Fallujah attack leaves a Marine veteran with PTSD : Taking Cover As Tom and Graham work to track down the men in the courtyard, one of the wounded Marines has long remained elusive. His former comrades wonder if he's even still alive. Eventually, with help from Carlos, the team finds David. His chilling story reflects the lingering wounds of war.

Finding David

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Before we begin, we want you to know that this podcast contains graphic and disturbing descriptions of war and strong language.


So usually we start each episode with a few clips, voices you've heard, previously on. Today, we want to remind you of a moment that's tugged at us from our second episode. It's something that Ben Liotta, the Navy corpsman, told us as he was describing the chaos in the schoolhouse after the mortar hit. It's something he said about a specific Marine. We've mentioned his name a couple of times, and he's at the heart of this episode - David Costello.

BEN LIOTTA: Costello was screaming, cursing, wanting to f***ing 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***ed him up.

BOWMAN: And it's what he said there at the end about how it carried on afterwards that stayed with us. What did Liotta mean by that? And Doc Liotta is not the only one who told us this about Costello, that he was having a really hard time. When the mortar hit, we've been told Costello was telling a joke by the picnic table in the courtyard. Guys said he felt like it was his fault that so many people were standing there at that moment - that moment Rob Zurheide and Brad Shuder died.


SMITH: It seems like everyone feels, on some level, that they were to blame. It's those what-ifs. Lieutenant Wagner wishing he hadn't given Rob Zurheide a carton of Kool menthols to smoke. Doc Watt wondering if he should have stopped using the red lights earlier as he tended to the wounded. And it goes beyond what happened at the schoolhouse. Doc Liotta - that whole deployment - it not only gave him PTSD...

LIOTTA: My spirituality was destroyed in Iraq. It's taken me decades to come back to a place I could find, like, as a reasonable spiritual existence, you know. Yeah. I think my soul took the most damage out there.

SMITH: And Doc Liotta, he's not even a trigger-puller. He's a healer.

LIOTTA: My fall from religion was rough. And it was hard coming home and hearing people be like, you know, God protected you, like, God sent his angels to protect you. And it's like, well, that's bull****. Because either he protected me or he chose to kill Shuder. And I don't believe it works like that. Like, I don't think God's out there, like, you die, you don't die. You know, like, it doesn't really add the f*** up.

BOWMAN: Now, David Costello was a trigger-puller. We learned Costello was in prison for a time, got deep into drugs. Guys kept telling us he'd be good to talk with, but even they didn't know how to get a hold of him.

CARLOS GOMEZ PEREZ: We all tried to still keep in touch, but I lost all contact with him. And all of us lost contact with him completely.

SMITH: That's Carlos Gomez-Perez, the Silver Star recipient. He stays in touch with a lot of these guys. And he told us, for a time, he wondered if Costello was dead.

GOMEZ PEREZ: He was suffering a lot more survivor's guilt at the time than I was, or our levels were different. We're both struggling with survivor's guilt - difference was that he actually saw Shuder die. He saw Shuder take his last breath.

BOWMAN: After we started digging into this story, Carlos decided to drive out from his home in San Diego to Ohio, where David's parents lived, see if he was OK. Carlos found him recently out of rehab. They hung out for a few days, and Carlos told us he got him back in touch with some of the other guys, too.

SMITH: He also told us some surprising news. Unlike every other grunt we'd talked with, Costello did get a visit from the Marine Corps, informing him about the friendly fire. It was three years after the investigation closed, but David had a copy of the report. The one we've been suing the Marines for. Why? What had they told him? Elena Zurheide - the widow - her copy had a lot of information blanked out, but Costello was in the schoolhouse, got seriously wounded. Maybe the copy they gave him had more information. Anyhow, for a while, we just had to wonder, because Carlos, like we said, he looks out for these guys. He was worried. He knew David was just out of rehab, that he might not be stable enough to talk with us about the war. And he was so worried that he wouldn't even ask him. Not yet. Until Carlos knew that David was stable, we would have to wait in limbo.


BOWMAN: In every war, you hear about guys who've survived combat coming home deeply troubled. Today, they call it PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder. In the past, they talked about Vietnam syndrome, battle fatigue, shell shock. After the Civil War, soldier's heart. In this episode, as we're working to figure out what happened with the friendly fire, why and how the truth was hidden, we're starting to learn from David Costello and the men of Echo 2/1 how the wounds of this war, sometimes they're hidden, too. I'm Tom Bowman.

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


BOWMAN: We went out to San Diego recently near Camp Pendleton because that's where the Marines of Echo Company were based, and many of them ended up settling down. Also, we wanted to talk with Duncan Hunter, the congressman's son. He and his father both represented this area. And he still lives here at his dad's house.


BOWMAN: We wanted to ask him what happened and what he did in the operations center. We couldn't get a response. Our plan was to go knock on his door, but it turned out he was out of town. So we kind of struck out there. But we wrote up a letter with a series of questions and later had it hand-delivered to him.

SMITH: Still, we had a lot of reporting left to do on the tragedy. And beyond that, we just felt a growing obligation to share the report with these guys who've already told us so much about their experiences, guys like Chris Covington. You might remember he was Rob Zurheide's best friend, told us he got his bell rung when an RPG flew through a window and into a room at the schoolhouse where he was positioned on April 12. And he was the one who first told Elena Zurheide the truth about how Rob died and got reprimanded for it. Chris lives with his family in Tijuana these days. We wanted to tell him what we were learning. He'd heard early on that the explosion was friendly fire, but he never saw any Marine report.

CHRIS COVINGTON: Again, I mean, 2004 - here we are 18 years later. I never even knew they had done a full investigation until we started talking. And if you look at how hard it was for you guys to get this, can you imagine how hard it would have been for someone that was there to walk in and say, hey, I need the official version? Like...

SMITH: And even when the shooters and Elena were jumping up and down saying like, we want to know what happened...

COVINGTON: They don't...

SMITH: They didn't...


SMITH: Back then, Chris was so angry about what happened at the schoolhouse, he began having discipline problems. He ended up leaving the Marines and joining the Army, did some tours in Afghanistan.

COVINGTON: For a long time, I couldn't figure out if I felt guilty about it, or it was survivor's guilt because I went down three times in 2 1/2 months. And I'm - a couple scars, you know? But, like, I'm in one piece, whereas the majority of my friends got hit once, and they were in pieces. So that ate at me for a long time.

BOWMAN: He says he's largely past that now, but there's something else he just can't shake. It's a nightmare about a girl.

COVINGTON: There is an instance where I had to shoot at someone that shouldn't have had to be shot but was being used as a shield. And she was probably 15, 16. And the guy behind her really needed to be put down. That stayed with me.

BOWMAN: And what happened?

COVINGTON: I did it. And that always bugged me because it was one of those things. It made me angry that somebody else forced me into a position to hurt somebody that didn't need to be hurt.


BOWMAN: The shame, this remorse over something you did in the chaos of combat - in military circles, they talk about it as a moral injury. Losing a leg, losing an eye - that's one kind of wound. But it's not the only kind, maybe not even the deepest. There's no prosthetic to replace the piece of you that was lost. You might mask the pain with a pill or alcohol for a time. But these unseen wounds - they linger. Some Marines find solace sitting with their buddies, sharing stories, talking it out. For Covington, that's not really his thing.

COVINGTON: You know, I - when a lot of the guys get together, a lot of them get angry. Or they'll go into depressions. And I get it. Like, I do understand the depth of feelings there. You know, that kid was my best friend in the world. But I'm not doing him any favors by running around 20 years later acting like an a**hole about it. I'm doing him a favor by treating my wife right and raising my kids right.

SMITH: How to crawl out of the darkness, how to find a path to the rest of your life after war - some guys never do. Echo 2/1 lost a man to suicide a couple of years back, and others have just fallen off the map, guys like David Costello. We told you how for months, Carlos didn't want to bring up the idea of talking with us to Costello because he was worried he was too fragile, might relapse. Well, one day we got a message from Carlos.

GOMEZ PEREZ: Hey, good afternoon. Good afternoon. How you doing? I talked to David, and he said that, yes, he would not mind talking to you. He's like, I don't have to talk to him today, but, yeah, I don't mind it at all. I'm actually going to forward you some messages.


DAVID COSTELLO: And regarding the reporter, I don't have to talk to him today, but I do want to talk to him, you know, sometime, you know, in a little bit. But I definitely want to talk to him. It's not about me at all. It's just about the families that were lied to, man, especially, like, Brad's family. Man, that just - that really pisses me off, that they would be so spineless. I mean, people need to know the truth, and I think that'll take a load off me. That'll make me feel better, a lot better, knowing that, that people will know the truth.


SMITH: Check. One, two. OK, so this is rolling. So I'm with Tom. We are in the outskirts of Cleveland.

BOWMAN: Now, this is real country out here.

SMITH: Yeah. A place...

BOWMAN: Fields and barns and chickens running around.

SMITH: Wow. That's a big pile of wood. Holy moly.

BOWMAN: We'd heard from the corpsman how Costello's legs were torn up by the mortar fragments, wounds so bad he had to be medically retired. That was just the start of a very dark period for him.

SMITH: So we're looking for 10703. Say (ph) walk by faith, not by sight - 10703. Here we go.

BOWMAN: Is this it?


BOWMAN: This is it.

SMITH: Beautiful old brick house.


SMITH: Hey, it's David.

BOWMAN: Hey there. How are you?


SMITH: Hey, David. What a pleasure to meet you, man.

D COSTELLO: You too. Nice to see...

SMITH: How are you?


SMITH: Great to see you.

D COSTELLO: Yeah. How was your guys' flight?

BOWMAN: It was perfect, like an hour up and down.

D COSTELLO: Yeah, I bet.

BOWMAN: From D.C., it's pretty short.

D COSTELLO: I have material you wanted. Remember the paperwork?

SMITH: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

D COSTELLO: I have three different things.

SMITH: Cool.

D COSTELLO: I didn't know I had that. I have a bunch of stuff on the table if you guys want to see it.

BOWMAN: We had about three hours to spend with him before we'd have to head back to the airport. We weren't prepared for just how much he had to share with us.

D COSTELLO: This is my mother, Pam (ph).


BOWMAN: We meet David's parents, his girlfriend, Tiffany. We all walk into the dining room, where the table is covered in memorabilia - newspaper clippings, Iraqi money.

D COSTELLO: I have a flag back there. This is all Brad's stuff. I took it from him when he passed away. I grabbed his lighter. He loved this lighter. It was just glasses and stuff. This is...

BOWMAN: This is rosary beads, too.

SMITH: I'm going to grab my other microphone and stuff, then.

D COSTELLO: Go ahead.

BOWMAN: There's a framed portrait of David on the table, too. He's in his dress blues, lean, square-jawed. He's changed a lot since then. His face is more round. His eyes focus off in the distance at times. There's a slight tremor in his hand as he picks up a black Army beret and a red-and-white-checkered headscarf.

D COSTELLO: This is the first Iraqi army guy I killed, so I took his beret (ph). This was the second one. So I kept his...


D COSTELLO: I took his thing, too. And here's a flag. You can go in there if...

SMITH: Yeah, I'm just trying to figure out...

D COSTELLO: These are the documents you wanted. I'm sorry I didn't get them to you sooner. But...


D COSTELLO: ...I have three.

SMITH: He hands me a sheaf of papers. It's the JAGMAN. Looks a lot like what Elena gave us but much thinner.

D COSTELLO: I don't know if you've seen this.

SMITH: I've seen some of this.

D COSTELLO: I had no clue because a colonel came to my house - I think it was August 2007. And he was like, hush-hush about this. Don't talk about it. Yeah.

BOWMAN: It makes no sense.

D COSTELLO: Yeah. He said, don't talk about it. I mean, we went through all this stuff.

BOWMAN: Do you remember who it was or where he was from? Was he from, like, Quantico or...

D COSTELLO: He was from Camp Pendleton.

BOWMAN: Oh, Pendleton. OK.

D COSTELLO: He was a JAG officer, and...

P COSTELLO: Did he sign any papers?

D COSTELLO: I don't remember.

P COSTELLO: Oh, I didn't know.

D COSTELLO: You guys were here when...

P COSTELLO: Oh, yeah. I remember him...

D COSTELLO: I was arguing with him. I'm like, this didn't happen. You know, this didn't happen. That's not how it happened.

BOWMAN: You don't recall his name or...




BOWMAN: That's weird.

D COSTELLO: It is weird. I can't find anyone else that he went to, and I don't know why they came to me.

SMITH: We can see at a glance that there is information in this version that was missing in Elena's - the map coordinates of the mortar request, some casualty reports. But there are also large sections blanked out on his that weren't blanked out on hers, all the stuff about punishments.

BOWMAN: David tells us he was frustrated having this officer, this lawyer, try to explain to him what had happened.

D COSTELLO: I was there. You know, I watched everybody die. You know what I mean? I saw it all - the explosion, everything. I got wounded. I watched John lose his leg, John Smith. I saw it all, you know? And also Jose Gutierrez. I saw that.

SMITH: He's talking about that first Marine who was killed by friendly fire just moments after the invasion started in '03. We can see David's got a big tattoo on his left forearm of an angel. The scroll rolling around it says R.I.P. Jose Gutierrez.

D COSTELLO: You guys can take a seat. I can move some of this stuff.

BOWMAN: Graham and I sit at the table with David. His parents and girlfriend are just a little farther away, sitting in straight-back chairs.

SMITH: Can you just talk to us a little bit, like, early on? Like, when did you join?

D COSTELLO: Oh, sure, sure.


D COSTELLO: I'll tell you. In, like, the second grade, my mom was called into the school right down the road. And the teacher told her that I was an idiot, that I was stupid and that I would be a trash man if I was lucky. I'd never be able to read. So I was traumatized by that. I had no confidence in anything. I had no confidence.

BOWMAN: And why the Marines? Why the infantry?

D COSTELLO: I wanted to see if I could do it, if I was - you know, if I was strong enough to do it.


D COSTELLO: I think I signed up in late August of 2001, and I was upstairs. My mom was yelling at me. And she's like, you got to see this. And I walked downstairs, and I just saw the second plane hit the towers. And I was like, oh, s***, you know, I'm going to war. You know what I mean?

BOWMAN: He found he was strong enough to do it. He thrived on the discipline and the camaraderie. He got through training, ended up at Camp Pendleton, assigned to Echo 2/1 and, a year later, was ordered into Iraq by President Bush, who was intent on overthrowing the government of Saddam Hussein. But Costello's first day of war - it wasn't what he was prepared for.

D COSTELLO: It was the first day of the Iraq War. And everybody's shooting at us and all this stuff. And there was a house in front of us, and there was a family. It was a daughter, a mom and two boys. And this guy starts running at me, and he's yelling all this stuff. I don't know what to do. And he got closer and closer, and he started reaching for something.

SMITH: Costello says his sergeant gave him an order.

D COSTELLO: Taped me on the shoulder and said, light him up, finally. Yeah. And I shot him. And when I went up to him, he had a - he was pulling for - he had a handkerchief, a white handkerchief. And he was pulling for it to say, that's my family - what I gathered from it. And then I looked at the family, and I can't forget their faces.

BOWMAN: Describe what you saw with the family.

D COSTELLO: The wife was looking at me just stone cold. And the kids' just faces were just - they didn't move. They, like, froze. And they were just - you know, they just looked petrified.

BOWMAN: What was running through your head when this was all going on?

D COSTELLO: I - honestly, there was nothing going through my head. Everything was, like, slowed down, kind of. And I was not thinking about anything but what was going on at the time.

BOWMAN: Did it seem real to you? Was it...


BOWMAN: Or, like, I'm in my own war movie, and this isn't happening?

D COSTELLO: It did not seem real at all. Not at all.

SMITH: We get it. Hearing stories like this, an innocent man being killed in front of his family - it's hard. It was hard for us, hard to know what to make of it, too. We wanted to give him the space to tell his story. But, of course, journalistically, we'd have to check the story with others. And we did, ran David's account by Marines who were with him that day. They told us they didn't see him shoot this farmer, didn't remember hearing about it at the time. But they told us the Marines were jumpy that first day, and there was a lot of gunfire. Squads got spread out. It was messy. They could see something like this happening. Plus, well, it's hard to account for how memory works during a traumatic episode, trying to make sense of the jumble in the aftermath.

BOWMAN: To be clear, it wasn't just chaotic for the Marines. It was confusing, often deadly for Iraqi civilians caught in the path of the invasion and in the crossfire of the occupation. More than 200,000 would die in the course of the war. That's not the picture Americans were seeing on the TV as the troops crossed into Iraq. They saw the shock and awe of airstrikes, the orderly lines of tanks rolling up the highway towards Baghdad, not the chaos of invading a country.

D COSTELLO: And then we get into - I got into another firefight. And that's the second time I shot somebody. We came up to a fortified position. It was Iraqi soldiers. And a guy popped out, and I shot him. And that's what - actually, he was wearing that.

BOWMAN: Oh, the scarf here?


SMITH: Man, that's a lot of...


SMITH: That's a lot of heavy stuff to carry around.

D COSTELLO: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah. But I have to get it off my chest. I realized the other stuff I've talked about - I feel better than ever about stuff because I've just talked about it so much and with therapy and all that, you know? I mean, even when I was using heroin, when I was addicted to heroin, I was still going to therapy and stuff like that. And I still do. And that helped. That helped a lot. And - but I always felt alone because I would go into these groups, and this guy would be like, I got shot at once. And I'd say, oh, a rocket went over my head. And I'm like, we had rocket shadow over our head every single day, multiple times a day. You know, it was nothing to me. And I just felt like I didn't belong.

SMITH: It was like there was nobody else who could...


SMITH: ...Relate to your experience.

D COSTELLO: So I thought I was the only one. And I was so ashamed that I was using drugs that I could not - Carlos Gomez kept trying to reach me, and I just - I couldn't talk to him. I just couldn't.

BOWMAN: Listening to David Costello, I couldn't help but think there are echoes here. There's a book about World War II called "Goodbye, Darkness." It's a memoir by William Manchester, who was also a Marine. A quote from the preamble has always stayed with me about how he tried to cope with his combat experiences, the friends he lost and the shame and remorse over the lives he took. I have another drink, he writes. And then I learn for the hundredth time that you can't drown your troubles - not the real ones - because if they are real, they can swim.


BOWMAN: We'll be right back with TAKING COVER.


SMITH: We paused the interview for lunch. The Costellos laid out cold cuts and chips. David - he's funny, kind of self-effacing. He lights up when he sees his 11-year-old daughter just back from school.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then you're done now.

SMITH: No, not quite. We're taking a quick break.

D COSTELLO: We're just taking a little break.

P COSTELLO: Just a break. Here's salami.

D COSTELLO: How was school?



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It wasn't terrible.

D COSTELLO: I thought you said it was good.

P COSTELLO: Here's some mayonnaise.

D COSTELLO: Got me Swiss cheese.

P COSTELLO: There's this stuff I have.

SMITH: It's delicious. Thank you very much.

Eating sandwiches and macaroni salad together after hearing these stories - it was kind of surreal.

BOWMAN: When you've spent enough time around people who've been in combat, whether they're in your family or you get to know them covering war, you learn there are some questions you avoid. They're almost too personal, too intimate. These guys already get the big one from the school kids who don't know better or the joker at a bar who doesn't care. So did you kill anyone?

P COSTELLO: I just opened...


P COSTELLO: I just bought that.

SMITH: Oh. It's this drink...

P COSTELLO: So it's...

BOWMAN: We never asked, but we could see it was important to David to tell these stories.

D COSTELLO: Amish cheese.

P COSTELLO: Yeah. Here we go.

BOWMAN: So you said it was one of the biggest Amish areas.

D COSTELLO: Yeah, the biggest Amish community in the world.

P COSTELLO: Thank you.

BOWMAN: We look at the clock. We have a flight to catch.

SMITH: If we want to be there at 5, we should leave here at 4. So we have another hour, which is good because I think we have a lot more to talk about.

BOWMAN: When we sit back down, we want to hear about David's second deployment, the one to Fallujah. He and his best friend had a bad feeling right from the start.

D COSTELLO: I knew that we were screwed. I just had this feeling we were screwed, and I never had anxiety before. And - but...

BOWMAN: Where did that feeling come from? Was it something you read in the paper? Was it something you heard? Was it just...

D COSTELLO: It wasn't anything like that. I just - I knew it was not going to be the same. And if - Brad Shuder - the same way we were talking. You know, some of us aren't coming back this time. I remember having that talk.

SMITH: So can you talk about, like, going into Fallujah?

BOWMAN: And was there a plan, or just - seep into the city?

D COSTELLO: We were trying to get to the center of the city and take it over. That was the - what I was told was the mission.

SMITH: He told us about early April, about getting ambushed on their first day pushing into the city. John Smith - remember; he was one of the Twin Towers and one of the guys who had never been informed that this was a friendly fire by the Marine Corps - he had told us about this patrol when they took their first casualties.

D COSTELLO: Now, this is the first patrol in the city we've done. We're finally in the city. Now we do a patrol. And shortly after that, you know, we're taking fire. Things are getting blown up.

SMITH: John had an interesting take on that. He said he always remembers there was, like, a little girl, he said, who was pointing sort of down...


SMITH: ...Around. And he's like, you know, I never know - and I'll never know, was she trying to warn us?

D COSTELLO: I've told him...

SMITH: Was she...

D COSTELLO: ...Multiple times.

SMITH: ...Like, indicating that we were there so that the bad guys could be ready for us?

D COSTELLO: Yeah. Yeah. She, unfortunately, is not alive anymore because I shot her. She was pointing at us and looking back and looking at us. And then a mortar or - not a mortar but a rocket comes right by - I mean, right by me - almost blew another guy up. And she's gone. And then I see her again. And that's when I shot because she was telling them where to shoot these rockets.

SMITH: John Smith - he never mentioned this girl being shot. We later called him and some other Marines who were on the patrol. None of the men were aware of the girl having been killed. But, again, they said the squad was spread out. And in the middle of the firefight, they couldn't always see what the others were doing.

BOWMAN: Costello says the platoon commander, Ben Wagner - remember, he's the one who had been watching for the mortar to drop and hit the tire barricade and was stunned when it landed in the school courtyard - he sometimes chewed the guys out for being too aggressive.

D COSTELLO: And he's ripping our ass, and we're explaining to him, you know, we're getting shot at. But then the staff sergeant was really cool, and he's like, I'm going to call you Diablo. He goes, I don't care if they have a f****** broom. He was like, you shoot them. And I listened to him. I did not listen to Lieutenant Wagner.

BOWMAN: This patrol came after the American contractors were killed by a mob, their bodies burned and strung up from a bridge, when the Marines have been ordered to go teach the insurgents a lesson. And then, after some Iraqi leaders balk at the violence, comes the cease-fire.

D COSTELLO: When I heard that, basically, they said there's a cease-fire. We can no longer engage, and we're staying at this school, and we're not moving.

BOWMAN: What did you think about that?

D COSTELLO: I thought it was absolute bulls***. Everybody thought it was bulls***.

BOWMAN: And what were they told?

D COSTELLO: We were told that it was election time, and that was the problem, that they didn't want a huge conflict blowing up when it was election time like that. That's what I was told...

SMITH: You're talking about the American...

D COSTELLO: Yeah. That's what I was told. I don't know if that's the truth or not. But that's the information I got.

BOWMAN: So it's April 12. They're hunkered down at that schoolhouse.

SMITH: I think I actually have, like, a satellite picture.

D COSTELLO: Oh, cool.

SMITH: Thanks. Isn't that crazy that you can, like...

D COSTELLO: Yeah. That is really crazy. I never thought I would see that again. Wow.

SMITH: And you can really see the sort of...

D COSTELLO: There's the hole in it. Oh, my God. Can you see this, Dad? Remember how I told you there was a hole in it, the ceiling?


SMITH: He remembers hanging out with his buddies in the courtyard, going to stand to.

D COSTELLO: See the hole in the building?


D COSTELLO: It's like a square. And when they launched that mortar, it hit - boom. I mean, one out of a million shot. And I know they were trying to hit here. So when it hit, these three guys - this is why I have really bad survivor's guilt - they took the brunt of it, and I only got it on my left side. And - well, anyways, I fall. Everybody falls. I just - I saw Brad's chest - or his legs and his stomach just open up in my face. It just blew up in my face. I'm covered in his blood, his guts. I'm picking pieces of skull out of my mouth. I'm laying on the ground. I don't know whose it is. And I hear screaming. And I look over to my left, and that's when John was going apes***. He was going apes*** because he lost his legs, you know? And he's just screaming. And when he was screaming in the hospital and I was there, it haunts me. It still haunts me. I still hear it.


SMITH: I want to go just a little bit back in the day. Was there a picnic table?

D COSTELLO: There was, and I have a picture of me sitting in it right before it happened.

SMITH: I think John told me that he - like, one of the reasons that you carry around so much is that, like, you were telling those guys a joke.

D COSTELLO: I was telling them a joke. I told them a joke, and everybody was laughing, and then boom - the explosion went off. And all I can remember is them all smiling and laughing and having this great moment and then chaos a second later. Everybody's dead. And I definitely feel like if I wouldn't maybe have said that, you know, maybe that wouldn't have happened.

BOWMAN: What was the joke?

D COSTELLO: I don't remember. I don't remember (laughter). I wish I did. I don't remember. But what was kind of cool, I did see them all smile, everybody. It wasn't my last memory of them but maybe the last memory of them with at least Zurheide alive.

BOWMAN: We've heard how David and the others were loaded onto Humvees, taken to a field trauma hospital just outside Fallujah.

D COSTELLO: I know, somehow, when we got to the hospital 45 minutes later, I took this from him and the lighter. He was obsessed with the lighter. He wanted me to have a lighter. And I was holding his hand, and then the next thing I know, we're both on the operating table, and I'm holding his hand, and he just died. And then I went out.


D COSTELLO: I didn't walk for - well, I was on wheelchair for a year and then crutches for a year. They were going to amputate my leg. I just fought with them for, like, six months. I was like, you're not going to take it. Oh, we're going to take it. I said, no, no. And they got sick of me after six months. And the whole time, they're just shooting me full of morphine and throwing more pills at me. And I didn't know I had PTSD because I was on these pain pills, and when I stopped - because it seemed like it cured everything. And when I was off them, all that s*** came and hit me.

SMITH: And now, at what moment - I don't know if you remember. But, like, when did you learn that it was friendly?

D COSTELLO: I think in the hospital. And I was very embarrassed about it, and then for a long time, I didn't tell anybody. I was so pissed. It just - that's not supposed to happen, and it did, and it was so screwed up. And I don't know. I know people make mistakes, but that's a mistake you can't make.

SMITH: He hadn't seen the JAGMAN report at this point, but he felt certain he knew the truth by the time he and a couple other Marines visited his friend Brad Shuder's family later that year.

D COSTELLO: When I went to the door, there was a black rose. I'll never forget that black rose. And their faces when they opened the door were just, you know - I can't even describe it. They were so depressed. And we told them what happened. And his mom was beating on my chest. Like, did he die in pain? Did he die in pain? And I just was like, yes. And it was - oh, it was horrible. That was probably the second worst thing that happened. I mean, besides the combat, that was really hard.

BOWMAN: And what happened after that when you told her?

D COSTELLO: She just broke down, you know? They were both just heaving and crying. And they didn't understand why they were lied to. And I didn't understand. I was, like, 22, you know? I just didn't get it.

SMITH: So I also want to hear - I mean, you've had, like, a hard time, right? I mean, as you were saying, like, you dealt with a lot of addiction and a lot of substance abuse.


SMITH: You had, like, some jail time or, like, what - can you talk about, like, what you've been going through? Like...


BOWMAN: And if you could start - you started with the OxyContin, as you said. In the military, they started giving you that stuff?


BOWMAN: Talk - start at the beginning, kind of talk about that.

D COSTELLO: Well, I remember they were just every - you know, I had the pump. And they were giving me OxyContin. And I didn't know what they were. And then when I got back to Balboa (ph), they weren't giving them to me. And I would be screaming in pain all the time. And then they started giving them to me. And I was in this room. I couldn't move. I couldn't get the wheelchair in the bathroom. I couldn't get out of the place. And my uncle came in. And he just saw pill bottles everywhere because I was just eating pills and peeing in bottles. And he came in. And he was like, what the hell, you know, I'm going to sue, and dragged me out of there. And they said, as long as you come every day - you know what I mean? - we'll allow you to be home.

BOWMAN: He says they sent him home with pills and a morphine injector. As time went by, as his pain persisted, the doctors increased his dosages. Costello realized he was becoming addicted. When he moved from San Diego back home to Ohio, he says the cycle continued. And things got worse.

And this is through the VA? Or who did they...

D COSTELLO: I was cheating the system by then. When I came home, I started snorting them. People were telling me, yeah, you can get high off of these things. I didn't know that. I did. And I started getting them through the VA and then an outside doctor at the same time, so I was getting double.

BOWMAN: And how long did this go on for?

D COSTELLO: Like, 10 years. And...

BOWMAN: And then heroin after that?

D COSTELLO: Yeah. I ran out. I started running out. And then, you know...

BOWMAN: Then they tightened up? They wouldn't give you them anymore?

D COSTELLO: They wouldn't give them to me. And then I was going through withdrawal for about nine days, didn't sleep, you know, just all messed up. And then I tried heroin. And then I would just sell my Oxys to get the heroin.

SMITH: Did somebody tell you, like, hey, man, heroin's super good and cheap.


SMITH: I mean, what, like...

D COSTELLO: Yeah, someone did tell me. I was hearing that for a long time, I just wouldn't do it.

BOWMAN: How'd you get it?

D 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 you would - how they used to do it back then, they would just put you in a room and have you withdrawal and watch you, and give you ibuprofen and stuff. That's not helping, you know? I am hallucinating. I'm seeing stuff. 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 them heroin. And then he gave me a syringe and two bags of heroin. And I went in the bathroom. And I shot it up. That was the first time I ever did it. And...

BOWMAN: How long did this go on for?

D COSTELLO: The heroin? Until about a year ago.

BOWMAN: OK. What David told us about the Cleveland VA, we checked it out, called the VA hospital there. And they said they never heard about this story. But every allegation, they take seriously. We also reached out to an advocate who's been working with veterans in Cleveland for years. He told us the story rings true, that it was well-known at the time that heroin was sold inside the facility, with packets of the drugs sometimes being hidden inside toilet paper dispensers.

SMITH: When we first made contact with David on the phone, he'd said how disorienting it had been going back home after being in combat.

It's funny what you said. You said they - I came home, and they just let me loose, like you were, like, an animal.

D COSTELLO: Oh, that's how I felt. It was an animal, yeah, like, just a wild man, you know? I mean, you come from shooting people and all this, and then you're just, one day, at home, you know? It took me years. I couldn't go into the stores. I would start puking. I thought everyone was against me. I locked myself in a closet, like, three days. I thought I was going to get ambushed. I constantly thought I was going to get ambushed.

BOWMAN: David's mom, Pam, looks pained as she's hearing all this.

SMITH: I mean, can you just talk a little bit about, like, watching your son suffer like this? And, like...

P COSTELLO: Well, it's really hard. It's heartbreaking, really. And I didn't know all the stories that he told today, so that was really emotional for me. But when he came home and he was so crazy - and we went to the VA, and they helped a little bit at first, but man, they really do not know what they're doing with their drug program in Cleveland anyway. They were not any help for him to try to get off of that.

SMITH: What was Dave like when he first came back? You said he was crazy - just...

P COSTELLO: When he first came back?

SMITH: ...In a different world, kind of.

BOWMAN: Was it the drugs and all, or what was it?

P COSTELLO: Yeah, it was the drugs. And when he finally - you know, I don't know. He was really not my kid, you know what I'm saying? He wasn't the same guy that went into the military. He was on the drugs, and he was stealing from me and all kinds of stuff like that. And, yeah, he doesn't even remember, I'm sure.

BOWMAN: Stealing money out of your wallet?

P COSTELLO: Oh, yeah. You don't remember that, every other day? No. We had, like, our 25th wedding anniversary. I came home - maybe it was our 35th - and people had put money in the envelopes, you know, with the cards. And so I went back the next day to, you know, see how - what was there. And here he had already taken the money out of the cards and stuff like that. And it's really hard to watch your kid go through drugs. And that's why I kept pushing him to get into different rehabs, you know? And yeah.

D COSTELLO: She pushed me, all right.

P COSTELLO: I pushed you. And he just wasn't ready, I guess. I don't know.

D COSTELLO: I would try - at some points, I would try to act like I was normal and mow my grass, and I would function, and then other times I would be broke, desperate, committing crimes - stuff I would never do. I was not raised like that. I just - I - all I could think about was drugs. And I just wanted - because when I would withdraw, all this stuff would come back, all these memories, and I wanted it to stop. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted the physical pain, I wanted the mental pain to stop. And I didn't know how to stop it.

BOWMAN: And what kind of crimes?

D COSTELLO: Theft and forgery and, you know, stealing copper or stealing this and, you know, going to Walmart and just walking in there. And I would be so desperate, I would just grab the s***. I'd just straight up, grab it and walk out. I was just that desperate.

And then a year ago, I was driving. Well, I went to Cleveland, and I just sniffed a little - it was fentanyl, just a little bit. I went like this. And I thought, you know, I hit a car on the highway. I was swerving all over the road, I guess. I don't remember. And all I remember is a cop. And he asked what I was doing, and I told him I was going to the mall, and I don't know why, but I hit a car on the highway, and then waking up in the hospital. I OD'd. I OD'd somehow. I've OD'd 13 times. I've been brought back to life. I didn't care. I didn't - I really - I just was waiting for somebody to either kill me or I was waiting just to die. You know, I didn't care. It did not matter anymore.


BOWMAN: After David's arrest on the highway, that last stint in rehab, he feels like he's had a real breakthrough, and he's reconnected with guys like Carlos and John Smith. It makes him feel more secure.

SMITH: I mean, I hesitate to ask this, but I mean, like, how can you be sure that you're going to, like, stick it out this time?

D COSTELLO: I just - I've done it before, like, nine months or maybe it was a year. And I - but when I did it then, I was, like, gritting my teeth the whole time. I just knew I was going to go back. Now I just know that I am done. It's over. It is a wrap. I like living like this so much better.


D COSTELLO: I will never go back. I just know.

SMITH: You know, I got to say, I think, you know, talking to Carlos and John, those guys, like, they spent a lot of time really worried about you.

D COSTELLO: Yeah, they thought I was dead.

SMITH: You kind of dropped off the face of the planet for a while.

D COSTELLO: I did. I did. I thought I was done for, you know?

BOWMAN: What do these guys mean to you? I mean, they were really looking out for you. What does it tell you?

D COSTELLO: They're my family. My parents and them, they're my family. I call them brothers. They're not friends. They're brothers, you know? And if - when they pass away, Carlos is my family, you know?

SMITH: He said he kind of, like, tracked you down.

D COSTELLO: He hunted me down like the predator, I guess.

BOWMAN: After they reconnected, David and his friend started to hang out online. He says it's more helpful than the twice-a-week counseling he does.

D COSTELLO: It really makes me feel alive in a different way. I get to express myself. I can talk to my buddies. They get to tell their side of the thing. And I look forward to it every Sunday.

SMITH: But there's still a long way to go. And David's father says the last 20 years since David joined up - the deployments, the wounds, physical, mental and spiritual - it's taken a toll on all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The whole thing cost a great deal, cost a great deal, not - in money and other things because the thing wasn't handled right. I'm not going to go into any details, but it cost us a fortune.

SMITH: Yeah. And I'm sure emotional toll...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's - yes, lost years. We lost decades.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, it's good that you guys have each other again.


SMITH: I mean, it's incredible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, we never really gave up. That's the thing.

BOWMAN: That's the thing.

D COSTELLO: No, they didn't give up.


BOWMAN: We better start rolling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You want to - not a lot of - did you come 90? Is that the way you came?

BOWMAN: Before we left, we told David about our next move - going up the chain of command and trying to answer the central question, why was this investigation covered up?

SMITH: And I'm just curious if there's anything that you would want to put to these guys.

D COSTELLO: I mean, first thing that pops into my head is, why did they lie to the families? I mean, that's huge. I don't get that. And why are they still lying? Why isn't there still a definite answer? They know. Somebody knows what happens. Why don't we know, you know?

BOWMAN: David is clearly the most troubled Marine we've spoken to. We know he was in combat. His comrades saw him in the fight, saw him kill Iraqi soldiers. We know he was badly wounded at the schoolhouse. And as we said, some of the stories - the farmer with the handkerchief, the young girl on patrol - they're hard to corroborate. But clearly, his experience at war eats at him. Perhaps he did these things just as he said. Maybe they're stories he needs to tell to make sense of his years at war. As one of his friends told us, I don't blame anyone for how they cope. I just don't.


SMITH: But when it comes to this central event in his war story, this explosion at the schoolhouse, David Costello is still in search of answers. And remember, our tip said there was a deliberate effort to keep this quiet. Costello told us when the Marines visited, they gave him a copy of the report, and they told him to keep quiet about it. Why would they do that? When we take a closer look at David's copy of the JAGMAN investigation, compare it to what Elena gave us, what's really strange is what's missing from his. All of the witness statements, including the one given by Lieutenant Duncan Hunter, are missing. Everything about recommended punishments and General Mattis brushing them aside, the paragraphs he wrote about friction, fear, fatigue and urgency, the series of small errors - all that's blanked out.

BOWMAN: Now, when a document like this is released, the government can't just withhold anything it wants. There has to be a legal reason - national security or personal privacy. Why did the Marines withhold all of this information from this wounded Marine, David Costello?

Here's something else that was odd about how the Marines handled all this. Just recently, we were finally able to talk with a third Marine who was medically retired because of what happened in the schoolhouse, Doug Hyenga. He told us he got a phone call from a Marine JAG years ago who told him it was friendly fire, emailed him a copy of the investigative report and asked if he wanted an in-person explanation about what happened. He said yes, but the Marines never came through. He's still waiting.


SMITH: Next time on TAKING COVER from NPR, we need to talk with someone who was in the command center when the mortar mission was approved. The two junior officers won't talk with us. What about the battalion commander, the lieutenant colonel? He's now a three-star general working at the Pentagon.

GREGG OLSON: My heart sank. I knew exactly what happened, that that round had landed in a friendly position. And I said, OK, take pictures of everything that's up on the boards right now.

SMITH: And what about the calls for punishment and the decision to make this all go away?

JOHN TOOLAN: As much as you try to be honest and upfront, there's always something lurking. Somebody said something that makes the parents think, did you do everything possible to save my son? And I guess that's what haunts you, you know, when you come back from those battles - is, did I?


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 early, sign up for Embedded+ at plus.npr.org/embedded. 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, too. That's plus.npr.org/embedded. And thanks to everyone who's already signed up and listening early.

SMITH: We have production help from Nic Neves. Our music comes from the Humpmuscle Rolling Circus and members of The Pomeroys. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and me, with help from Nic. Our engineer is Josh Newell. Our researcher is Barbara Van Woerkem. We've had additional editorial input from Liana Simstrom, who is the Enterprise Storytelling Unit's supervising producer, also from the supervising editor of Embedded, Katie Simon, as well as Christopher Turpin and Andrew Sussman. We'd also like to thank our colleagues Adelina Lancianese and Allison Mollenkamp and Eric Westervelt, as well as a couple of former colleagues, Hannah Allam and Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Edith Chapin is the acting senior vice president of NPR News. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR's ESU. And Anya Grundmann is the senior vice president for programming and audience development.

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