An Iraq War widow wonders why the Marine Corps lied to her about Fallujah : Taking Cover Hoping to get their hands on the official investigation, the NPR team flies to Tucson. But problems begin shortly after arrival. The widow of a man who died in the explosion wants to know why the Marine Corps lied to her. Tom and Graham want to know why the recommended punishments were overturned. The team finally confirms a crucial detail from the original tip.


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Before we get started, this podcast contains cursing and descriptions of violence.



Previously, on TAKING COVER...

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

JOHN SMITH: Literally, the only way they could have got you was if - a one-in-a-million shot. And just, that day, somebody hit the lotto.

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

G SMITH: Oh, oh - that's what I wanted.

LIOTTA: We got to count that interpreter.

BOWMAN: When did you hear officially that it was actually friendly fire?

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

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



G SMITH: All right, Tom - Tucson, Ariz.


G SMITH: No word from Elena yet, but we're here.

BOWMAN: Graham's talking about Elena Zurheide. She's a war widow. And right now, it feels like she's our only hope. So far, we've been able to stitch together what happened in the courtyard of the schoolhouse in Fallujah that night by talking with the guys who were there. What we're still trying to figure out is how it happened. How did an American mortar drop onto a U.S. Marine combat outpost on April 12, 2004? How was that mistake made? Who was responsible? The answers could explain why the Marine Corps buried it all.


G SMITH: In 2007, the marine brass got dragged before Congress, and it was only then that they admitted this horrible friendly fire had occurred - that it had been investigated, that there was a report and that the Marine Corps took three years to share the results with the families of those who died. We want that report.


BOWMAN: Remember, we filed an official request to get it under the Freedom of Information Act. The Marines said they couldn't find it, which, honestly, we just didn't believe. So we appealed - even sued them in federal court. And still, they told us and the judge they just couldn't find it. They said they looked everywhere. And that raised a disturbing question - what if they were telling the truth?


BOWMAN: I'm Tom Bowman.

G SMITH: And I'm Graham Smith. This is TAKING COVER from NPR.

If our tip was right, and this whole thing was intentionally buried, that could mean the report and other records got scrubbed from the files.


G SMITH: Well, there's one other way we still might get it - from the families of the Marines killed at the schoolhouse in Fallujah. We reached out to Brad Shooter's parents, but we never heard back. His sister told us her mom and dad - they wouldn't talk about what happened to Brad. It's too painful. And, she said, they wouldn't even share the report with her.


G SMITH: That brings us to Elena Zurheide. She told us the Marines gave her a copy of the investigation back in 2007. She was pretty sure she still had it. So that's why we traveled here - to Tucson.



Hey there.

G SMITH: Is it OK to park right here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, you can cross.

BOWMAN: Thanks.

G SMITH: I'm yelling from the car because it's desert here, but, for some reason, it's raining today.



G SMITH: Oh, hi.


G SMITH: Elena?


G SMITH: Graham.

ZURHEIDE: Hi. Nice to meet you.

G SMITH: It's so nice to meet you, too. I like your hair.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, thank you. Yeah. You only live once, so...

BOWMAN: Hey, how are you?

G SMITH: This is Tom Bowman.

BOWMAN: Tom - nice to meet you.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, nice to meet you.

G SMITH: Elena says she tried to dye it purple, but it came out more ocean blue. She lives in a stucco ranch house here in this residential neighborhood. It's busy inside - three kids, a cat, a couple birds.

JOEY: Hey, this guy ain't scared.

BOWMAN: What kind of bird is that?

ZURHEIDE: Just a cockatiel.


BOWMAN: There's a lot of color - kids' drawings all over the fridge. Elena even let them paint in swirls on the concrete living room floor.

Nice to meet you.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, nice to meet you.

G SMITH: Hey, how are you guys doing?

JOHN: Not too bad.

ZURHEIDE: This is John, my boyfriend. This is Caleb.

BOWMAN: Hi there.

ZURHEIDE: This is Joey. And then Robbie's at school still.



Robbie - he's a teenager, named after the father he never met - Robert Zurheide.


G SMITH: Elena crafted a memorial on the wall of the living room. There's three big gold stars, a condolence letter signed by President George W. Bush and a picture of Robert in his uniform, arm wrapped around a smiling, younger Elena.

BOWMAN: Before we even sit down, Elena has some bad news. They've been looking all over the place for that report, digging through the garage - haven't been able to find it. She thinks maybe it was at her aunt's house.

I look over at Graham. Is this going to be a bust?

Anyhow, little Joey and his dad, John, go back to hunting for it while we start talking.

G SMITH: Elena, thanks so much for making time for us.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, no, it's all right.

G SMITH: We really appreciate it. I know that you got a lot going on.

ZURHEIDE: Yeah, we're busy, especially with the new job.

G SMITH: What's the gig?

ZURHEIDE: Just Dollar Tree - dollar store.

G SMITH: Yeah.


ZURHEIDE: But it's a job.

G SMITH: Oh, yeah.


ZURHEIDE: Job pays the bills.

G SMITH: Security. So how long had you been together? Were you, like, high school sweethearts?

ZURHEIDE: Yes, we were high school sweethearts. Yeah. But as far as married, we were only married for two years, 14 days. I'm sure I could get down to the hours, the minutes, the seconds and all that, but, you know, I was young, dumb and stupid. I thought life would go on forever.

BOWMAN: And what kind of a guy was he? Just talk about that a little.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, my gosh, he was the funniest person. He - everything was a joke with him. And he loved Backstreet Boys. Oh, my God, did he love Backstreet Boys. He was out there dancing Backstreet Boys stuff, even when they were out in Iraq. It's embarrassing, but it's funny at the same time 'cause it's him. It's his personality. It's who he is.

G SMITH: What did - so I guess can you tell us a little bit about that deployment?

ZURHEIDE: It was just a weird feeling. And we both knew he wasn't coming back.

G SMITH: Really?

ZURHEIDE: Yeah, we both knew it. I should have broke his leg. But two weeks before he left, his wedding band broke. Yeah, just right in half - just broke. And between the weird feelings and omens we were getting - he was having dreams about it, too.

BOWMAN: What kind of dreams?

ZURHEIDE: Just dreams that he wasn't coming back. And when I said goodbye to him, I didn't cry at all, which was weird because I bawled my head off the first time.

BOWMAN: That was the last time she ever saw Robert. That spring, nine months' pregnant, Elena was at their home in Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Her mom had come to help her get ready for the baby.

ZURHEIDE: April 12 was my due date...

BOWMAN: There was a knock at the door.

ZURHEIDE: ...And my husband died on April 12.

BOWMAN: Through a small window, she sees someone in uniform.

ZURHEIDE: I remember the white glove, and I knew right away. You know. You're like - you know that Marine Corps outfit from top to the bottom. You know who it is. It's not like they're knocking on the wrong door. They double-check that s***.

BOWMAN: What did you do then?

ZURHEIDE: I freaked out. They had to let themselves in. I'm pretty sure they had to let themselves in because I was - I'm like - I knew what it was right away. (Crying) My mom was there, thank God. I'm so glad my mom was there.


G SMITH: The thing is, that Marine Corps officer in his dress blues - some of the things he tells Elena about her husband's death just aren't true. He says Robert was killed by enemy fire - shot by insurgents. Within days, she hears a different story from men in Rob's unit.

ZURHEIDE: And it wasn't officially - it wasn't official. It was, like, hey, by the way, this could be friendly fire.

G SMITH: With these conflicting stories, in a state of shock, Elena had a hard time accepting that Rob was really dead. She went to the homecoming when the battalion returned from Iraq, hoping maybe there'd been a mistake.

ZURHEIDE: (Crying) 'Cause, you know, you sit there and you think. You think of - like, there's been movies done about it. Oh, maybe he's doing a top-secret mission, and he's really - he's not dead. He's really alive in the back somewhere. Yes, oh, yes. I was there, partly to see if he would walk off the bus. He didn't, of course.

BOWMAN: She kept wondering. Those stories about a friendly fire - were they true? 2004 bled into 2005, then 2006. By the summer of 2007, Elena is back in Tucson, moving on with her life, when - a second knock on the door. This time, there was a general and a lawyer. They had paperwork, and they told her it was true - friendly fire.

ZURHEIDE: It took them three years.

BOWMAN: That's...

ZURHEIDE: That's three years too many. I mean, the guys were already back. And, kind of, life is moving on again. And then they are like, oh, we want to do - we want to tell you about the investigation.

BOWMAN: Did they say why it took so long? Did they say...

ZURHEIDE: We had to make a full investigation.

BOWMAN: Three years.

ZURHEIDE: Three years.

G SMITH: Did they say we're really sorry, there was a big screw-up?

ZURHEIDE: Oh, no. They didn't apologize. And they said nobody is getting punished for it.

G SMITH: I could...

ZURHEIDE: 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 something. Why are they keeping it such - why did they keep it a secret to begin with?

BOWMAN: You can hear Joey and Elena's boyfriend, John, there, rummaging around for that paperwork the lawyer gave her - the investigation we've come here desperate to find. It's called a JAGMAN. It's an investigative report written by a judge advocate general - a JAG. That's a military lawyer. The JAG writes a report based on the manual. So JAGMAN - kind of a weird name but, you know, typical Pentagon. Anyhow, we wondered if it was worth looking at her aunt's place.

G SMITH: So I just want to - do you - so do you - have you guys been able to talk to your aunt and say, like, hey; these guys are here?

ZURHEIDE: I just talked to her this morning. Where's my phone? Let me message her.

G SMITH: Maybe we can go to your aunt's house.

ZURHEIDE: No, we can't go to my aunt's house. We don't want to go to her house.

G SMITH: 'Cause it would be really important to see the...

ZURHEIDE: But I'm trying to get her to get the papers, so if I don't get them by the time you guys leave, I will have them - like, I'll just mail you the whole packet then.

G SMITH: Can I just go sleep in front of her house and just...

ZURHEIDE: (Laughter) I wish.

JOHN: I got one box to look in.


JOHN: No, I mean in the garage. I'll go look.

G SMITH: Yeah.

JOHN: I need your help 'cause I can't reach it.

JOEY: That's what I'm coming for.

G SMITH: But you came out of that meeting with the Marines with an idea in your head. Like, I kind of understand now what happened, and it was this.

ZURHEIDE: I still don't know what happened. I just know that one person screwed up, and now my life is forever changed - not just my life. I'm sorry. I take that back (crying). It's not just my life. It's my son's. He deserved his father, and now he doesn't have his dad. I've had to be Mom and Dad, and you know how that - hard that is? It's stupid. This isn't the life I signed up for. This isn't what I wanted. I married him. I married him for full intentions to spend the rest of my life with him.

G SMITH: It's got to be so hard and hard to kind of figure out how you honor that life and that commitment. And, you know...

ZURHEIDE: Well, exactly.

G SMITH: You've got John, and you've got, you know, your kids who you love, you know?

ZURHEIDE: Yeah, I do. I do love them. I just sometimes wish it was me instead of Robert.


G SMITH: Elena has a hard time talking about Robert, about these feelings. And she says in her experience, most people don't want to hear about it anyhow.

ZURHEIDE: Yeah, like, I drive for Uber. And it's like, people ask about your life, and you talk about your life, and then you get a bad review. It's like, well, then why did you ask about my life? It's like, I gave you a snippet of my life, and then you get a bad review. And quite honestly, I think it all boils down to people want to forget about it. I mean, this is Iraq we're talking about. We should have never been there to begin with. And so, I mean - but yet here my husband is dead for your freedom, and you guys don't care. Nobody cares.

G SMITH: How do you process that? I mean...

ZURHEIDE: You can't. I can't. I probably have all my mental health issues because of this. I can't even function having a normal job. I'm scared to death, with April coming up, I'm going to lose my job because I'm - something's going to happen, and I'm going to lose it.

BOWMAN: And then, from the other room, we hear Joey.

JOHN: ...Close if I remember...

JOEY: I found it.


JOHN: Did you?

JOEY: Yeah.

JOHN: Are you dead serious?

JOEY: Yeah.

ZURHEIDE: No, I don't think he did.


JOEY: No. Look. Marines - it says it.

ZURHEIDE: I'd be damned. The kid just found it.

JOHN: The kid found it. Where was it?

JOEY: It was in Mom's computer thing that doesn't have - the drawer that...

JOHN: I thought there was more in it than this.

JOEY: The drawer that doesn't have a handle.

JOHN: Casualties were caused by a friendly 81 millimeter round that was fired gun No. 1 out of an 80 millimeter mortar round - Platoon 2/1. I think this is all the stuff you guys want.

ZURHEIDE: Good job, Joey. We're proud of you.

JOEY: Do I get money?

BOWMAN: I wanted to buy that kid a pony and expense it. We'd been asking for this report, suing for this report. But the Marines said it didn't exist. They couldn't find it. Who came through? This little kid in Tucson. I started flipping through the report. It's 60 pages - kind of like a police report. A lot of names are blanked out, but it's right there - two Marine deaths, a dozen men wounded. All of it was caused by a Marine mortar. Not only that, but I can see Elena was right. Nobody was punished.

G SMITH: We'll be right back with TAKING COVER.

So talking with Elena, looking at this investigative report, this JAGMAN, we could already start filling in some of the names that were redacted.

Retired and he had to work. Hyunga and...

ZURHEIDE: Name is familiar.

G SMITH: ...John Smith...


G SMITH: ...And Costello.

ZURHEIDE: Costello I've heard.

BOWMAN: Costello. Remember that name. He's a Marine who was badly wounded in the explosion. We've been told he was struggling - drug addiction, in and out of rehab, prison time.

ZURHEIDE: Eleven total injured.

JOHN: What was Timmy's last name?

ZURHEIDE: No, 12 total injured and then the two that were killed.

G SMITH: Three killed.

ZURHEIDE: There were two. I was told two.

G SMITH: Two Marines. There was an Army interpreter.


JOHN: Damn, didn't know about that.

ZURHEIDE: That's new news to me.

BOWMAN: She's also surprised when we show her satellite maps of Fallujah today, even a close-up of the schoolhouse.

ZURHEIDE: Is it a school again?

G SMITH: Yeah.

ZURHEIDE: Because I would love to help out with the kids because, you know, they deserve an education.

G SMITH: Thank you so much for giving us...


G SMITH: ...So much your time.

ZURHEIDE: ...Thank you for...

G SMITH: And sorry to, you know, drag everything up...


G SMITH: ...You know. It's difficult, you know?

ZURHEIDE: ...You've got to drag the dirt up in order to - you've got to get past the pain to deal with it.


JOHN: Don't look back.

G SMITH: I'm going to run to...

ZURHEIDE: Enjoy the rain.

BOWMAN: Oh, man. Look at this now.

ZURHEIDE: Oh, God. It's coming down.

G SMITH: OK. Take care.

BOWMAN: All right, guys.



G SMITH: We call up our editor from the car.


G SMITH: Hey, Bob.

LITTLE: How are you doing?

G SMITH: Doing all right.

Tell him we finally got a copy of the report.

BOWMAN: And the guy overseeing that report who - the report was handed to this general, and that general said no, that everybody was tired, you're in the middle of combat. There was no dereliction of duty. There was no negligence here. So the person said, we're not going to basically discipline these guys. That guy was called Jim Mattis.

LITTLE: Oh, man. Come on.


LITTLE: Is he named in the report? Like, did he sign it?

G SMITH: He's the one who signed off on it.

BOWMAN: He signed the letter saying we're not going to discipline these lieutenants.

LITTLE: Oh, my God.

BOWMAN: You know, he did the same thing in Haditha, and that was even worse.

G SMITH: Quick history lesson. The Haditha massacre, it was November of 2005, the worst documented U.S. atrocity of the Iraq War. After a Marine got killed by a roadside bomb in this city west of Baghdad, his unit went on a rampage, killed 24 civilians, including women and children. After it came out in the press, several Marines were charged but only one was convicted and that was just for dereliction of duty. He was demoted. Some officers were disciplined, sent back to the U.S., but nobody spent a day in jail. General Mattis, the guy who becomes defense secretary under Trump, was in charge of the disciplinary process. Years later, he told The New Yorker, you can't criminalize every mistake. Bad things happen in war. And in our case, this friendly fire in Fallujah, it's that same Marine general, James Mattis, letting people off the hook.


BOWMAN: OK. Now, this report I'm looking at, it's full of witness statements and analysis. Now, here's the bottom line - the investigator finds two big mistakes. First, the officer who requested the mortar mission - that Lieutenant McCoy some of the guys mentioned - they said they heard he flipped coordinates, gave the schoolhouse as the target. It's plain in the JAGMAN, that's not true. But he is cited for a different failure. He failed to include two key words - danger close - meaning U.S. troops are dangerously close to the target. That would have alerted officers in the command center to pay extra close attention, to double-check, triple-check before deciding whether to approve the mission. The second big problem occurs inside that command center, the place where that checking is done. It's where Marines map out the battle space, where are the friendly units? Where is the enemy?

G SMITH: In this case, the command center is a room in an apartment building about a half-mile behind the schoolhouse. And in that room, according to the report, there's confusion between two young lieutenants about which one of them is responsible for approving the mortar mission. As they're discussing whether to fire the mortar, their boss, a lieutenant colonel, comes in to see how things are going. They tell him about the request from Echo Company and he asks, how close are friendlies? And here's that critical second mistake. One of the lieutenants gets confused, looks at a card for a different mortar mission, tells the battalion commander 400 meters. In reality, the barricade that they're trying to take out is just over 100 meters from the schoolhouse, about the length of a football field. And mortars, they're not precision weapons.


G SMITH: Anyhow, that lieutenant colonel, he approves the mission. The order is radioed down to the mortar pit, and moments later, a Marine there drops a mortar round into the tube. And that round, it sails up into the Iraqi sky and drops down, exploding near the picnic table in the courtyard at the schoolhouse.


BOWMAN: So the investigating captain turns in his report to his boss, a colonel named John Toolan, with a recommendation that both the officer who failed to specify danger close and the one who looked at the wrong information get letters of caution, basically a slap on the wrist.


BOWMAN: Colonel Toolan reads it, says that's not harsh enough. He recommends both of those men be charged with dereliction of duty, which could lead to dishonorable discharge or even prison time. Also, their commanding officer, the lieutenant colonel who came into the room and asked what was going on, Toolan said he should get a letter of caution for failing to staff the command center properly, leaving an overworked, inexperienced team in charge.

G SMITH: But the way it works in the military, Toolan doesn't have the final say. He passes his recommendations to his boss, General Mattis. And Mattis brushes all these recommendations aside, instead says there should be no punishment at all. He writes, the accounting has revealed the unique circumstances of friction, fear, fatigue and urgency. A series of small errors led to this event, but there was no criminal conduct.

BOWMAN: And then his boss, three-star General James Conway, the top Marine commander in Iraq, agrees, and so do his superiors the rest of the way up the chain. No punishment. It was all wrapped up in August, 2004, just four months after the explosion.

G SMITH: Reading all this gave us a better idea of what happened at the schoolhouse, even if it raised new questions about how it was handled by senior officers. And since we knew that none of the grunts we'd talked to had ever seen this JAGMAN investigation, we decided to share it with them. You might remember Bill Skiles. He told us about evacuating the casualties from the schoolhouse at night. We spent five hours sipping whiskey with him in his Marine room. He retired as a sergeant major, which is a big deal. It's basically the top enlisted rank.

BILL SKILES: Your JAGMAN opened my eyes. Danger close must be stated at all times. That means it must be triple checked by officers. Danger close - let's make sure. Let's make sure. No one mentioned triple checking that f****** COC. And look at that city. Are you kidding me? No danger close?


BOWMAN: Skiles says Captain Zembiec, the commander of Echo Company, always blamed that Lieutenant McCoy for making a bad decision, calling in a mortar so close to the Marines. But Zembiec died in 2007. And Skiles, he's certain that Zembiec never saw this report, never knew about the confusion in the command center.

SKILES: So I'm going to say this without any kind of remorse. Zembiec had never looked past McCoy. Never looked past McCoy. He doesn't know this. He doesn't know what happened at the battalion to bless that mission. So I know now. You guys provided me this. I never saw this.

BOWMAN: He's upset that he and Zembiec never saw the investigation even though it was completed while they were still in Iraq. This despite the fact that the investigator recommends the JAGMAN be shared with, quote, "all Marines within the fire support chain of command." Not only that, Skiles says they were ordered to keep quiet.

SKILES: Battalion said, you can't say a f****** thing to the parents until the investigation is over with. And no one ever told me, August, it was concluded. We just went about our business.

BOWMAN: Skiles doesn't understand why charges against the two lieutenants were dropped in the first place because, as the regimental commander Toolan wrote, procedures weren't followed.

SKILES: That statement alone...


SKILES: ...Is a fact why they should have been investigated. They're not criminals.

BOWMAN: Right. Right.

SKILES: But when I read this - General Toolan, procedures weren't followed. That's enough for an investigation not to be stopped...

BOWMAN: Right.

SKILES: ...By a three-star general or General Mattis.

BOWMAN: Right. Right.

SKILES: And that's what I'm disappointed in.

G SMITH: Another thing that surprises him - and we noticed this, too - it has to do with that Iraqi interpreter, the guy who nobody knew. A couple of days after the explosion, Skiles went and checked with the medical staff to see if the interpreter survived.

SKILES: And they said he died. I have no idea his name, but he deserves - we deserve to know somehow that that interpreter died in that compound, too. Nowhere in this f****** investigation you see that. That's a sin.


G SMITH: He's right. We've looked through this report over and over. And it's as if there was no interpreter killed. There's no mention. Why was he left out? It's hard to answer that question, seeing as Tom and I still can't even figure out who he was.

BOWMAN: Bill Skiles, he has a question for us, too.

SKILES: Two years. You've been on this case two years...


SKILES: ...And to find an answer. What answer are you looking for?

BOWMAN: What were we looking for? Well, the truth is, if we prove this allegation of a cover-up, it's a hell of a story. But the more we get to know these guys and their families, who were treated disgracefully, we want to be able to tell them the truth, the truth they were denied not just about what happened that day in Fallujah, but about why it was hidden for so long. We feel like we're getting closer to an answer. We'll be right back.


G SMITH: We told Sergeant Major Skiles about the congressional hearings in 2007 that forced the Marines to account for what happened. And Bill Skiles, he points out something that we've been thinking. About during those hearings, when the Marine Corps at first claimed no knowledge of this friendly fire incident, the guy running the entire Marine Corps was the same general who'd signed off on the investigation right after Mattis.

SKILES: The commandant was General Conway.

G SMITH: It was. That's right.

SKILES: The same guy that you see reading about here that knows exactly - he signed off on it. I'm sorry. I just want to connect the dots. So '07, the commandant had to know about April 12. He was a part of the investigation.

G SMITH: Think about it. Conway signed off on the investigation in 2004. Three years later, he's been promoted, and a general who worked for him stands before Congress and acts like it never happened. So why would Conway's Marine Corps withhold this information from the families of the dead Marines right up until they were called out by Congress?

BOWMAN: How do we explain this? Because we're looking at this - again, never told officially friendly fire, never told when the investigation wrapped up, right? And the only reason it appears they were told about the investigation was only because of another friendly fire death involving Pat Tillman. Pat Tillman was famous, a football player.

SKILES: And they covered that up, too, for a while. So that means Shuder and Zurheides are nobodies. But Tillman is a household name. We didn't know the truth about him. But Zurheides and Shuder - so when will - and I hate to say this. It's so long ago. And even this statement about next of kin will be notified, the wounded will be notified, injured will be notified - bulls***. The assumption on my part was that we did the right f****** thing at the higher levels. Who will ever take accountability to say, it's my fault, I apologize?

G SMITH: So what could explain all this, why they didn't do the right thing at the higher levels? Well, there's something we haven't told you yet about the tip.

BOWMAN: When we began this podcast, we told you how my source said this whole horrible incident had been covered up because a congressman's son was involved. Well, it wasn't just any congressman. It was Duncan Hunter. In 2004, Duncan Hunter, a Republican from San Diego and a former Army Ranger who fought in Vietnam, was the chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. That committee has a hand in just about every important aspect of the military - policy plans and especially money. His oversight duties took him to Iraq that spring.


DUNCAN L HUNTER: Having just returned from Iraq last week and visited the areas of Mosul, Balad, Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad, I can report that there are many more good things going on in that country to restore freedom and provide a modicum of democracy.

G SMITH: And the son? His name is also Duncan Hunter - at the time, Marine First Lieutenant Duncan Hunter. We hadn't wanted to name him until we confirmed he was involved in the friendly fire. Now, with this report in our hands, we have. The younger Duncan Hunter had his own political career. He won his father's House seat when the old man ran for president, the first Iraq combat veteran to serve in Congress. You may have heard he made big news a few years later.


AILSA CHANG: Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California is facing federal charges. The Justice Department announced last night that it had indicted Hunter and his wife for converting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal use and falsifying campaign finance records.

G SMITH: Here he is on Fox News. He's certainly not taking the blame.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: You also said yesterday that your wife handled a lot of the family expenses and the campaign finances, so are you saying that it's more her fault than your fault?

DUNCAN D HUNTER: Well, I'm saying when I went to Iraq in 2003 the first time, I gave her power of attorney, and she handled my finances throughout my entire military career. And that continued on when I got into Congress. So - and she was also the campaign manager. So whatever she did on that will be looked at too, I'm sure. But I didn't do it. I didn't spend any...

BOWMAN: And he said all these accusations were purely political.


DUNCAN D HUNTER: I'm not resigning. I'm not going to resign with a bunch of leftist government folks throwing allegations at me.

BOWMAN: Well, that may be what he told NPR member station KPBS, but he did resign and pleaded guilty to a felony for conspiracy to steal campaign funds. He used that money to finance travel, his kids' tuition and a number of affairs. He was pardoned by President Trump - so was his wife, Margaret - just before Trump left office. But before all that, back in April 2004, Duncan Hunter Jr. was a first lieutenant in Fallujah in the operation center when that mortar was called in. We told you before that there was confusion in that room between two lieutenants. He was one of them.


G SMITH: In his statement in the investigation, Hunter says he had no responsibility for the friendly fire. He writes that he was just - and this is the term he used - bird-dogging - in other words, working with another officer to learn the job, although he then describes doing every aspect of the job - plotting the coordinates and marking the target on a map. But, he says, he didn't make the final call.

BOWMAN: That other officer tells a different story. According to Lieutenant Ben Deda, quote, "1st Lieutenant Hunter was the fires watch officer. This was 1st Lieutenant Hunter's first time as acting fires watch officer." So what Deda is saying is the congressman's son wasn't just training. He was actually doing the job of plotting and approving mortar fire.

G SMITH: Nevertheless, Deda describes a scramble after check fire was called, and the radio crackles, second platoon got hit, and they took a lot of casualties. Deda describes looking at the maps, the cards - was that us? How could this have happened? In his statement, he writes, if I had paused, taken the time to go through all the steps myself, I would not have cleared that mission, and the mortar would not have caused friendly casualties.

BOWMAN: Deda beats himself up. And though the investigation concludes that there was no clear understanding between Deda and Hunter about who is responsible for clearing mortar missions, he cites Deda for failure to follow procedures. And Duncan Hunter, though he was clearly involved, is never singled out for punishment.

G SMITH: We tried to get a hold of Deda for two years. Emails, messages - no replies. I finally got through just once.


BEN DEDA: Hi. This is Ben.

G SMITH: Hey, Ben. My name is Graham Smith. I'm a producer at NPR, and I've been working...


BOWMAN: It's clear Ben Deda isn't going to talk about it - not with us.

G SMITH: We wanted to know what to make of this report, this JAGMAN, from a legal perspective. And I happened to find the perfect person.

So let me introduce you guys. You haven't met before, I think. You've probably heard Tom, but...


G SMITH: His name is Mick Wagoner. I tell Tom he's a retired lieutenant colonel who worked for more than two decades as a Marine lawyer.

So Mick and I - when I was - Tom, when we first started digging into this thing, and I honestly didn't really even know what a JAGMAN was so much, I did, you know, a bunch of searching around, and - looking for somebody who had been a Marine JAG, and I came across Mick, who does work with veterans.

Not only was he a Marine JAG, Mick Wagoner was with 2/1 in 2003. He investigated one of the first U.S. losses in the Iraq War - that Marine whose death inspired the first cross on Horno Ridge at Camp Pendleton, Jose Gutierrez. Turns out his death was because of friendly fire too.

BOWMAN: We sent Wagoner a copy of the JAGMAN ahead of time. He took a close look at it.

WAGONER: Technically, I think it was proficient, especially for the gun part and the shoot part and the sequencing of the firing. I think that was right.

BOWMAN: But Wagoner wonders why commanders didn't send a JAG, or at least a higher-ranking officer, to do the investigation. This captain was an artillery officer, not a lawyer.

WAGONER: He's, like, a subject matter expert, but he's not an investigations expert. And that's what the lawyers should have been there to do 'cause the first thing I think of is, oh, s***, this is bad. You better have some answers because it's going to come downhill quick. Send the lawyer out. That's what we're supposed to be doing there in the first place.

G SMITH: That meant the scope of the inquiry was mostly technical. It didn't delve into root causes like why did the Marines even ask for a mortar?

WAGONER: There's so much more that you should be asking on those questions of...

G SMITH: Interesting.

WAGONER: ...I mean, if the enemy's that close and you just zapped yourself - you know, he says it's, like, 200 yards away, and they see them building. Why aren't they shooting them? I don't know why they're not engaging guys that are clearly doing a hostile act. You know, there's hostile intent there.

BOWMAN: It could have been direct fire easily.


G SMITH: But what about the other piece - the congressman's son?

BOWMAN: Clearly, *****

BOWMAN: ***** if this had come out back in 2004, that the son of the chair of the House Armed Services Committee was involved in a deadly friendly fire accident, that would have been big news. Even if he denied any responsibility, even if the report avoided citing him, it would have been an embarrassment for the Marines and the White House at a time when public support for the war is already waning and the president is running for reelection. So we ask what Wagoner makes of Duncan Hunter's involvement. Is that why it took congressional hearings to force the Marines to admit to the friendly fire?

WAGONER: The Marine Corps, of course, we like to be the best at everything, right? That's kind of our shtick. What we're not good at is bad news. When we've got bad news and we know it - I agree with your suspicions. They were protecting Duncan Hunter, protecting the Marine Corps from potential bad blood with his dad at the time. They knew who he was.

BOWMAN: But that's your gut telling you.

WAGONER: That's my gut that tells me that. Because they, you know, in essence, as a defense attorney, I mean, they barfed all over themselves and said, hey, we were wrong. We did this. Where the break really happens, where the screw-up happens, is the notification piece on down. I mean, that is one of the ethos of the Marines. Like, we tell the truth no matter how much it hurts. And this is not one of those cases where we've done that as well as we should have. But that's just - we do not lie to our Marines. I mean, that's one of those - we owe them that as an organization that f'ed them up, that we tell them the truth, and you tell...

BOWMAN: Not only that, it's in the Marine Corps hymn.

WAGONER: Yeah, it's in our motto. It's in our motto, semper fidelis - always faithful. And faithful means, you know, know your troops and look out for their welfare. And their welfare isn't just when they have the uniforms on. That's crap.

G SMITH: It is crap. These guys, the guys we've been getting to know, the grunts, they deserve answers. If there was an effort to protect Duncan Hunter or protect the Marine Corps, who was behind it? We've finally got a copy of this report, but there are still missing pieces. We need to talk to Duncan Hunter - well, both of them - and all those generals who signed off on the investigation. But we also have other reporting to do. There's this guy who was wounded at the schoolhouse, David Costello. He's been really hard to track down. Some of the other guys even thought he was dead. He's not, and we talked to him. Turns out, he has his own copy of the report with some new details.

BOWMAN: And he tells us some disturbing stories about that deployment...

DAVID COSTELLO: She unfortunately is not alive anymore because I shot her.

BOWMAN: ...And about coming home. Remember what Mick Wagoner said - know your troops and look out for their welfare.

COSTELLO: First time I ever did heroin was in the VA hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. I was in there trying to get help, and this guy goes, come with me. Took me in the bathroom. There was a guy acting like he was cleaning. He would act like he was cleaning the mirror all day long. And no matter who came in, he would sell him heroin.

BOWMAN: That's next time on TAKING COVER.


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


G SMITH: We have production help from Nic Neves. Our music comes from the Humpmuscle Rolling Circus, including Ted Ehlers, Jim Rioux and Dean Clegg. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and me, with help from Nic. This episode was engineered by Josh Newell. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom.

BOWMAN: 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. We'd like to thank reporters Jane Arraf and Tony Perry, who were in Fallujah during the spring of 2004 and have helped us along the way; also, our colleagues, Margaret Price and Daniel Estrin. And this week, we'd like to especially thank Jessica Hansen, who has helped us and dozens of NPR hosts and reporters as a vocal coach. She made us sound wicked better.

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