Marine brass grapples with Iraq friendly fire procedural failures : Taking Cover Tom and Graham work their way up the chain of command, looking for someone — anyone — who can explain how and why this incident was buried. One general claims he can't recall the incident. Another talks with the team at the Pentagon, then changes his story about Duncan Hunter's involvement.

Up the Chain

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Heads up - this podcast deals with war. You'll be hearing graphic descriptions in the aftermath of battle and strong language.


Previously on TAKING COVER...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In the case of Lance Corporals Shuder and Zurheide, that incident in 12 April, that was not even in accordance with our regulation.

DAVID COSTELLO: Why did they lie to the families, and why are they still lying? They know - somebody knows what happened. Why don't we know?


MICK WAGONER: 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.


BILL SKILES: So the assumption on my part was that we did the right f***ing thing at the higher levels. Who will ever take accountability to say it's my fault, I apologize?

SMITH: That last voice there - it's Bill Skiles, Retired Sergeant Major Bill Skiles. Remember, he helped evacuate casualties from the schoolhouse. And his questions about accountability - well, we know from the investigative report that in this case, nobody was held accountable. And here's something even worse - Brad's sister told us the Marines made a promise to her parents - that their son's death would make a difference, that they'd learn the lessons.


BOWMAN: Skiles and others told us the Marine investigation wasn't shared with the men of Echo Company back in 2004, not even with the officer who called in the mission. So if they didn't see the investigation, did anyone learn the lessons? One general told us this should be taught at the officer training schools.


BOWMAN: We decided to find out if that's happening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Graham Smith.

COREY: How's it going? Corey (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Tom Bowman.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman.

MATT: Hey. Matt (ph). Nice to meet you, Graham.


MATT: Tom, nice to meet you.

BOWMAN: This is Range 7 - Marine Corps Base Quantico, just outside D.C. This is where every young officer comes to learn the basics of combat. Today, they're learning how to call in an 81-millimeter mortar - the same kind of round that hit the schoolhouse.

MATT: Who we're working with here today is the entry-level students for the basic officer course, right? What they've received up to this point is their platform instruction on the call for indirect fire.

SMITH: We were told to wear body armor and helmets.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So we're f***ing ready.

MATT: Sick.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They got all their stuff. Just tell us where to be when.

MATT: OK. What are you guys looking to capture?

BOWMAN: Just walk us through how you call for fires. How do you check, double-check?

SMITH: A couple of dozen Marines are stretched out along a line looking down into a barren valley. Some trainees are flat on their stomachs, looking through binoculars and giving orders to enlisted men who stand near crates of mortars, dropping them into tubes. They're trying to hit some banged-up targets about a half-mile away.

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #1: Eighty-one. One gun. One round and adjust. Remainder in effect. Target number Alpha, Bravo, 1-0-0-3. How copy?


UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #3: So how close are you OK with them getting to...




UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #3: Let's go on the far side so we're not in between the gun line and them.


BOWMAN: They talk with us about calling in mortar missions, when to specify danger close so you don't kill your own people. So did they learn about the mistake at the schoolhouse in Fallujah?

What about - I mean, now, Iraq and Afghanistan are sort of historical now. I mean, did you study mortar emplacement, mortar use in Iraq and Afghanistan? Any friendly fire incidents over there that you study as part of your course?

UNIDENTIFIED MARINE #3: Nothing in particular in Iraq, Afghanistan that we studied in the courses I've been to.

BOWMAN: None of these men - not the students, not the instructors - have ever heard about it. When this incident was buried, any possible lessons - they were buried, too. I'm Tom Bowman.

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


SMITH: In today's episode, the higher levels Bill Skiles talked about - it's called the chain of command - the officers who make the decisions, give the orders. For our investigation, for what we're trying to understand, they're the ones who should know what happened. They may even be the ones who buried it. We're going to talk to them - or at least try. Now, keep in mind, none of these men have any idea what we've already learned. They don't know we got a tip about a cover-up, that we have a copy of the report or that we know about Duncan Hunter's involvement.


BOWMAN: Our search for answers about this deadly friendly fire in Fallujah started, in a way, at the Pentagon. And today, that's where Graham and I are.

GREGG OLSON: Tom, good to see you.

BOWMAN: Good to see you.

OLSON: All good?

BOWMAN: Yeah. Graham Smith.

SMITH: Graham Smith.

OLSON: Hi, Graham. I assume that all your recording stuff has been...

BOWMAN: Cleared? Oh, yeah.

OLSON: ...Cleared and all that?



BOWMAN: The first link in that chain? It's the officer who approved the tragic mortar mission nearly two decades ago. Gregg Olson was a lieutenant colonel then, commanding a battalion of more than 700 men in Fallujah, Iraq. He's now a three-star general, an aide to the Marines top officer - the commandant.

SMITH: We told him we wanted to talk about that spring in 2004.

OLSON: Yeah. So are we doing a voice piece for NPR, or are we doing a written piece for publication?

SMITH: This will be - this will ultimately end up, I think, probably part of a podcast.

BOWMAN: We tell him we're specifically interested in the friendly fire that killed two Marines from his battalion on April 12, and we hand him a copy of the investigative report Elena Zurheide gave us.

SMITH: It's obvious that he hasn't seen it for a long time.

BOWMAN: Talk us through that. How did that happen?

OLSON: You know, as I said, my recollection of this is a little fuzzy. You might get a better interview if you let me read this.

SMITH: Yeah. If you - again, I know there's a statement from you - like, there's a lot of redactions. But...

BOWMAN: Yeah. So...

SMITH: We managed to sort of...

OLSON: I thought we were going to talk about contractors and, you know, the events of 31 March to 1 May. If we're going to dive right into this, I need to do some refresh.

SMITH: Sure.

We settled into talking about the deployment for a while.

OLSON: We were on the streets of Fallujah as early as the 26, 27 of March.

SMITH: But since he wasn't ready to talk about the incident in detail, we didn't yet raise the name Duncan Hunter Jr. Remember; he's the congressman's son. And we've been told he's the reason this incident was covered up. Anyhow, the meeting wraps up pretty quick.

BOWMAN: All right. Again, thanks.


BOWMAN: Appreciate it. OK.

OLSON: Graham, thanks.

SMITH: It was good to meet you.

OLSON: Yeah, I'll dig through this and refresh my memory.


OLSON: This is probably the most valuable thing.



BOWMAN: We didn't know what to think. We weren't sure whether he'd really give us another interview. After all, his old boss, Colonel John Toolan, recommended discipline for Olson over the friendly fire incident. We need answers about exactly what happened. Could Olson tell us? Could Toolan? How about the officers above them at the time? Got to say, we were a little surprised when we got a message back from General Olson about a month later. He was ready to talk again, so - back to the building.

OLSON: Good to see you.

BOWMAN: Good to see you.

SMITH: Good to see you again.

OLSON: I had a chance to get out to Illinois and collect some contemporaneous notes.


OLSON: So...

BOWMAN: Oh, wow.

OLSON: So between that and the investigation, which I recall - after reading it, I recall seeing it when General Mattis handed it to me on a very hot day in August of 2004 and said, read this. And then he sat me down and talked to me. So...

BOWMAN: OK. So we have, like, a half hour, I guess, right?

OLSON: I've got to hard stop at 8:25 because...


OLSON: ...I have to reset for another meeting.

BOWMAN: So I guess we'll just get right into it. You know, what happened here? How was there a friendly fire incident? What happened in the...

OLSON: Yeah, it was absolutely a mistake of fact. By the 12 of April, we'd been in contact pretty much continuously for about nine days. So what happened is we came out of our evening orders group. During that day, we had gotten a fragmentary order to conduct a cordon and knock.

SMITH: Basically, Olson - remember; he was lieutenant colonel back then - is telling us about a mission that day to arrest a high-value target, somebody they believed was an insurgent leader. Among the men he sent on this mission was an experienced officer who normally would have been in the fire support center handling things like mortar requests.

OLSON: I needed mature supervision on this mission because it was relatively sensitive. As is noted in the investigation, there was basically task saturation. And we made a mistake.

BOWMAN: Hey; what does that mean in layman's terms?

OLSON: You know, when there's a lot going on and attention to detail sometimes suffers. And that's, in fact, what happened here.

SMITH: With the senior fire support officers occupied elsewhere, Olson had two more junior officers filling in in the operations center. He checked in to see how it was going.

OLSON: Yeah, the mission was in progress when I came back in, and Echo Company was reporting in contact. We could hear the sound of Echo Company's engagement.

SMITH: Olson seems to have such clear memories. Even from the headquarters a half-mile from the schoolhouse, he remembers hearing the firefight set off by that insurgent tire barricade.

OLSON: I said, OK, what's - you know, what's the circumstances? He said, well, it's for Echo Company. It's - a structure is being built that's going to put their flank at hazard.

SMITH: A request for a mortar mission to destroy the barricade was received over the radio, written on a card by the radio operator and handed to one of the junior officers, who hung it on a rack next to another card.

BOWMAN: So exactly what happened? Was there a confusion with the cards? Is that what happened?

OLSON: Yes. So what happened was there were two cards hanging. There were two targets plotted. The assistant fire support coordinator and the artillery liaison officer misunderstood which target was being pointed at and which card was being referred to.

BOWMAN: And who pointed to it?

OLSON: My recollection is that the artillery liaison officer identified the target on the big photographic map that we use. We use two maps - a small-scale map and a large-scale map. The map that had the larger definition was where the target was pointed to, and that was 400 meters away from any friendlies.

BOWMAN: OK, hold on. This is new information - that this artillery liaison officer pointed to the wrong spot on the map. And we have a good idea about the name of the officer he's talking about. It must have been the congressman's son. Duncan Hunter's own statement said he plotted the target on a giant map and placed a yellow pin at the target location.

SMITH: And just so I'm - who are the actual people who - when you're talking about - so there was Ben Deda, who was the lieutenant who was the assistant...

OLSON: Yeah, assistant fire support coordinator.

SMITH: And then it was Duncan Hunter who was...

OLSON: He was the artillery liaison officer.

SMITH: Yeah.

OLSON: So first Lieutenant Hunter and first Lieutenant Deda.

SMITH: So, again, what Olson is telling us, having just reviewed his contemporaneous notes, is that this whole tragic mistake started with Duncan Hunter, the son of the House Armed Services Committee chairman, pointing to the wrong target on the map. Olson told the investigators something completely different back in 2004. His brief statement in the JAGMAN says the other lieutenant, not Duncan Hunter, told him about the mortar request. I'll read from it. He goes on - I asked him, how far from friendlies is the target? He answered, 400 meters. I then approved the fire mission.

BOWMAN: And what's weird is that this statement shows up in the report as a clarification given more than a month and a half after the incident. But a clarification to what? If Olson submitted some sort of earlier statement that needed to be clarified, it's not in the report.


SMITH: In any event, the mission he approved - in his mind, it was safe. The problem was the mortar tubes were trained on a different target, the one that was just over a hundred meters from the school.


BOWMAN: And when did you realize it was friendly fire?

OLSON: Almost immediately. I mean, it was a single round and adjust. Echo Company simultaneously reported taking incoming indirect fire. 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. Cease fire. We commenced our evacuations. And I immediately called General - then, at the time, Colonel Toolan. And I said, hey, Colonel Toolan, I've had an incident. I'm going to need an investigation. We just mortared ourselves.


BOWMAN: We asked him what a lot of the Marines wondered - how could it have hit in the courtyard so precisely, that one-in-a-million shot through the open roof?

OLSON: It's not unusual that the first round and adjust doesn't go exactly to the grid because it's an area-of-effect weapon.

SMITH: But it was, essentially, like, just, ultimately, bad luck?

OLSON: This was one of those things that happens on the battlefield that is - again, back to the chance, friction and uncertainty. The fundamental characteristics of war played themselves out in a school courtyard in Fallujah on the 12 of April.


BOWMAN: Now, Olson was a battalion commander, had more than 700 Marines under him. He couldn't know every one of them by name, but he did know Robert Zurheide.

OLSON: I had a relationship with Zurheide. His wife worked in the PX. She was a big, bubbly personality. And he was a Marine who had had some challenges initially and was maturing rapidly. And I asked for some time to just go and say goodbye. It saddens me to this day that he was one of the 19 guys who didn't come home.


SMITH: We asked about the investigation and the recommendations for punishment, why, although he says Duncan Hunter pointed to the wrong target on the map, Hunter was never recommended for punishment like Lieutenant Deda. And, we might remind you, Deda told the investigator Hunter wasn't just training. He was doing the job of clearing fires. But that's not how Olson remembers it.

OLSON: Now, we were training Lieutenant Hunter to do the same job, but I had not yet said, Lieutenant Hunter, you are qualified to stand this post yourself.

BOWMAN: And Colonel Toolan recommended a reprimand for you and disciplinary action against the others. And then General Mattis reversed that. What are your thoughts about that?

OLSON: My thoughts are that there's a chain of command, and ultimately, the people at the top of the chain of command have to take their decisions.

BOWMAN: So what about this being kept from the families of the men who'd been killed, the Marines being called out at a hearing on Capitol Hill three years later? At that point in 2007, Olson himself was part of the Marine Corps team responsible for briefing Congress.

OLSON: I was on Capitol Hill when this happened, and I - frankly, I was very surprised that our families never got the official word. You know, the incident happened. The investigation began, and I was limited in my ability to communicate with the families. My condolence letter to the - to Elena and to Shuder's dad - or dad and mom - were relatively terse because I couldn't say a whole lot. I was told to continue combat operations...


OLSON: ...To wait for the results of the investigation and that the investigation would be provided to the families.

BOWMAN: And, of course, that didn't happen - not for years. So with Olson, we finally have a firsthand account of what happened inside the fire control center. We've learned more about why people might have wanted to cover this up, how deeply it seems the congressman's son was involved.


SMITH: So we thought we were done with General Olson. But just as we were getting ready to publish this episode, we got an invitation back to the Pentagon again. See, when we published Episode 3, we also put out a written version on, which included what you just heard in that interview, that Olson told us Duncan Hunter had pointed to the wrong target on the big wall map, which led to the mission being approved. Well, we heard from Olson's office that he wanted to tell us a different story.

OLSON: When I asked about what target was being considered, I was told the target under consideration was 400 meters away.

BOWMAN: And who told you that?

OLSON: That was the fire support coordinator.

SMITH: So are you saying that your recollection, having looked at your contemporaneous notes of seeing Duncan Hunter point at the larger map out of the two maps, you don't actually remember...

OLSON: I have no contemporaneous notes. My recollection was based on memory, and upon multiple readings of this, I didn't have it right the first time I talked to you.

BOWMAN: So what was Duncan Hunter doing? What was he pointing to?

OLSON: I don't recall him pointing to anything. He was working a target card.

BOWMAN: This target card Hunter was working on was the one meant to hit the tire barricade near the school, the one that failed to include the key words, danger close.

OLSON: It should have been backstopped by the procedures in the fire support coordination center that - when it was plotted on the map, hey; that plots out within danger close of friendlies. Those procedures broke down.

SMITH: Again, the person who plotted it - Duncan Hunter.

BOWMAN: So if it said a hundred meters on the card, someone should have noticed...

SMITH: Yeah.

OLSON: ...That that should have said - Duncan Hunter should have said, this should be danger close. Right? Somebody should have caught that. Whether it was the mortar liaison NCO, whether it was, like, the artillery liaison officer, whether it was the assistant fire support coordinator, somebody should have caught that. So he and Deda were the last stop on this. Lieutenant - the assistant fire support coordinator is the last stop. So it was either Hunter or Deda that should have looked at that card. It says 100 meters. It should have said - this should say danger close, so we double-, triple-check this.

SMITH: Yeah.

OLSON: Our procedures called for that. We didn't follow them.

SMITH: So just to be clear, you say in your statement in the JAGMAN that you approved the mission. Is that accurate?

OLSON: The JAGMAN says that I approved the mission. Yeah. I mean, I don't want to get into nitpicking terms of art here, but I was always concerned that we were doing the right thing in the right way.

SMITH: But just to be clear, this is from not anything that the captain wrote. This is from your - what is called a clarification in your name where you say you approved the mission. And I should note it says it's a clarification, and there is no original statement from you included in this report to which this would be a clarification, which seems odd.

BOWMAN: Do you remember an original statement that would have to be clarified? I know it's almost 20 years ago, but you remember giving an initial statement and then clarifying that statement? Or...

OLSON: I don't recall doing anything in writing besides answering a question in clarification, which was who was doing what that night, because we have a standard operating procedure. And the investigating officer took a lot of time to dig into how we say we operate.

SMITH: He's holding a copy of the JAGMAN opened to the page with his clarification.

OLSON: And I got to push back a little bit. My clarification has nothing about I approved the mission. My clarification talks about who was doing what.

SMITH: What does the last line say?

OLSON: Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah. How far from friendlies is? He answered 400. I approved the fire. Yeah. So, OK.

SMITH: Also...

OLSON: I mean, I'll stand by that.


SMITH: And just to be clear, this is not something that was prepared by the captain. This is from you...

OLSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is me.

SMITH: ...In the first person. This is your statement.

OLSON: I wrote this.

BOWMAN: So when we talked to Olson before, he seemed to have really clear memories of Hunter pointing to the wrong target, said he just looked over his contemporaneous notes. Now he's got no memory of that, doesn't have any relevant notes, and he doesn't even remember that he approved the mortar mission until we point out his own words sitting in front of him, black and white. It's hard to know what to make of all this. And frankly, it's odd that he wanted to call us in to change his story about Hunter and the map. It's not like he said Hunter did a great job in the fire support center. Anyhow, we still have more links to go on our journey up the chain of command.


SMITH: Olson commanded 2-1. It was just one of the three Marine battalions fighting in Fallujah that April. The man in charge of all of them, the regimental commander, was Colonel John Toolan. His friends call him Jocko. He was the one who wanted harsher punishments, a recommendation rejected by Generals Mattis and Conway. What might he know?

Check, one, two.

John Toolan retired in 2016 as a three-star.

BOWMAN: He lives in a big house just outside D.C. I parked my Jeep Wrangler right behind his.

SMITH: Hey. How you doing?


BOWMAN: Hey. How you doing?

TOOLAN: Good to see you.

BOWMAN: Good to see you.

TOOLAN: It's been a while (ph). I'm glad you guys - did you get my email?

BOWMAN: Today or...

TOOLAN: Yeah, today. No. OK. I gave you instructions to park behind my Jeep there.

SMITH: And we did, like twinsies (ph) - twin Jeeps.

BOWMAN: You notice I have a Jeep, too.

TOOLAN: Oh, you have a Jeep, too.

BOWMAN: A Wrangler. Yeah, yeah.


SMITH: Should we take off our shoes?

TOOLAN: You can if you want. If you got holes in your socks, you can leave your shoes on.


SMITH: Thank you for the coffee.

BOWMAN: So do you want - what do you want?

SMITH: Yeah, If you guys could sit here, that would be the best.

Now, again, we had told General Toolan that we wanted to talk about this first battle of Fallujah. We hadn't gotten real specific about our interest in the friendly fire incident. Honestly, we weren't sure he'd be willing to talk about it.

BOWMAN: We sit down in his study - classic dark wood and shelves of books, pictures and memorabilia. There's a huge photographic map on the wall behind his desk.

SMITH: I would love to - if you had a minute to, like, look at the map with you.

TOOLAN: Absolutely.

BOWMAN: We can see right away that it's Fallujah. We can even pick out the schoolhouse with its open courtyard.

It's an amazing map.


BOWMAN: So this was Fallujah one. This is the spring of 2004.

TOOLAN: Right. So you can see 1/5.

BOWMAN: We'd seen the same map up on Sergeant Major Skiles' wall when we visited his Marine room. Large arrows show the battle plan, 2/1 pushing down through the city.

SMITH: When you look at this map, I mean, what do you think of when you look at this?

TOOLAN: I wish I'd finished.

SMITH: It's interesting...

TOOLAN: Without hesitation, I mean, we should have finished, and we - very frustrating to know that we really could have cleared the city to the west within a couple more days, and then we stopped.

SMITH: It's so interesting to me that you had a really long and distinguished career, and the map that's sitting up over your desk is a map that's an unfinished symphony. I don't know what you call it, but I mean, like, why this?

TOOLAN: True philosopher here. There's a lot of truth to that. I mean, it was a situation where I would probably be frustrated by it for as long as I live, you know, 'cause as I said, I mean, we could have finished the job. And I think we probably would have saved some lives.

BOWMAN: Toolan tells us about that original plan. Pacify the area. Spend money on projects. Try to identify local leaders and find new ones.

TOOLAN: We're looking for George Washington. Where is he? Where is that guy that we can turn to and say, OK, here's what we want to do? And we weren't there more than about 20 minutes when all of a sudden the whole place lit up.

BOWMAN: This was at the handover ceremony, late March 2004, when the Marines took over from the Army.

TOOLAN: And wham, as soon as we were there - lit up, took casualties.

BOWMAN: Toolan never found George Washington.

TOOLAN: And it was very, extremely frustrating. And they held the upper hand 'cause we didn't know who was actually running the city. We had to figure it out. And it took time. While that's going on, we got a fight going on. We don't know who the heck we're fighting. We don't know they're coming after us.

SMITH: This is when the Marines are taking the fight to the insurgents. And already they have questions about whether they'll be allowed to finish the job. The fighting quickly intensifies, and America's Iraqi political allies feel blindsided. They demand an end to the assault.

TOOLAN: We were losing the information campaign, so now we're stuck with both hands behind our back. How do we overcome the image that U.S. forces are going in and just killing Iraqi citizens? And that's why I was very frustrated when I had to go around and tell people, hey, we're going to stop. It's like, boss, are you out of your mind? We're going to stop doing what? We can't just stop - very difficult time, very, very difficult to address that to the troops because they believed they were winning.


BOWMAN: He's brought us to the cease-fire, the moment when the friendly fire occurs. It's time to ask about it.


BOWMAN: TAKING COVER continues just ahead.


SMITH: We've been talking with General John Toolan about Fallujah and the cease-fire.

BOWMAN: And that gets us to this friendly fire incident which happened at this schoolhouse. And they were still sort of clustered in that one area. They weren't continuing to move, as originally planned.

TOOLAN: Right. They pretty much stayed static.

BOWMAN: Did that put your guys more in harm's way because mistakes could be made like this friendly fire incident that happened?

TOOLAN: Yes. I mean, there's no question. So that particular friendly fire incident, I mean, really did - between telling guys to stop, sit back, hold your positions, don't let any Iraqi insurgents penetrate your defenses, if you see them kill them. And, I mean, the day after the event, I went to that site, and it ripped the heart out of a lot of people.

BOWMAN: And do you remember what they talked about when you showed up?

TOOLAN: Echo Company was angry. They were angry. I mean, I sensed it. I knew it. And so, you know, obviously you need to investigate it as quickly as possible because you can only rip a guy's heart out so many times. You know, stop fighting - you just lost your best friend. It was strong indications to me that the company believed the battalion failed to coordinate the right information and that the battalion should not have authorized the mortars to go into that target area.

SMITH: When he says battalion, what he's referring to is Lieutenant Colonel Olson, who we just talked with at the Pentagon, the battalion commander. Toolan tells us he also visited the combat operations center where the mission was approved.

TOOLAN: And I went, and I sat down with their fire support coordination team and said, OK, show me how this worked. Why were these mortars ordered into this place? What was the target? So I can't remember exactly what the guidance was that I gave them after that, but I didn't have a good warm and fuzzy that the battle damage assessment was being done to the level and detail that you needed to make sure we avoid friendly casualties, as well as civilian casualties.

SMITH: He hears about the task saturation, the more junior officer filling multiple roles, Lieutenant Colonel Olson coming in to ask about the mortar request from Echo Company and then personally approving the mission.

BOWMAN: So in this situation, if the boss walks in and says, what's going on? We have this. OK, just do it - what should have happened in that situation, would you say?

TOOLAN: Boss should go outside the room with the operations officer or the fire support coordinator and let him explain to the CO what's - you know, what's going on. The commander needs to have the art form down to know where he's supposed to be at the right time and right place. Critical moment where you're actually firing a fire mission, and it's danger close. It's not the time for the commander to jump in and say, you know, fire it or give any guidance 'cause that can usurp any protocols or processes that are time-tested and true. You cause a problem, and you're wrong. You stay out of it. I mean, you're not in the process. There's a reason why there's a process. The power of the presence of the commander is pretty intense, especially for a young lieutenant or sergeant or whatever. Yeah, God...


BOWMAN: Any time there's a friendly fire, there's supposed to be an investigation. And Colonel Toolan orders a captain from his headquarters to handle it. We've told you about that JAGMAN, including Toolan's recommendation that the battalion Commander Olson receive a letter of caution.

TOOLAN: In another time and another place, maybe it would have been harsher as far as what the battalion commander responsibility was. But when you weigh the confusion of the battlefield and all that's going on, a letter of caution at that time was probably more appropriate than, you know, relieving him for cause.

SMITH: But ultimately, your recommendations to harshen up the sanctions were overridden by Mattis.

TOOLAN: It's absolutely true. I mean, he believed wholeheartedly that combat requires different assessment about, you know, where mistakes were made out of neglect or because they deliberately did something wrong. You know, your interpretation, General Mattis's interpretation of what goes on in combat is not the same as the parents of the people who were killed. I mean, it's just not. It's very difficult, as you all know, to sit in a living room with somebody and say, let me tell you what happened - because 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? And probably, the answer to that question is, as much as I think I did, there's probably more I could have done.

BOWMAN: But in this case, the battalion commander was responsible for firing that round that killed them. So it would have been difficult for him to go to the families, you think?

TOOLAN: I mean, I think you answered the question. Yes. I mean, certainly, it would be difficult. But still, somebody from the organization should make that visit.

SMITH: And I don't know if you've been sort of kept tracking this, but it took - the families were told that their people were killed by hostile fire, essentially, and were never told that there was a JAGMAN investigation that was going on and ultimately were never informed by the military that it was friendly fire until three years later.

TOOLAN: Yeah. Well, to be honest, I mean, I think I lost sight of this incident. Now, why didn't I ask the question? Hey, XO, did Zurheide's family get notified? Did the family get notified? I mean, I can see how it happens, but should it happen that way? No. I mean, your instincts, I think, are correct. And those questions should be answered. But the worst thing in the world to happen is to break that bond of trust between us and the public, the mothers and fathers who send their sons to war.

BOWMAN: And what about learning from the disaster, making sure it doesn't happen again?

TOOLAN: I would hope that, you know, these investigations are studied by the schools and making sure you don't make those same mistakes. I mean, that's the value of it. So for me, making sure everybody studied exactly what went wrong was most important and to get it out as quickly as possible.

BOWMAN: Well, we know that didn't happen. But why?

You know, one thing we did hear - that one of the people involved at battalion level was Duncan Hunter. And some people are looking and saying maybe they buried this report because Duncan Hunter was involved in this. I guess he was a lieutenant. And his dad, of course, was, you know, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. What - do you recall Hunter being there? Or was he just another lieutenant? Or what are your thoughts about people who say maybe they buried it because of Duncan Hunter?

TOOLAN: I lost complete faith in Duncan Hunter, but Duncan Hunter Jr. was a pain in the a** when he was a second lieutenant. He was a - let's put this way. I mean, most second lieutenants in artillery units don't get their butts chewed out by the regimental commander.

SMITH: Toolan describes a reckless young officer with a disregard for basic safety protocols - for instance, not wearing his body armor or helmet when he should've.

TOOLAN: Very cocky, didn't really - he wasn't the kind of guy that you would want your son to be led by.


SMITH: We told him about an appearance Duncan Hunter Jr. made on a podcast that deals with military issues. This was back when he was serving in Congress before he had to resign.


MATTHEW COTHRON: All right, now on "Zero Blog Thirty," we are pleased to have Representative Duncan Hunter. Duncan is a former Marine. Well, we're not going to say former. Marine - you're a Marine, right? You still go...

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: Yeah. Once was enough, though, man.


KATE MANNION: One and done.

BOWMAN: We've tried repeatedly to talk with Duncan Hunter, but he has yet to respond. Anyhow, he was happy to share war stories with "Zero Blog Thirty."


COTHRON: And you were in one of the more bloody battles of the Iraq War, right?

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: Yeah. We had the only artillery battery in Fallujah for the first Fallujah. It was - I mean, we were it.

BOWMAN: And Hunter brags about how bada** it was.


COTHRON: What was the day-to-day life as a - of an artillery officer in something like the Battle of Fallujah?

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: Well, I got to do a lot of recon with the 2-1 lead elements, got to plot all of the targets in the city with a bunch of special forces dudes and other government guys. And we got to - I got to go shoot artillery. And it was a wide-open area, too. I mean, you had a free-fire area in parts of Fallujah for a month or two.

SMITH: We asked General Toolan what he thought of that.

TOOLAN: That is just an idiotic perspective. You know, I mean, that's somebody who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. It's not a free-fire zone, particularly when your forces are in there. You want to make sure that every round is accounted for. Yeah, that would've gotten Duncan Hunter fired if he said that to me.


BOWMAN: On the other side of the room, General Toolan shows us a basket full of cards with the names of Marines, dates of birth, dates of death, a couple of lines of Scripture. They're memorial cards.

TOOLAN: This is all my guys that got killed.

SMITH: Oh, my gosh.

BOWMAN: Among them, Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder.

TOOLAN: I think I got Zurheide's picture in...

BOWMAN: But how many do you have there?

TOOLAN: Too many.


BOWMAN: So we learned a lot from Generals Olson and Toolan about Duncan Hunter, his involvement - not a lot about why and how the information about the incident was buried. But remember - neither of them was a general back in 2004. At that time, the first general in the chain of command - James Mattis.


SMITH: We've told you about Mattis, the famous quotes, his nicknames and how he comes into this story. He was Toolan's boss, running the fight in western Iraq. And he was the officer who decided to drop the recommended punishments in the friendly fire case we were investigating.

BOWMAN: Now, I've known Mattis for 20 years. I first met him in Afghanistan at Kandahar Airfield. And I kept in touch over the years, even took him on a tour of NPR. And I covered him when he was secretary of defense. But when I reached out to him with a list of questions about this incident at Fallujah, he refused to give us an interview, writing, quote, "I prefer not to engage with you on your story. The questions you're asking are either answered in my endorsement of the JAG Manual investigation, or I don't know the answers," unquote. And this - it kind of struck me as odd because of all the generals I've known, Mattis is one who loves the spotlight. Not on this subject.


SMITH: So what about his boss? We'll be right back with TAKING COVER.


SMITH: General James Conway was in charge of all the Marines in Iraq in 2004, the top officer in country to sign off on the investigation. As we've heard, Conway was running the entire Corps as commandant by 2007, when the Marine Corps reluctantly acknowledged the tragedy on Capitol Hill. His second-in-command had apologized on behalf of Conway to members of the subcommittee. He should know exactly how and why it was handled the way it was. Would he talk?

BOWMAN: Now, Conway retired in 2010, but just like Mattis, I've gotten a chance to know him over the years. I had all his contact information. Well, for weeks, I emailed him. Then I left phone messages on his cell and home numbers telling him we wanted to talk about Fallujah. I even talked to his wife at one point, who said he was off fishing, but he'd call me as soon as he got back. Well, he never did. And I started to wonder, was Conway dodging us? Maybe he got wind we were talking to these other generals about that friendly fire incident, asking about a cover-up, asking about Duncan Hunter.

Anyhow, months went by. Finally, I said, hey, Graham, time for a road trip. We wrote out a list of questions, exactly what we were looking into. We printed it on NPR letterhead and jumped into the Wrangler, bound for Annapolis. A lot of admirals and high-ranking Marines end up retiring there. We figure we'd just leave it at his door, maybe even get lucky, get a chance to talk with him. His house was hard to miss - huge Marine Corps flag.

SMITH: That's recording. This is recording.

BOWMAN: OK, sounds good. Here we are at General Conway's house in Annapolis, Md. Let's see if he's home. We got the letter. And hope for the best.

SMITH: Yeah.

As we're approaching the door - haven't even knocked - it swings open.

BOWMAN: Hey, General.

JAMES CONWAY: Hi. How are you doing?

BOWMAN: Hey. Tom Bowman with NPR.

CONWAY: Yeah, sure. How you been?

BOWMAN: I've been trying to get a hold of you. How are you doing?

CONWAY: Yeah. Not too bad. Long time no see.

BOWMAN: This is my colleague Graham Smith.

SMITH: Nice to meet you.

CONWAY: Graham? Hi. Jim Conway. How are you doing?

BOWMAN: Good to see you.


BOWMAN: I knew it's been a while.

CONWAY: What are you doing in the neighborhood?

BOWMAN: So we're putting together a story on Fallujah, first battle of Fallujah, and specifically, a friendly fire incident that happened there. And we've been talking to Gregg Olson and a few other people.

SMITH: This was 12 of April 2004.

CONWAY: Twelfth of April 2004? OK. So Gregg was what? First battalion...

SMITH: We really hadn't expected to find him at home. And given our experience with Mattis and how Conway had been avoiding Tom, we figured this was our only chance. We went right at it.

BOWMAN: If you have time to sit down and talk about it...

CONWAY: I don't right now.

BOWMAN: OK. So here's kind of what we're...


BOWMAN: ...Looking at. We weren't sure if you were going to be here.

CONWAY: Yeah, OK. And I'll tell you guys, I don't - you know, I was kind of at a level above that. I mean...

BOWMAN: Oh, sure.

CONWAY: ...Those things happen, but I don't know if I can give you any kind of detail.


CONWAY: You know, probably tell you what rolled through the headquarters, but...

BOWMAN: Yeah. I mean, what was - this was one that kind of got lost in the system, too, which I - probably if you went back through, the families weren't essentially notified about what had happened until three years after it happened.


SMITH: We let him know we'd found the 2007 congressional testimony with his apology and read the 2004 investigative report with his signature on it.

So we'd love to sit down with you and...

CONWAY: Guys, I'm telling you, I'd be happy to sit down, but I...


CONWAY: ...Don't have any direct knowledge. And I'll be honest, I don't remember it even as the commandant.


CONWAY: So, you know, shame on me, I guess, for not, you know, retaining that level of detail of information. But if it crossed my desk and I put somebody on it, you know, there was another investigation or two going on at that point.

BOWMAN: Didn't remember it even as commandant? What - that deadly friendly fire where the son of the House Armed Services Committee chairman was involved? The worst Marine-on-Marine friendly fire in decades? Shame on me? That doesn't make sense. He told us he needed to talk with the other officers before he'd talk with us again.

CONWAY: But I would have to do all that research before I have anything meaningful for you, you know...

BOWMAN: OK. Well, you know...

CONWAY: ...In the discussion.

BOWMAN: ...We laid it out in the letter...


BOWMAN: ...'Cause we weren't sure you were going to be around.


BOWMAN: And our numbers are there.

CONWAY: All right.

SMITH: We're so close. We could pop back anytime.



CONWAY: OK. All right. I got to run, guys.


CONWAY: Great seeing you. Nice to meet you.

SMITH: Nice to meet you.

CONWAY: All right. OK. Good luck, guys.

BOWMAN: Keep in touch. Take care.

What are the chances? What are the chances?

SMITH: Yeah.


BOWMAN: Well, we've done all we could.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, well, he said - I think he told us he would talk about it. And he would run the trip, so - well, we'll see. I guess he's going to talk to General Mattis, and he's going to talk to General Toolan, and he's going to talk to General Olson. And then hopefully, he'll talk with us.


SMITH: Yeah. Well, wishful thinking. For months, we sent reminders, waited to hear back. Nothing, except Tom got an earful after General Conway called the Pentagon to complain we had ambushed him. We later learned he was looking into things, just not the way we thought. We ended up talking with Bill Skiles, that retired sergeant major who had a big Fallujah map on his wall, just like General Toolan, the one you heard at the beginning of this episode saying he assumed the right thing had been done at the higher levels. Skiles told us over the phone that during this period, while we were waiting, he got a call from Gen. Conway.

SKILES: No, he just - he, you know - hey, Sergeant Major. How are you? You know, and - General Conway here. I said, no kidding. I could tell by your voice, sir. (Laughter) You got - he's got that big, big, commanding, robust voice.

BOWMAN: Conway heard through the grapevine that we shared a copy of the JAGMAN with Skiles.

SKILES: And he goes, yeah, just talking about - there's an incident back in '04, and the documents that you had that you were reviewing - could I get a copy of that? I mean, I said, I have no problem giving you a copy of that, sir. And so he goes, oh, my goodness. I mean, how long ago was it, you know, when I was talking to him? Seventeen years ago at the time? So anyway, I sent it to him, the attachment PDF you sent me, and never heard from him again.

BOWMAN: Why on earth would the former commandant of the Marine Corps go to a retired enlisted man to get a copy of an investigation instead of going through official channels? He's comfortable enough to call the Pentagon and complain about us. Why wouldn't he just call and ask for his own, unredacted copy of the JAGMAN? Maybe he wanted to see what we had. Maybe he knew it didn't exist anymore in the official records. Who knows?


SMITH: We want to take a minute to tell you about one other conversation that we had around this time, not with a general but with one of the first guys we'd talked with who'd been in the schoolhouse. See, General Conway wasn't the only one who'd heard we'd given a copy of the JAGMAN to Bill Skiles.

BOWMAN: Jason Duty, Doc Duty, is still on active duty - a master chief petty officer. He's not quite 40 years old. He told us he was just a kid during that Fallujah deployment when he and Skiles helped evacuate the wounded. They're still close.

JASON DUTY: I didn't know this existed until Bill told me at dinner the other night, when I asked you if I could have a copy of it. I didn't know there was - I didn't know this was even a thing. And to find out it's dated August of 2004 and is - basically closes the book on the whole incident anyway...

BOWMAN: Anyway, we sent him a PDF of the JAGMAN immediately, while they were still at the restaurant. We got a chance to sit down and talk about it later that week. Jason is a burly guy, spends a lot of time in the gym. He's covered with tattoos. And he doesn't buy the idea that this incident could've just fallen through the cracks.

DUTY: No, absolutely not. I mean, we've been having friendly-fire incidents in every war since 1775. And they're - I mean, for better or for worse, we all know that they happen, right? You know, I don't believe that for a - now, that's Jason Duty's personal opinion. I'm not speaking on behalf of the Department of the Navy. I don't believe that. I don't believe that's true. They probably - I'd rather not speculate on the record.

BOWMAN: The incident was horrible. But keeping it from the families?

DUTY: I'm actually a little bit in shock that they knew this s***, and they didn't tell anybody. And we got a black eye during this - the Marine Corps and the United States military as a whole got a black eye during this operation anyway because we go in. We killed a lot of people, and then we got stopped. Whatever. And I think that finding - you know, the American people finding out that not only did our military get a black eye by a bunch of insurgent terrorists in a Wild West city in Fallujah, but also, we're killing our own guys? I think that would've - that was what they were trying to avoid with this.

SMITH: We've spent most of this episode talking with men who knew exactly what happened but somehow didn't make sure that the public and the people closest to the tragedy found out the truth - the men who were wounded, the men who struggled to save them, the men who still don't know the truth about the worst day of their lives. It turns out that getting hard information instead of rumors, getting closer to the truth, changes things. It matters. For Jason Duty, actually getting the investigation - it hits different.


DUTY: Reading that was kind of rough Wednesday night...

SMITH: Yeah.

DUTY: ...Tuesday night, whatever it was, just since I already had quite a load on by the time I started reading that. And Bill had already taken off. So I was just sitting at the bar kind of by myself. But yeah, I think that was the first time, I think, in my entire life I've ever had what they call a real flashback. I was really there for a few seconds. I could smell the blood and the meat 'cause it smells like a butcher shop in there. I could smell that. I could smell the smoke. I could smell the dust. I could remember sneezing 'cause I got so much f***ing dust in my nose. I can remember Shuder screaming and screaming and screaming, and in my head - and this feels awful to say it out loud. I've never said this out loud - I was like, will you please just shut the f*** up and let me work? I remember thinking that. I never said that, but I remember thinking that 'cause he was just screaming and screaming and screaming, even after I gave him the morphine, though he'd calmed down pretty soon after that.

SMITH: That flashback must have been...

DUTY: It was pretty f***ing intense. Yeah. That was 17 years later on a Tuesday night at The Globe and Laurel in Stafford, Va. It was - that was my first flashback. And I've thought about those nights. I've thought about that night. Did I do the right thing? Did I do the right thing at the right time? Did I do something wrong? F***. What - did I think of this? Did I think about doing that? I think about that s*** all the time. If I'd have paid more attention to Smitty, could I have saved his leg? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think about that s*** all the time. Not all the time, but I do think about that. But I don't know why. That was the - I was there for a few seconds. And a few seconds felt like a lifetime, but I was there. I was actually there. I remember I could feel the f***ing sweat running down my face and the back of my neck. I could feel my itchy, unwashed a** as I'm trying to f***ing load Shuder into the truck. And I can see Zurheide's dead eyes that nobody closed during the drive over, and his eyes just covered with - his open eyes just covered with a film of dust. It was gross. It was - not unholy. It was, like, blasphemous, yeah. Blasphemous. Sacrilegious. It was - somebody close his f***ing eyes and close his mouth. But yeah, that was - thank you for sharing that with me electronically, but let's just say I hope that's an experience that I don't ever have again. So yeah.

SMITH: I'll just tell you...

DUTY: Excuse me a second. I need to use the restroom.


BOWMAN: So you might be wondering, what about General Conway? We know he got a copy of the Marine investigation from Skiles, the same one Jason Duty struggled to read at the bar. What did he think?


SMITH: Well, months later, we finally heard back. Conway wouldn't be sitting down with us after all. He sent a brief email saying he stands by his decision to back Mattis and drop all punishments. His statement reads, quote, "The regrettable incident in the heat of combat was made worse by the failure of higher command to properly notify family members that their Marines had died from friendly fire, a failure that was corrected by the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps as soon as it was discovered."


BOWMAN: As soon as it was discovered. It was strange to read that because Conway knows this wasn't something that was discovered by the Marine Corps. It was dragged out of them on Capitol Hill and largely because of the efforts of one woman. Next time on TAKING COVER, a grieving mother. Not Brad Shuder or Rob Zurheide's - this is Pat Tillman's mother, Dannie.

DANNIE TILLMAN: And so to me, they just lie on a regular basis. And I don't know why they do that because it's very damaging. They don't understand that families will accept the truth. But when you lie to them, you're basically gaslighting them.


BOWMAN: The life and death of the most famous soldier in the U.S. Army. The NFL star turned Army Ranger was accidentally killed in eastern Afghanistan by fellow Americans just 10 days after that Marine mortar landed in the schoolhouse. Tillman's friendly fire was covered up at the highest levels. What happened at the schoolhouse might never have come to light if not for the death of Pat Tillman.

DUNCAN HUNTER SR: I don't disagree with you that the Army screwed that thing up. But yeah - and obviously, they covered it up.


SMITH: And that interpreter we've been wondering about? We finally get a name.

DUANE JOLLY: So I was a staff sergeant at the time. And I had, you know, my two soldiers. And then my interpreter was Shihab.

SMITH: And Shihab...

JOLLY: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Was he - he was an Iraqi national?

JOLLY: He was, yeah. Yeah, he was.


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. We want to take a moment to say we appreciate the feedback we've been getting, and we invite you to review the show. Give us a rating. And to hear our next episode early, sign up for Embedded+ at Or find the Embedded channel in Apple. You'll be supporting our work, and you'll get to listen to the entire season sponsor-free. That's And if you want to get a hold of us directly, I'm and on Twitter at @GPublic.

BOWMAN: And I'm and on Twitter at @TBowmanNPR. We had production help from Nic Neves. Our music comes from Rob Braswell (ph), Peter Duchesne, Brad Honeyman (ph), the Humpmuscle Rolling Circus and the Pomeroys (ph). Sound designed by Josh Rogosin and Graham, with help from Nic. This episode was engineered by Josh Newell and Maggie Luthar. Our really good researcher is Barbara Van Woerkom. We'd like to thank Lisa Gray and Josie Lenora plus Robert Covill (ph) and Maurice Roper (ph). 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.


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