books about the fight in Fallujah, including one called "No True Glory." I knew the unit, Echo 2/1, and the names of the Marines who died, plus a date - April 12. But across 378 pages, there is no mention of a friendly fire incident that day or any other. In fact, no mention of April 12 at all. It was as if nothing had happened that day in Fallujah.

But I did find one clue - that Corporal Gomez-Perez from the memorial web page, there's a picture of him in the center of this book, staring into the camera, half his shoulder torn away by a bullet. The book says he was with Echo 2/1. Between that and the comment - April 12 is always on my mind, and, every time I think about it, I just get mad - I figured that corporal, Carlos Gomez-Perez, must have been with Shuder and Zurheide when they were killed. I found a number and called him. He was on the road. He works in the cannabis industry now. We set up a time to talk the next day. That's ahead on TAKING COVER from NPR.


G SMITH: Hey, Carlos?

CARLOS GOMEZ-PEREZ: Hi. Good morning. How are you doing?

G SMITH: Hey, I'm great. It's good to hear you, man.

It turns out Carlos was part of Echo Company for the 2003 invasion, too, so he served with Jose Gutierrez. He was the Marine memorialized with that first cross on Horno Ridge. They were pretty good friends. And like Gutierrez, Carlos says he first came to America illegally.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: I grew up in Mexico City. I grew up in Mexico City. And when I was 9, I ran across the border to get to San Diego. We got caught. So I got - we got pushed in jail.

BOWMAN: He kept trying. And looking back now, it's clear from those trips across the desert that Carlos was already driven by character traits that the Marines champion.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: I call it my first mission, honestly. After being in the Marine Corps, I call it my first mission because, basically, I was always in the rear, not because I couldn't keep up but to ensure that everybody in front of me was making its way forward.

BOWMAN: He finally made it - grew up undocumented, not far from Camp Pendleton. And as soon as he turned 18, he became a U.S. resident - basically, just so he could join the Marines.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: I was told that the Marine Corps was the hardest branch in the military. So I'm like, let's see if that's true.

G SMITH: I'd read in that book, "No True Glory," about the battle where Carlos had been wounded and how he was recognized for his valor that April.

So forgive my ignorance. Did you get a Silver Star?

GOMEZ-PEREZ: Yes. I was awarded the Silver Star. And I didn't know what Silver Star was, so I had to Google it before I received it.

BOWMAN: It's kind of strange he had to Google it because the Silver Star is a big deal. Just two steps below the Medal of Honor, it recognizes conspicuous gallantry. That means ignoring the danger, putting your life on the line to help fellow Marines in combat.

G SMITH: When Carlos got home, he was pretty messed up - not just his shoulder, but mentally.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: Sure enough, April comes around. Unintentionally, my mindset goes somewhere else. My body reacts differently, emotionwise. But it's now - it's been so long that now my son feels the same way. April rolls around, his whole demeanor change.

G SMITH: He's been in treatment for PTSD, and he's getting better. But Carlos says his family suffered with him.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: In what sense does it fit that my son's 14 years old, and I tell him, I wish I would have died in Iraq rather than come back. Not because I don't love you, not because I'm - not because you don't mean the world to me; because if I would have died, it would have ended right there.


G SMITH: We talked about the incident, April 12, that whole month fighting in Fallujah, and how it still lingers for him almost 20 years later.

BOWMAN: Carlos, he's still the kind of Marine who keeps tabs on his buddies, looking to make sure everybody makes it forward. And over the next two years, he helped us to get in touch with some of them, including Ben Liotta, Doc Liotta as they call him.

G SMITH: Ben was traveling in South America with his girlfriend, a musician, when I reached him. I set up a time to talk. And a week later, I called him from a studio here at NPR.


G SMITH: Thanks, Stu.

STU: Can you hear it?

G SMITH: I hear a ring.


G SMITH: Hey, Ben?


G SMITH: Graham here.

LIOTTA: Graham?

G SMITH: Yeah.

LIOTTA: Yeah. How are you doing, Graham?

G SMITH: OK. Hey. Thank you so much.

He was in the Navy, a battlefield medic for the Marines. He said he'd been there when the explosion took place.

You were a corpsman, right?


G SMITH: Can you tell me - well, would you mind just telling me your name and, you know, where you're from? Just the sort of basics so I can make sure I don't screw that up.

LIOTTA: Well, real quick before we get into it.

G SMITH: Yeah.

LIOTTA: I just wanted to ask a couple...

G SMITH: Sure.

LIOTTA: ...Questions myself.

G SMITH: Absolutely.

LIOTTA: What is the purpose of your documentary?

G SMITH: Well, I'll tell you the truth. Right now, I'm still kind of trying to...

I told him about a clue I'd found. Echo Company's captain, Doug Zembiec, wrote a letter to his wife on April 12, 2004. He wrote, one of my Marines called in a mortar mission. The round landed short, killed two of my Marines. Zembiec's wife published the letter years later in a book about their relationship and his death. But from the letter, it's clear the company commander knew immediately it was friendly fire.

And one of the things specifically that came out was how long it had taken to notify the families in this incident.

LIOTTA: So it's about that.

G SMITH: Yeah. So that's where I'm at.

LIOTTA: Yeah. I mean, I will say this. I am always down for the truth to come out. I mean, I think we both understand, like, the climate today is insane. And I'm not looking to be a part of a smear campaign that's, like, meant to make the Marines look bad. You know what I mean?

G SMITH: Oh, believe...

LIOTTA: If your goal is truth, I'm down with that.

G SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I've spent a lot of time with Marines over in Afghanistan. I went in 2009 with 2/8 out of Lejeune on the whole, like, insert into the Helmand River Valley and, you know, dropped in with them on the helicopters.

LIOTTA: So you've been through your own s***.

G SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. And let me preface this whole thing by saying I, you know, like - even after talking to Carlos, you know, I was, like, back in the zone for, like, a week. And my wife was like, why are you being such a b****? And...

LIOTTA: (Laughter).

G SMITH: You know, 'cause...

LIOTTA: It's been me this whole week waiting for this call.

G SMITH: Yeah, 'cause it - you can't not respond to it on those levels. And so thank you.

LIOTTA: No, I appreciate that. And no problem. Yeah. All right, so let's do this officially.


LIOTTA: Need my name and where I'm from?

G SMITH: Yeah.

LIOTTA: My name is Benjamin Liotta. I'm originally from kind of all over New York, was born in...

BOWMAN: Ben Liotta was just one of the men we talked with as we tried to unravel this mystery about Echo Company. If we're going to get to the bottom of the allegation about a cover-up, we first had to understand more about what happened on the ground. Bill Skiles was there. He's a retired sergeant major - invited us to his house in Virginia about an hour south of D.C.

BILL SKILES: ...If you like.

G SMITH: You have...

BOWMAN: I heard buffalo...

G SMITH: Just - before we even get into this stuff, I - we are obviously in your Marine room or something.

SKILES: Well...

G SMITH: What do you call this place?

SKILES: It's my Marine room.

G SMITH: So some of these are replicas of weapons.

SKILES: Well yeah, these are real.

G SMITH: He pours us a couple of whiskeys...


G SMITH: ...And settles down into a leather recliner.

SKILES: So expectations going - we'd never heard of the city.

BOWMAN: Skiles was the right-hand man to company commander Doug Zembiec.

SKILES: I remember Zembiec going on a map in the hallway in Camp Horno. We're going to a place called Fallujah or - I go, what the hell?

BOWMAN: They got back to Iraq in March.

SKILES: And our compound - it was called Camp Volturno, and we renamed it Camp Baharia - Navy term. We called it Camp Diarrhea. Of course, we did. Terrible place. So here we are, a battalion of Marines going to Fallujah. Remember, President Bush said as of - what? - May of '03...


GEORGE W BUSH: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended...

SKILES: ...The war is over.


BUSH: In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.


SKILES: So, OK, yay. So...

BOWMAN: Mission accomplished.

SKILES: Yeah. Anyway, so we go up there, and the expectations of all the Marines - I mean, we actually played football. I remember being the quarterback...

G SMITH: We spent more than five hours with Bill Skiles that night. Between what he told us, Carlos and Ben and dozens of others, plus audio recorded in the city that month, we've pieced together this account of their arrival in Fallujah and the days leading up to the April 12 explosion that killed Brad Shuder and Rob Zurheide.



TONY PAZ: We had just gotten the brief. The new commander had some, you know, words of wisdom. And we were doing all the Mattis - the Mad-Dog-isms 'cause he was our division commander.

BOWMAN: Brigadier General James Mattis. Years later, Mattis served as defense secretary under Trump, but Iraq is where he made his reputation - became an icon in the Marine Corps with nicknames like Mad Dog, St. Mattis. He's very quotable.

PAZ: No greater friend, no worse enemy. We're here with the velvet glove approach.


BOWMAN: It's late March. The Marines are in Fallujah to take over from the Army.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: You will go in there and win the hearts and minds. You've got to be there almost as police officers. I'm like, OK, fine. We'll do that. It was something far from the truth.

DUTY: We thought we were moving in for, like, security and stability - to, you know, win the hearts and minds of the people. And it seemed like that was just not something the locals in Fallujah were interested in.

BOWMAN: One reason? The heavy-handed tactics of the 82nd Airborne, the Army unit they were replacing.

LIOTTA: I mean, I looked it up, and everything online said it was a hornet's nest. You know, you read everything that the 82nd Airborne went through over there. And we still were like - more like we just didn't know what to expect. And then we got there and started asking the Army how everything was, and it seemed like the Army didn't really know what they were doing. And, like, I don't mean to say that just to talk crap about the branches. But from their own stories, they were like, no, we just drive through and, like, don't even stop when we hit somebody, and, like, we just shoot when we're shot at without even knowing what we're shooting at. And it's just like, oh, well, then I think there's a reason they don't like you.


SKILES: All I know is we prepared for hugging and kissing and love and just spreading the gift of giving. Battle was thought about a little bit.


SKILES: But interesting to see through satellite imagery during April how many were coming in, crossing the Euphrates to come at us. The great jihad was coming.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: So then you have the insurgents coming in. Insurgents became recruiters. Oh, I saw the Army shot up your house. I saw the Army shoot your hospitals. I saw the Army shoot your schools. I saw the Army destroy your vehicle, which was your only means of work. Come help us. Get back at them. The Army at that time was the best recruiter for the combat that was about to happen.


G SMITH: You know, in one way, the Army tactics, riding in their vehicles rather than patrolling on foot, worked - for them. They took few casualties.

SKILES: They had one dead, 10 wounded. So they're there for six months, seven months, one dead, 10 wounded. And this is important to remember that because the Marines have landed now. We're back. In all of our arrogance, we're back. OK.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: But this time, you can feel the difference. The first time in Iraq, I'm walking through the streets, doing patrol, and people are smiling. They're saying, go Bush. Thumbs up. Mister, Mister, we love you, whatever. Second time around, going to the streets of Fallujah, that demeanor was different.

SKILES: I remember having pens. And we had soccer balls that weren't inflated. I couldn't find air. So we'd throw some soccer balls that were inflated. I remember the kid flipping me off because I gave him a soccer ball without air.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: You could see hate in the people's eyes. There's no little kids running to us this year. What the hell is going on?

BOWMAN: The day the Marines took over, there was a mortar attack at Fallujah's city hall. Now, a mortar, if you're not familiar, it's kind of like a grenade, but shaped like a bowling pin. Recently, we watched some Marines train, launching them out of metal tubes and on tripods.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE: When ready, gun one.


BOWMAN: The round rises high up into the sky and drops down onto the target with a deafening explosion.


SKILES: Whoom (ph), a mortar hit here then. OK, it's kind of like, welcome Marine Corps. Welcome back.

G SMITH: Thirteen Americans are wounded. Skiles and Captain Zembiec help evacuate the casualties, get soaked in blood.

SKILES: Once we got back, Zembiec and I walked the chow hall with the same cammies we had. He was a lot more red. I remember the company looking at us going, this is not f****** Kansas anymore.

BOWMAN: April is fast approaching, and that hearts and minds thing? That's not going well. The day after that mortar attack, the Marines lose their first man. An insurgent fires a rocket-propelled grenade at a Marine truck.

SKILES: RPG hit the Marine vehicle, dead stopped. RPG got him and killed him. Next day, General Mattis - personally - they killed a Marine? Send in the Marines. I can't blame somebody for getting revenge. You know, you don't f*** with the Marine Corps. We're back. And how dare you. So send a company in.

LIOTTA: We gave everyone a chance to get out. And we basically - we dropped leaflets and did loudspeakers. And we're like, there's a fight coming. If you don't want to fight, get the f*** out of the city right now.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

LIOTTA: And while people were streaming out, fighters were streaming in.


J SMITH: Like, we were going through this open, like, courtyard thing. And I always thought something was off. We're walking down, and we turn to the right. And I'll never forget. This little Iraqi girl came out, and she kept pointing down, like just pointing down the street. And, I mean, I'm looking at her. And I'm like, all right, either she's warning us or a signal. So it's one of the two.

G SMITH: Wow. That's kind of a brave little girl right there, if she was warning you.

J SMITH: Yeah. I guess she was warning us because as soon as we turned the corner to the left, shots came down from the roof, everything. And one of them hit Elrod. And they almost got Doc Watt because he was - he got against the wall, and all the bullets started spraying up on the side. And I'm like, all right. So...

LIOTTA: It was all a video game to me, to be honest. It was - until someone got shot, it was all surreal. And I do remember that. I remember once Eric Elrod got hit, it all stopped being a game to me. And it all stopped being interesting. Yeah. And I started to just get my head right, take it in the right way.


BOWMAN: The Marine offensive was having an effect.

SKILES: Two days went by. It was evil. No more mosques. No more prayers. I mean, we went in the city and killed a couple of them or more. Who drew first blood? They killed a Marine. General Mattis, go in there and teach them a lesson. We didn't teach anybody a lesson.

G SMITH: It turns out the insurgency was waiting for a chance to teach the Americans a lesson.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: We're going to begin with Iraq this evening. Four American civilians were killed there today. And, as sometimes happens, the cameras were there for the gruesome aftermath. Here's ABC's John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN: On the streets of Fallujah, the brutal attack was met with celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

BERMAN: We are from Fallujah, they chanted, this is our work. Witnesses say the two SUVs were ambushed as they drove through town.

BOWMAN: It isn't just ABC. The mangled and charred remains of Blackwater contractors hanging off a bridge flash across TV screens around the world, a clear message from the insurgents.

SKILES: They didn't kill them. They killed them 20 times over. They couldn't get to us, so they wanted to take out those four.

BOWMAN: This is the last thing the White House needs. Almost a year after mission accomplished, troops still haven't found any evidence of the alleged weapons of mass destruction. The insurgency is growing stronger. Support for the war back home is dropping. But these are Americans - dismembered, burned. The White House doubles down. The Marines are ordered to clear Fallujah.

DUTY: Some of us had recently returned from a patrol, like, outside the wire a little bit. And I remember just over the loudspeaker, an announcement was made. You know, all Marines report back to your company areas.

G SMITH: Hearts and minds? Forget it. General Mattis is forced to drop the velvet glove. The mission now? Search and destroy. That night, Captain Zembiec jumps up on the hood of a truck to motivate the men.

SKILES: It's pitch black, but you see a figure (laughter) - the Lion of Fallujah. There he is. Marines, this is our Okinawa. This is our Tet Offensive. This is our Saipan. This is our time in history. Pretty cool. And he goes, we're fighting for - look to your left and right - those are your brothers. You're fighting for him. Don't you ever disrespect or dishonor the American flag and what we stand for through our history of battle in the Marine Corps. And he finishes with this - may the dogs of Fallujah eat hearty off our dead enemy.

BOWMAN: May the dogs of Fallujah eat hearty off our dead enemies.


BOWMAN: By now, it's the early hours of April 1.

SKILES: That's when the hornet's nest started.

J SMITH: Oh, no. That was full-on we're taking over the city and the whole nine. Like, we tried to be nice. Now it's - we got to do what we came here to do. And that's where we just started going through.

BEN WAGNER: We didn't even allow the idea of what this city is going to look like after the fact influence how we fought. And what I mean by that is if you needed to put a tank main gun round into a building, you put a tank main gun round into the building. You know, if we needed to blow down trees to clear our fields of fire, we blew down trees to clear our fields of fire.

DUTY: Every day it was kicking in doors, house to house, clearing operations, sometimes with fights. And a lot of times, it would be the house next door would have some bad guys in it. And then the Marines would assault towards that house, and the bad guys would pack up and move on down the block some, you know? It was kind of like chasing a ghost, almost.


WAGNER: So, yeah, we were in the fight. We had the enemy on their heels.

G SMITH: For more than a week, the men of Echo Company and about 3,000 other Marines pushed into Fallujah, dense neighborhoods of concrete buildings normally housing 280,000 people.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The U.S. military says some insurgents are using children to spot targets for them and deliberately firing from heavily populated areas inside Fallujah.

G SMITH: The Al Jazeera TV network sends out brutal images of hospitals crowded with dead and wounded, some of them women and children. Other networks run the footage, too.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Hospitals are full, and doctors say they're running out of medical supplies. The Iraqis claim hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in the last four days. It's too dangerous to bury the dead.

BOWMAN: Iraqi politicians threaten to resign if the Americans don't stop the assault. That would be a disaster because the Americans are just about to hand responsibility for governing the country over to their Iraqi allies. So the White House orders the Marines to stop.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: We've been going for about a week, and we're told to cease fire. Like, what? Yeah, cease fire. We don't have to push forward anymore? No, we can't. OK. Fine. Cease fire.

WAGNER: And just to be clear, you know, we talk about a cease-fire. Cease-fire was in effect for U.S. forces, but the insurgents didn't have that same order. And so we were in gunfights on a daily basis throughout.

DUTY: Well, the running joke was that there was a pause in combat operations. And eventually, the enemy guys had agreed that they were going to turn their weapons in and stop fighting. It was just that the joke was that they were going to turn in all their ammo first because they never stopped. They never paused. They just kept shooting at us all the damn time.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: We get to a schoolhouse. We stopped there. And now we're in the schoolhouse. That's when CNN got embedded with us.

BOWMAN: Tomas Etzler from CNN.

TOMAS ETZLER: So what happened, you know, in the morning, they took us to the school. They were kind of sticking out from the line of the houses which the Marines occupied behind them.

BOWMAN: Now, Marines are quick to tell you, in combat, they move, shoot and communicate. But now they're forced to hunker down at the schoolhouse.

EVERETT WATT: Think of like rectangular-shaped building. And there's an open courtyard. So there wasn't no roof over that area.

LIOTTA: I know we were digging in for the long haul because they had me dig a s******. And then we, you know, sandbags around the windows like typical, sandbags around the entrances.

WATT: So we were just kind of like, hey, man, let's block this up just in case. Like, you know, mortars were being launched. We knew mortars would be launched.

G SMITH: So go forward a couple of days. Tell me about the 12.

J SMITH: I mean, it started as a normal day where, like, everybody wakes up. We're smoking and joking. And then...

GOMEZ-PEREZ: So we have - our first - we have our first watch in the morning, my team. So we got word that we were going to get attacked at night. So I'm like, OK.

ETZLER: There was still kind of a very sporadic gunfight going on. And at one point - and it was already April 12 - the school was hit by RPG. But the RPG hit the corner of the school. You know, it shook the whole school. It shook - you know, it made a big noise.

CHRIS COVINGTON: So that morning was the first time I remember getting blown up. I was in a window in that schoolhouse, bent over to pick something up, sat back up and some a**hole shot an RPG at the window, rang my bell pretty good. They wouldn't let me sleep for, like, 12 hours. Robert came off post. And this kid - instead of sleeping, he sat there for eight hours and just stared at me making sure I was - I mean, literally just sat there staring at me smoking cigarettes, making sure I was OK.

BOWMAN: The Robert he's talking about, that's Robert Zurheide. He'd be dead by nightfall.


LIOTTA: Zurheide was the nicest person I've ever met in my life. I don't know how he became a United States Marine (laughter). He was honestly the nicest person I've ever met in my f***ing life. Like, the dude just had a heart of gold, unless you played cards, and he cheated like crazy.

G SMITH: (Laughter).

LIOTTA: And not that good either (laughter). That s*** was annoying.


LIOTTA: But what do you call it? Zurheide was funny, man. And he was like nothing you've ever met in your life. This dude around a bunch of Marines, d*** well knowing what the reaction would be, would put on Backstreet Boys and do, like, a choreographed, practiced f***ing dance...


LIOTTA: ...That you would expect, like, the Backstreet Boys to do.

G SMITH: (Laughter).


ETZLER: So after, like, one hour, two hours - I don't remember exactly - one hour, two hour of sleeping in that school, we went back to those positions. Then I had a discussion with the NBC guys. And I told them, listen. Let's split up. I thought that, you know, like - because I think that, you know, if something's going to happen tonight or anytime, you know, it's going to happen at that school. So I would like to be there.

BOWMAN: He does a quick interview with the company commander around 5 p.m.


ETZLER: What are the biggest challenges your men are facing here in Fallujah today?

DOUG ZEMBIEC: That's an easy one. The biggest challenges we're facing right now are just - my men want to go into the city and attack the enemy. That's what Marines do. They're fired up. They want to go on the assault, so I've got to hold back on the reins to keep them here, keep them from doing that, until we're given permission to do so.

ETZLER: And, of course, I informed CNN headquarters in Atlanta that I will call them every two hours. And in between, I will be - I had, like, I don't know, four or five extra batteries, but I had no idea how long I'm going to stay in Fallujah. So I said, listen. I will not have it switched on. I will turn it on every two hours.

J SMITH: And I mean, right before we got to rest and the incident happened, that - I actually ran to go get the MREs and everything for us to eat. So, I mean, we ran out, ran down the street, hit up HQ, grabbed the MREs, came on back. Yeah, I mean, just a little simple resupply. And then we went to stand-to. And then, I mean, yeah, right after that, that's when everything went down.

ETZLER: It was getting dark around after 6. After I make my phone call, it was getting dark. And the school was on the top of a T-intersection. There were some cars blown up. I saw some bodies in those cars. And I noticed there were guys on that street running from one side of the street to another, and they were dropping tires.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Ran back into the alleyway...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Then they rolled out another tire and another guy...

LIOTTA: We kept seeing guys setting up tires, and they were doing - they used to do this to set up signal fires.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I wonder what the hell they're trying to do with those H3 f***ing tires...

LIOTTA: So it would help their mortars. So as they were setting up the tires and s***, our guys were shooting...


LIOTTA: ...And whatnot.


LIOTTA: So we knew an attack was coming. Like, we could see that they were preparing for an attack. So they told us to be on stand-to - I forget what time. It's usually, like, sunset - because we were expecting a fight. So everyone was in gear. We had that going for us.

COVINGTON: Where they were putting those tires up was the same house that shot the rocket at me that morning. We wanted that house gone.

LIOTTA: We were hanging out at this picnic table that was just underneath an awning that was on the side of the courtyard. And some people were sitting down. I was standing. Shuder was standing, and Shuder had gotten a mail package. Like, he'd gotten some mail with some pictures and s***, so he was showing us pictures of his family and his friends and whatnot at home, which was Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

And earlier that day - this is a little separate, but it's connected. Earlier that day, I was with Smith, and I saw that he had Pop-Tarts, so I started begging him for some Pop-Tarts 'cause we'd been in - you know, doing this for, like, 10 days or whatever. You miss stupid things. And so the - we got done negotiating, and I was like - I - the deal was I would give him an already freaked Black & Mild. Like, you know, when you pull out the inside paper of a Black & Mild and then you put it back together?

G SMITH: I do not know. Is it like making a blunt but like...

LIOTTA: Oh, OK. Well, it's not making a blunt. I mean, the principle is similar, yes. But the Black & Milds are cheap, but they suck in taste. If you take out the inside leaf, though, the taste is actually smooth as s***. It's something weird about Black & Milds that us poor kids figured out. So that was the deal, is I would give him an already freaked Black & Mild in exchange for the Pop Tarts. And so while we're all bull********, it was me, Doug Hyunga, Brad Shuder - who was it? - Costello. I think that was it. And Smith walks over. And he's like, yo, Doc - he's like, where's my Black & Mild at? And I was like, all right, man. Let me go do that. I haven't done that yet. So like, I'm walking away with Shuder. And we're bull******** about - we're, like, finishing up our conversation about Tahoe. And I left him in the center of the courtyard as we ended our conversation.

And I went to walk into the f****** casualty collection point, like, our - the corpsmen's room. And I had taken, like, not even two complete steps. And, like, I remember seeing a flash in the corner of my eye. And I looked back. And the next thing I know, I'm on the ground waking up. Like, I blacked out. I got thrown across the room. I hit a wall. I was wearing my helmet, but I hit the wall headfirst. And f****** yeah, I came to. It was all f****** - sorry, I'm bugging a little bit. I'm going to hit my weed. But it was like I could see nothing. You know, it was just dust. And all I could hear was ringing, this extreme ringing, both my ears. And then, suddenly, all of my hearing came back like the rush of a fucking train. It was like, (whooshing). And then I could hear everything. And it was just screaming, like, the worst screaming you ever heard in your life.


BOWMAN: Ahead on TAKING COVER, that explosion. What was it?

DUTY: We thought it was a Iraqi rocket, and they just got lucky with a pinhole shot, one round.

BOWMAN: And the chaos, the scramble to help the wounded amid a massive firefight.

ETZLER: All hell broke loose. There was fire coming out of everywhere. There was a lot of machine gun fire, a lot of RPG fire. The building was shaken by some of the grenades that hit the building and the rockets.

BOWMAN: Here's the thing, this explosion at the schoolhouse in Fallujah, it should be in the history books as the worst Marine-on-Marine friendly fire incident in decades, but it isn't. It's like it was scrubbed from the record.

SKILES: They said he died. I never knew his name. I can't find any document. He didn't go with me. Somebody took him out. Nowhere in this f****** investigation you see that. That's a sin.

G SMITH: As we continue digging up parts of this story, we have to wonder, why did the Marine Corps keep all of this hidden for so long? Why are we the ones revealing what really happened to the very men who were there?

JOHN TOOLAN: I mean, your instincts, I think, are correct. And those questions should be answered. But the worst thing that would happen is to break that bond of trust between us and the public, the mothers and fathers who send their sons to war.


G SMITH: TAKING COVER is created and reported by us, Graham Smith and Tom Bowman. Our producer is Chris Haxel. Robert Little is the editor, with help from Kamala Kelkar. To hear our next episode early, sign up for Embedded+ at Or find the Embedded channel in Apple. You'll be supporting our work. And you'll get to listen to the entire season sponsor-free. That's And thanks to everyone who's already signed up and listening early.

We have production help from Nic Neves. Our music comes from Peter Duchesne, Rob Roswell, Brad Honeyman (ph) and the HumpMuscle Rolling Circus. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and me, with help from Nic. This episode was engineered by Josh Newell. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom. We've had additional editorial input from Liana Simstrom, who is the Enterprise Storytelling Unit's supervising producer - also from the supervising editor for Embedded, Katie Simon, as well as Christopher Turpin, Andrew Sussman and Bruce Auster. We are also grateful for guidance and encouragement from Lisa Hagen, Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace.

BOWMAN: Edith Chapin is the acting senior vice president of NPR News. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit. And Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming and audience development. We'd like to thank and acknowledge Eric Niiler and Rick Loomis, journalists who were in Fallujah during the fighting in the spring of 2004, and who shared their recordings with us - and also, NPR member station KPBS and CNN. And finally, thanks to the men who shared their stories with us. In addition to those named in the episode, we heard from Jason Duty, Tony Paz, Everett Watt, John Smith, Chris Covington and Ben Wagner. We'll be hearing more from them ahead.


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