NPR reporters uncover new truths about a Marine cover up of an explosion in Iraq : Taking Cover The wounded are evacuated. The battle subsides. Now the men of Echo 2/1 begin to wonder: What happened? The Marine Corps says "no records exist" but Tom and Graham find testimony before an obscure Congressional subcommittee that says otherwise. The team also finds that promises made — to Congress, to the families of the dead and to wounded Marines — have been broken. And, they hear from one man who knows exactly what happened in the courtyard of that schoolhouse — but they still have to wonder, why was this covered up?


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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.



Previously on TAKING COVER...


GEORGE W BUSH: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.


JASON DUTY: We thought we were moving in for, like, security and stability - 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.

JOHN SMITH: I mean, it started as a normal day. We - like, everybody wakes up. We're smoking and joking.

CHRIS 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.

J SMITH: And then, I mean, yeah, right after that, that's when everything went down.


G SMITH: Dawn and dusk are the worst times of day for any combat unit - the most uncertain, the most dangerous. Since people began fighting and killing each other - which is, to say, since forever - when the light is least is when you have to be most on guard for an attack. For the Marines, this state of heightened awareness - it's called stand-to. That's when they pull on their armored vests and helmets, end their conversations and go to their combat posts, especially if they're hunkered down in a defensive position, party to a one-sided cease-fire in a place like this - a little schoolhouse in Fallujah, Iraq, that's at the heart of our mystery. I'm Graham Smith.

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

This city - this schoolhouse - came up in an offhand remark more than three years ago - a tip that sent us searching for answers about a tragic mistake. The Marines in Fallujah, spring of 2004, face an increasingly angry local population and a tough fight with a growing insurgency. They've been telling us about that time and a deadly incident they can't forget and still don't really understand.


BOWMAN: The men described the school as a two-story, square building with thick walls, classrooms all around the outside. And in the center, a small courtyard open to the sky - a courtyard where, for a few minutes, maybe a couple of hours, they could almost feel safe.


BOWMAN: In this episode, a horrific explosion and the confusing minutes and years afterward, scrambling to help the wounded men, fighting off an attack and wondering what really happened. What more could I have done? Why did I survive and my friends didn't?


G SMITH: We've been searching out and talking with the men who were in that schoolhouse. We've woven their stories together with recordings of the Marines fighting in Fallujah that month.

As the sun sets on April 12, 2004, the Marines can sense it. An attack is coming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Literally everybody was waiting for dusk, taking our positions. We were being surrounded, and that just amplified everybody getting to their positions quicker.


G SMITH: There's one Marine whose position was in that rest area - the courtyard. His name is Brad Shuder. He would be dead before dawn. A few other guys are finishing up their cigarettes by a picnic table, listening to the end of a joke. When we left off, Ben Liotta was telling us about this moment. He's a Navy corpsman, a medic.

BEN LIOTTA: So, like, I'm walking away with Shuder, and we're bulls****ing. And I left him in the center of the courtyard as we ended our conversation, and I went to walk into the f***ing 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.

CARLOS GOMEZ-PEREZ: The biggest flash of my life coming from behind me.

J SMITH: As I'm lifting my flak jacket up to put it on - boom.

TOMAS ETZLER: A huge boom - a huge explosion occurred.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: And before I could turn to Tommy and say, what the f***, we both got thrown forward against the freaking wall.

J SMITH: Big-ass shockwave - shrapnel's ripping through everyone.

ETZLER: It just came out of nowhere. I saw flames everywhere for a few seconds.

EVERETT WATT: And then everything went black.


WATT: My ears were ringing off the wall, and I could literally almost hear every conversation that was going on. It sounded as if I was hearing everyone speak at the same time. They probably were.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everything was in slow motion. And, I mean, I'm crawling across the ground, trying to get my rifle. I didn't even realize I got injured. I knew I fell. I knew the explosion went off, but everything hit so quick and fast, I felt no pain. It was just happening.

ETZLER: I heard horrible, absolutely horrendous screams from that courtyard downstairs.

COVINGTON: I knew who some of the guys where that got hit because I recognized their screams.


WATT: I honestly didn't know what it was. My first thought was someone may have fumbled a grenade.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: We can't see anything. Everything was covered in smoke - the heaviest fog possible. And we start getting engaged.


LIOTTA: They just opened up fire. And what's crazy is they were obviously setting up for a - I mean, we know they were setting up for a battle. This is why we wanted to mortar them. But they took advantage of it.

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

LIOTTA: And I got up. And I saw Watt stand up at the same time, and I was like, you all right? And he was like, yeah, you all right? And I was like, yeah. And then I went to go out, and there was an army guy. He was a psyops guy, and he was laying in our doorway. So I dragged him into there, and I was like, you got this guy? And he was like, yeah. So then I moved on, and the first person I came across was Shuder.

And, you know, he was the one screaming, pretty much. And he was laying there, right where I left him. And his legs were just f****** mangled - mush. So we tied off his legs, and then we moved him. And I did my secondary assessment of the rest of his body. And, I mean, I remember taking his flak jacket off, and his SAPI plates were not plates. They were, like, crumbled, like, inside his vest, you know? He was just f***** up, man. He took so much shrapnel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Medic - need a medic.



WATT: I got to Brad, and he was pretty much, like, making a joke about - he was supposed to go back and go to the club, and he's not going to get to dance. And I'm like, no, man. Like, you're going to be good, dude. We're going to go downtown, and we're going to go dance. And so I did a couple of tests on him, like, you know, I was like, dude, can you move your legs for me? And he was just like, I am moving my legs.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Get his cammies off. Get his cammies off.

LIOTTA: Ugh. I remember Shuder - one of the last things he said - and he actually got calm. And he was like, I guess I'll never dance again. And then he was pretty much stabilized. There was nothing else I could do for him, so I moved on to other guys.

G SMITH: Other Marines a couple hundred yards away hear the explosion and news crackling over the radio.

DUTY: I can still hear his voice. It was like second platoon got hit and they took a lot of casualties. So I took off running.

BOWMAN: Nineteen-year-old Navy corpsman Jason Duty sprints across an open field to the schoolhouse.

DUTY: The first thing I remember is going to the door was - it looked like it was pitch black inside the building, and it sounded like hell.


DUTY: There was screaming, there was noise, there was gunfire. It sounded like everything bad in life was happening in there right at that moment.

ETZLER: It was a carnage, what I saw. There were several Marines down. They were bleeding profusely from their legs. All of them had Kevlars, of course, you know, bulletproof vests and helmets, but their legs were unprotected. And, you know, I saw a marine's thigh, which was basically sliced by some sort of shrapnel. It was - there were literally geysers of blood coming out of these guys. It was absolutely, absolutely horrendous scene.

DUTY: I saw this, and I started getting the anxiety. I started freaking out in my head and I'm like, OK, just take your own pulse. Whenever you've got a casualty, the first pulse you take is your own. Take a second. One more second isn't going to kill anybody. Calm down and then go to work. All right, what do we got?


DUTY: I get in the door, and the first person I see only a few feet inside the door, leaning up against the wall is Smith - Smitty.

J SMITH: It hit me from the left side, went through my arm, broke my tibia, fibia in my legs, hit around my groin area. There was - they said no matter - I was - they said I was dying on the floor and still somehow had a sense of humor because the first thing I'm asking him is make sure it's still there. Just make sure it's still there (laughter). Like, they were trying not to laugh. But it was like, Smitty, you're the only person I know who's bleeding all over the place and you're like, make sure your package is still there like (laughter)...

DUTY: We were bandaging his leg up and we put a tourniquet on there, and his leg was just mangled. And it sounds cruel, but in my head, it wasn't Smitty. It was just another dummy. It was just another mannequin from training.

BOWMAN: And you almost have to do that just to get through it.

DUTY: Detach, yeah, because that wasn't my friends anymore. That wasn't the guys that I went to the beach with on Saturdays. It wasn't the guys who came over to my house and drank beers on Friday nights. It was another mannequin, another dummy, another student dressed up like he's got injuries and you've got to bandage him, tourniquet him and move on to the next one.

ETZLER: I've never seen any anything like that before or after. And so I went for my camera. What happened at that point, there was this one Marine kind of saw me and he gave me this look of disbelief - disgust - that actually I'm going to film something like that. And, yes, I'm a journalist and it's my job to film that. But, you know, that look alone was enough that I said, you know, maybe he's right. I should - because these guys are dying here probably on the dirty floor, in incredible amount of pain, far away from home. They are not going to die in dignity. And I thought maybe this is not really right thing to shoot, to film. So I put the camera away. I didn't film.


WATT: So in the midst of that, we didn't know exactly what was happening. Was there another shell that was going to land? We didn't know if we were being overrun. Like, people could have come busting through the doors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I thought some enemy blew himself up in our compound - my first thought. And that means we have people coming in the wire. So it was smoke. I couldn't see - flashlights everywhere and screaming everywhere.

BOWMAN: These flashlights, they aren't bright white. They have red filters, harder for the enemy to pinpoint. The dim beams compete with shadows, painting everything shades of crimson.

WATT: The hard part of using those red lenses was the fact that the blood is red. So you couldn't tell exactly where some of the wounds were. And as I was working on Zurheide, every time I would roll him, I'm like, what the - I stopped that one. And I would find another one. And it just got to the point where, you know, frustration kicked in. And I'm like, hey, man. Turn the damn light on. Like, I need to actually see. So at that point, you know, just, like, looking at him, at the same time, it's like, no, I'm not going to stop trying to help him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: So Zurheide - I finally said, Doc, he's dead. Go to somebody else. Yep. We don't train like this. No, he's gone. Sorry. Go to somebody else. Zurheide was dead right there, instantly - because you could just tell. So he's dead. Well - I was, goddamn it. Go over there.

ETZLER: I saw some of the Marines throwing out hand grenades out of the window, and that really kind of freaked me out in a sense because if you throw a hand grenade, it means that somebody is very close.

G SMITH: Doc Liotta moves on to David Costello.

LIOTTA: Costello was screaming, cursing, wanting to f****** get in the fight. He was so angry that he got hit. Like, they had a hard time getting him out. Like, the whole time he was flipping out, wanting to fight. And it carried on afterwards, kind of f***** him up.

BOWMAN: As they're telling these stories, something keeps coming up that's remarkable - really surprising - another death. Now, there's very little in the record about the Marines killed - Brad Shuder and Rob Zurheide. But there's nothing about a third man, an interpreter.

LIOTTA: First off, there was three deaths that night.

G SMITH: Oh, oh...

LIOTTA: We got to count...

G SMITH: That's what I wanted...

LIOTTA: We got to count that interpreter.

G SMITH: Yeah. Do you know his name or anything about him?

LIOTTA: No. I have no clue.

DUTY: The interpreter was blasted pretty good. Sahib or Shaheen or something like that was his name. He was the interpreter for Second Platoon, and I don't even think I'd ever actually met the dude before.

COVINGTON: His calves were pretty much mangled. And tried to keep him talking to keep - you know, get him - get his mind off what was going on there. So we were talking about his family. And his sister is at university.

G SMITH: Like an Iraqi university or...

COVINGTON: In Baghdad.

G SMITH: In Baghdad.


BOWMAN: Who was this guy? Did his family know what happened? Another mystery we have to figure out.

DUTY: I bandaged him up, and we got him on a stretcher. And two Marines started carrying him to the main doorway, which was our interim casualty collection point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: First person I carried because he was awake - and he was heavy as s*** - was Smitty, Corporal Smith. But I'll never forget this. I said, hey. Somebody help me carry him. So I had to load up the meat wagon. That's what I called it - the goddamn meat wagon - terrible.

DUTY: Yeah. I helped carry Smitty. Me and two other guys helped carry Smitty out to the vehicle. And I turned back around, and I helped carry Zurheide out to the vehicle.

COVINGTON: They were taking Robert out. And yeah, he was gone. They thought he was still breathing, but it was just - it had to be his body settling. Half his face was gone.

G SMITH: So sorry about that.

COVINGTON: But what I didn't know was he - we had traded weapons. He had my 203 strapped to his back when it happened. So I spent the next two days - and I didn't realize it at the time, but I was literally scraping pieces of him off of it. And that was a little hard to take.

G SMITH: Yeah.


G SMITH: More than an hour after the explosion, the gunfire and the grenades finally taper off. Robert Zurheide is dead, another dozen men wounded - seven of them badly enough that they've had to be evacuated. Those left at the schoolhouse await word on Brad Shuder and the others.

LIOTTA: When it all finished, they shoved me and Juan in a closet because it was the safest f****** room. And I'm not joking. They literally put us in a closet. And they were like, stay in here in case there's a counterattack. And we realized we had, like, no medical supplies left. So we had to walk around where we treated everyone and see - find bandages that weren't, like, soaked in f****** bloody water or were still sealed and all that shit.


LIOTTA: And then we kind of just laid there, you know, for hours.

ETZLER: Some of the men just kind of came and rested after the battle. And at that point, they got - I was sitting with them. They got a message on a radio that the second soldier died - that they didn't manage to save him either. And they became very upset about this. They were very angry. They said, why don't we nuke them? Why don't we go into Fallujah? We can take care of it, like, within a few hours. There was disbelief, frustration and sadness.

GOMEZ-PEREZ: Everybody is crying, shaking, smoking. All I could do was lay there with my Kevlar down as a pillow and go to sleep.


G SMITH: We'll be right back.


BOWMAN: After the fight, the deaths and the anger comes the confusion.

WATT: It was more like, oh, shit, man. Like, what really just happened? Like, you know, what really just happened?

G SMITH: Doc Watt thought it might have been a fumbled grenade. Sergeant Skiles thought an insurgent with a suicide vest snuck inside the wire. Others blamed an enemy shell.

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Literally, the only way they could have got you was if a 1 in a million shot. And just that day, somebody hit the lotto.

BOWMAN: Pretty quickly, they decide the only possible explanation is a mortar. But whose?

G SMITH: Did you think that the Iraqis had managed to drop a mortar on you guys? I mean, was it clear?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Yeah. I had no concept it was friendly fire. I didn't even know we were doing a mortar mission of our own. I was just f****** hanging out.


BOWMAN: So where are we at this point? Remember; the Pentagon released statements two days after the incident saying Rob Zurheide and Brad Shuder were killed by hostile fire. But we've talked with Marines who were in the schoolhouse that day. We know there were rumors almost immediately that this was friendly fire, just like our original tip said.

Here's what's supposed to happen whenever there's a death in a combat zone. The details get reported back to Marine headquarters in the States. That gets passed along to the families immediately. Who was killed? Where? When? Was it hostile fire? Was it friendly fire? Those are the regulations.

G SMITH: But it didn't happen in this case, as we learned when we turned up a congressional transcript online. It was from an obscure House subcommittee hearing in 2007. The names Shuder and Zurheide come up. It wasn't covered by C-SPAN. There's no video available on YouTube. But House archivists dug up a copy for us.


ROBERT MAGNUS: On behalf of the commandant of the Marine Corps, I apologize for our errors. We thank the subcommittee for this opportunity.

G SMITH: This is General Robert Magnus, the No. 2 Marine officer at the time, saying he wants to correct the record on friendly fires. He says back in 2004, there was an investigation into that explosion at the schoolhouse. The investigation found it was friendly fire, but the Marine Corps hadn't told the families.


MAGNUS: Chairwoman, that's correct. And they should have been notified in accordance with statute and regulation. Previously in the case of Lance Corporal Shuder and Zurheide, that incident on 12 April, that was not even in accordance with our regulation. Literally, it was over two years to the notification.

G SMITH: Yeah. He says over two years. To be clear, this hearing is more than three years after the explosion.


BOWMAN: Here's something you should know about this hearing. It was forced on the Marines because of fallout from another friendly fire incident - an Army scandal involving maybe the most famous soldier at the time, former NFL star Pat Tillman. The military lied about his death, too. And we'll get more into Tillman later. But here you have the Marines' second in command dragged up to the Hill and promising to do better.


MAGNUS: I spoke to Lieutenant General Mattis, the commander of Marine Forces Central Command, last night. And he is redoubling efforts to go back and ensure that we make contact with every Marine who has been seriously injured or is very seriously injured as a result of wounds received.

G SMITH: The Marine Corps promises to set the record straight. So do they? John Smith is one of those very seriously injured men. He was in the courtyard when the mortar hit. The blast blinded him in one eye, peppered him with fragments, tore up his legs. He was evacuated to Germany and then back to the States. He spent a month in a coma. Eventually, his left leg was amputated above the knee, and he was medically retired. When I first talked with Smith, it was on the phone. Given the promises that were made on the Hill, you'd think he knew all about the finding. Wrong.

But so you never heard anything from the U.S. military directly telling you that they had had an investigation and that they had come to any kind of a...

J SMITH: Nope.

G SMITH: That's crazy.

J SMITH: Nope, I didn't hear anything. Nobody came. On a official level, nobody came to me and was like, hey; this is what really happened - like, no investigation or nothing.

G SMITH: And he'd asked.

J SMITH: I've requested, like, all of the paperwork from my injuries and military records and everything. And, I mean, I just started scouring over it. And they'll go so deep into everything. But I don't think the actual incident of what happened is anywhere in my paperwork right now.

G SMITH: John splits his time between San Diego and Baltimore, where I visited a few months later. He's super-tall, and his left eye is damaged. He's an aspiring rapper on the side, stage name Snake-eyes Uzumaki.


SNAKE-EYES UZUMAKI: (Rapping) Young Black boy growing in the world today. I know the world seems small and there's nowhere left to play. You're viewed as a threat before you take your first steps. Utter your last words face down on the curb. They love your culture, but they silent, don't really know your plight.

G SMITH: He's holding his baby girl.

She's beautiful.

J SMITH: Oh, yeah.

G SMITH: Such a sweetie pie.

J SMITH: Violet.

G SMITH: Violet?

J SMITH: Hey, baby.

G SMITH: All right. Can I sit down next to your daddy?

J SMITH: Come here, fat girl.

G SMITH: Smith told me that until our phone call, all he'd had to go on as far as what really happened were the rumors from his friends.

J SMITH: They didn't know if it was a luck of the draw from the enemy or if it was a 100% friendly fire or what. And since I never got anybody to come - or that never - no one ever came to the hospital to tell me that it was a friendly fire incident or anything. Like, no investigation, no nothing that I've heard of.

G SMITH: I mean, you're a medically retired veteran who is getting regular services from the VA all the time.

J SMITH: Exactly.

G SMITH: There's no mystery where you are from the military point of view. Like, it should not be very hard to find you, right?

J SMITH: Exactly. Literally, like, they have to - when I call in for my pain meds, when I take an appointment, the whole nine. Hell, I'm still going to college on Camp Pendleton base. The fact that nobody has said anything concrete, no paperwork, nothing the whole time, and I'm just now finding out there was even an investigation - that's kind of unsettling. Like, what was so big about this incident that you had to bury or whatever? What did y'all have to hide?


BOWMAN: This question - it haunted us, too. What did they have to hide? And what's strange is the Marine Corps is still telling us they can't find the report on this incident, even after we appealed their response, even after we told them it was cited on Capitol Hill. And we're starting to see a pattern.


G SMITH: Smith's best friend in Iraq - it was Everett Watt. Doc Watt. He's also over six-foot-five. Guys called them the Twin Towers. Like Smith, Watt got a Purple Heart, though Watt's injuries at the schoolhouse were less severe. Watt still struggles with that day, with what he calls what-ifs?

WATT: I think we all carry a certain burden of the what-ifs. You know, was there something that I missed? Did I wait too long to stop using the red flashlight lens? So all of those things, like - think we all got the what-if moment. Yeah.

BOWMAN: We told him about our conversation with his buddy.

G SMITH: John - he wasn't for sure that it was friendly fire. And I was like, dude, they did an investigation. It was friendly fire. And he was like...

WATT: Right.

G SMITH: ...You're the first person who's ever told me there was an investigation.

WATT: So the initial word that I got was that they - there was a mortar that got launched by the enemy. And we heard the rumblings about, that wasn't true. And myself and Ben did have a little bit of a conversation about that. So I was just kind of like - I try not to think about it, a lot of it, man, to be honest, because the way that I've compartmentalized this stuff, in a sense where I'm hoping that one day, like, this thing just doesn't come rushing back, you know?

G SMITH: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Makes a lot of sense.

G SMITH: I mean, I have to say, I feel bad, in a way, asking you guys to talk about this stuff because, I mean, Tom and I lost one of our best friends in an ambush. Tom was ambushed with him in Helmand five years ago last weekend. And so I - I'm not doing it lightly. Like, I appreciate you going into these spaces.

WATT: Oh, of course. Of course.

BOWMAN: So Ben thought it was friendly fire. You couldn't believe it. When did you hear officially that it was actually friendly fire?

WATT: Oh, I mean, it was officially, about, like, two minutes ago (laughter) when you guys said it, you know? Just...

G SMITH: So until we just mentioned that there was an investigation a couple of minutes ago, nobody from the Marine Corps ever, like, gave you a copy of the investigation or told you that your wounds were the result of a friendly - like, nobody ever contacted...


G SMITH: ...You and told...

WATT: No, sir.

G SMITH: ...You that?

WATT: No, sir. I never got any notification or anything about anything, honestly, until you said that it was, like, official-official a few minutes ago.

BOWMAN: And what do you think about that?

WATT: I mean, I think it's - it almost like - honest to God, it almost like devalues the fact that I got a Purple Heart. Like, I don't even - you know, it's like it takes away from it a little bit, you know?


BOWMAN: So it's been more than a decade since the Marines promised lawmakers that General Mattis would redouble efforts to contact these wounded men and tell them what happened. I mean, if we could find these guys, how is it that Mattis can't? Why have men like Everett Watt and John Smith been left to wonder for so long?


G SMITH: Not everyone had to wonder for all of those years. Some of them had a different burden - the truth - because a couple of the Marines in the schoolhouse did know almost immediately what really happened. One of them was the radio operator. And because he knew Chris Covington was Rob Zurheide's best friend, this radio operator told Chris what he'd learned listening to the radio traffic with other units - that it was a friendly round. And Covington, he ended up telling Rob's widow.

COVINGTON: I got in a lot of trouble afterwards because I was talking to Elena and her mom, off and on, from the internet center. And I didn't know that they had lied to them. And she would - and it came up because she kept asking, you know, why was it a closed casket? As far as she knew, he had been shot. And I didn't understand why she was asking that. And when I realized they lied to her, I told her the truth. And then I got in a s*** ton of trouble after that.

G SMITH: What kind of trouble?

COVINGTON: They didn't really care. They were just - they were angry.

G SMITH: No, no. You mean the Marines were angry that you had told them what actually happened?

COVINGTON: The Command was because I went to them.

BOWMAN: But if this was true, how had it happened? Who screwed up? Ben Liotta was a Navy corpsman, but he was tapped into what the Marines call the LCU - the lance corporal underground.

LIOTTA: Now, here's only what I've been told. I have no idea if this is factual at all - is Lieutenant McCoy - I guess, the guy that was supposed to call these in - he called it in, and he reversed the coordinates - that he gave our grid as the target grid, and the target grid as our grid. So they hit dead on. They hit what they were told to hit. I can't prove that. That is literally just what I've been told down the pipeline.

BOWMAN: This Lieutenant McCoy, his name came up a lot. We learned he was not in the schoolhouse but was nearby in another building. It was part of his job to request support from helicopters or gunships or mortar missions to help Marines under attack. Navy Corpsman Jason Duty told us that after the explosion, McCoy was a wreck.

DUTY: I remember because he was pale, and he looked shaken. And I don't think he'd slept. Yeah, it was the next day. And he said, Doc, I think I f***** up. And I said, how? He goes, I just think I f***** up. I think I f***** up. And I was like, well, what did you f*** up? And he said, well, I can't really talk about it. But I think I f***** up. I think I f***** up. And I think that was honestly the last time I ever saw him.

BOWMAN: We've spent months trying to find McCoy. One guy told us McCoy got kicked out of the Marines. Turns out that's not true. He'd been promoted - left as a major. We figured out he still works for the government as a civilian. We called his number, emailed, even had a letter hand-carried to where he works. We never heard back. So whether it's Lieutenant McCoy or someone else, at this point in our investigation, it's really important that we talk with some of the officers who were involved. Guys like Smith, Watt, Liotta - they can tell us about what they experienced at the schoolhouse but not why and how the whole thing happened. It's the officers who decide whether to fire a mortar. What about the officer who was in command at the schoolhouse?



OK. Everything seems to be operating. So thanks again for coming out. And if you could just first off, tell me your name and just - I know you're a lieutenant colonel now. But you were at the time - what? - second lieutenant?

BEN WAGNER: Yeah, I was. Ben Wagner is my name now. It is my name and always has been. I am a lieutenant colonel now.

G SMITH: Two steps below a general, Wagner was stationed in Okinawa. But we got together when he visited Norfolk, Va. That's home to the biggest naval base in the world. After dinner, we sat down at a small park near the water, looking up at two massive warships. He told me about the arrival in Fallujah, the early patrol where he'd been wounded. You heard that earlier. And then I asked him what it was like at the schoolhouse, waiting out the cease-fire.

So I do want to talk to you about the 12 of April. Can you tell me just about that day?

WAGNER: In that schoolhouse - you know, it was a square building that was two stories high with an open courtyard in the middle. And then on the second floor, there was a kind of a balcony catwalk, kind of open hallway, that ran around three sides of the courtyard. That day, we had done our kind of daily routine and whatnot. And then we went to stand-to about an hour before the sun was supposed to set. And we had been taking pop shots from the south throughout the afternoon, and then things got a little bit livelier right around the time that we went to stand-to. And then that's when the 81 mm mortar mission was called in.

G SMITH: Did you call that in?

WAGNER: No, I did not call that in.

G SMITH: So you - so you're basically doing stand-to and taking some relatively light contact. And, all of a sudden, boom, is essentially - like, you didn't know a mortar mission had been called.

WAGNER: No, I did. I knew a mortar mission had been called. I had been informed that a mortar mission had been called. And so I was running, kind of shuffling along that exposed hallway on the second floor.

G SMITH: So he hears on the radio that a mortar round is coming in, and he heads to a room that overlooks the street. Wagner wants to see the round destroy that burning tire barricade. Instead, he hears a massive blast behind him, down in the courtyard.

Did you know the minute that it hit that it had been that mortar mission that had been called in versus an Iraqi round?

WAGNER: I don't think I made the connection immediately, but it was not - it didn't take me long to figure that out. Yeah. I didn't say it to the guys. But, yeah, I did.

G SMITH: Because I know you said that this was a day that you didn't really grapple with, I think, for quite a while, that it took you a while to sort of let yourself go back and process it...


G SMITH: ...A little bit.


G SMITH: Is that fair?

WAGNER: It's - no, it's certainly a true statement. You know, I absolutely learned the lessons - a lot of lessons that I took away from that day and applied them to follow-on situations that I found myself in. And, you know, the day kept - it came up all the time. You know, I stayed in touch with Brad Shuder's parents and some of the guys. And when I was stationed there in Quantico, I would go, and I visited Brad. He's buried there at Arlington. But from an emotional standpoint, yeah. I did not - I didn't really dive into it. I didn't necessarily have the emotional space and time to do that. And I also actively didn't give myself that space and time to do that.

Now, older, as a dad, it's the personal sorrow that remains with me. There's a sense that you're still paying off the price, you know, for those guys. And again, you could probably psychoanalyze that all day long and tell me that it's not supposed to be, or it's not real, or it doesn't make sense, or it's irrational or illogical, or whatever. That's - all that is fine. And I'm sure it might be true, but it's not real. Like, the reality is I feel guilty. So yeah.

G SMITH: He says part of the guilt, part of his what-ifs, is just because he was in charge at the school. He was the one who put Brad Shuder on post by the picnic table. Could he have made sure that the Marines got to their positions more quickly? Also, he told me, he disciplined Rob Zurheide for some minor infraction that week. Wagner said he felt bad and made amends by buying Rob some of his favorite cigarettes, Kool menthols. He asked me to guess what Rob was doing when the mortar hit. He was in the courtyard smoking one of those Kools Wagner gave him.

BOWMAN: About the investigation, Wagner said that a couple of years after the incident, he was at a Marine base outside D.C., and some colonel came by with a copy of the report - had him read it over. It's not really clear why. It was a long time ago, but Wagner remembers it pointed to a number of problems - both in how the mission was called in and how it was handled by officers inside the operation center. That's where they look at maps, plot out coordinates to make sure a mortar round in what they call a fire mission won't hit a friendly unit.

WAGNER: There is one way that you, you know, process and clear fires missions, and it's the way we've done it for a long time. And the reason we've done it that way for a long time is 'cause it works when it's done properly. You know, fires is not something that you cut corners on. Fires is not something that you rush. Fires is not something that you assume. And that is just because when you start slinging rounds around, especially in an urban environment, the situation is writ large. It's just fraught with risk.

G SMITH: So do you feel like you - having seen the investigation and whatnot - you have a very clear idea of exactly what happened and where it broke down?

WAGNER: Yeah, I think I do. I think I do.

G SMITH: I mean, part of what's confusing about this whole thing is that it was handled very strangely on the back end of things, like, to the point where I believe you were the first person to tell the families - well, not entirely true, like, 'cause I - Chris was telling me that he got his ass busted for, like, communicating with Elena, you know, that it had been a friendly fire thing. But it took a very long time for the Marines to...

WAGNER: Yeah, and I'll be - I can't speak to...

G SMITH: And I don't want to get you out of your lane, and I know you're...

WAGNER: Well, I just - I mean, I just - I can't - that was, you know, one, two, three, four levels above me. I mean, it was a division-level investigation that was adjudicated by General Mattis. You know what I mean? That - four levels of command between me and him as the platoon commander.

G SMITH: But did you know when you visited them that you were going to be breaking them this news? Or...

WAGNER: I was prepared for it because I had made the decision that if they were asking me, I was going to tell them. I wasn't going to lie. I didn't give them any details, but when they asked if it was a friendly fire incident, I said yes because if I lied or I withheld that information and they found out later that I knew it and I didn't answer them, that would break down whatever trust existed - whatever remaining trust existed between me and them, that would go away. And I wasn't willing to sacrifice that.

G SMITH: This was not an official Marine Corps visit. Wagner felt a personal obligation to the Marines he'd lost to look their parents in the eye, to be there for him. Anyhow, before we parted, there was one more aspect of the original tip I needed to check on. Tom's source had said there was a congressman's son working in the command center that day in Fallujah. Was that true? No, Wagner said. He didn't think so. But you know what? He was wrong.


BOWMAN: Next time on TAKING COVER, we've talked to so many of these men about their experiences that April day in Fallujah. What did it mean on the homefront? The confusion, the anger, the sadness and the frustration - it all lingers and spreads across generations. And that report the Marines can't find? Rob Zurheide's widow thinks she may have a copy.

ELENA ZURHEIDE: When I get home...

G SMITH: Yeah.

ZURHEIDE: ...Or - when I get home, I'm going to climb in the garage, and I have a sneaking suspicion I know where that folder is.


BOWMAN: We go looking for paperwork that might explain how the mortar landed in the courtyard and come back with a whole new set of questions about why the Marine Corps buried this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: We do not lie to our Marines. I mean, it's in our motto. It's in our motto. Semper fidelis. Always faithful. And faithful means we tell the truth no matter how much it hurts.


BOWMAN: TAKING COVER is created and reported by us, Tom Bowman and Graham Smith. Our producer is Chris Haxel. Robert Little is the editor, with help from Kamala Kelkar. To hear our next episode now before everyone else, 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 and the HumpMuscle Rolling Circus. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and Graham, 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 and Andrew Sussman.

G SMITH: 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 had legal assistance from NPR's Micah Ratner, plus Thomas Burke, Jean Fundakowski and Caesar Kalinowski. We're grateful to Eric Niiler and Rick Loomis, journalists who were in Fallujah during the fighting that spring of 2004 and who shared their recordings with us and to NPR member station KPBS and CNN.


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