The Pat Tillman case reveals other friendly fire cover-ups by the Marines : Taking Cover The team turns to Pat Tillman's family for help. Duncan Hunter the elder, and the younger, respond to NPR's questions... kind of. A breakthrough in the search for the interpreter has Tom and Graham planning a trip back to where it all began.


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Before we start, we'd like to thank you for listening and ask you to do us a favor. Go ahead and give the show a rating. Write a review. And word of mouth is the most important way of spreading the news about this investigation. Tell your friends to listen. Also, you should know that this podcast deals with war and the consequences of war. You will hear descriptions of violence and explicit language.


Previously on TAKING COVER...

JOHN TOOLAN: Echo Company was angry. They were angry. I mean, I sensed it. And so you need to investigate as quickly as possible because, you know, you can only rip a guy's heart out so many times.

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


MATTHEW 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. We were it.

JASON DUTY: And I think that 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 was what they were trying to avoid with this.

JAMES CONWAY: Guys, I'm telling you. I just - I'd be happy to sit down. But I don't have any direct knowledge. And I'll be honest. I don't remember it even as the commandant. So, you know, shame on me, I guess.


BOWMAN: Now, any time you start talking about friendly fire, there's one name that always comes up - Pat Tillman. We've mentioned him, the NFL star who gave it all up to join the Army and was accidentally killed by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. And Tillman's case parallels our own - the same year, the same month, the same lies. But it's more than that because Pat's fame and his family's fight for the truth - that's why we know about what happened at the schoolhouse.

SMITH: There's often a military presence at big sporting events. It could be a flyover by fighter jets, the color guard carrying flags. Super Bowl LVII this year in Arizona hit a more somber note.


KEVIN COSTNER: Pat Tillman knew he could do more. He gave up his NFL career to join the U.S. Army Rangers and ultimately lost his life in the line of duty.

SMITH: What Kevin Costner's script leaves out is that Tillman's death was a horrible accident. Now, the Super Bowl isn't a place for hard truths. It's a spectacle of patriotism. And 20 years later, they're still using Pat Tillman.

BOWMAN: Some things about Tillman's story are well-known. He was a star player and aggressive safety for the Arizona Cardinals.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: He has no place to go. And Tillman throws him down at the 27-yard line.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: And it's all a result of Pat Tillman staying at home.

SMITH: He had a love of country and talked about his family history of military service.


PAT TILLMAN: You know, my great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. And a lot of my family is - you know, has gone and fought and wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing.

BOWMAN: So shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he gave up millions of dollars to go to war.


SMITH: Pat and his brother Kevin joined the elite Army Rangers, a move that stunned his football coach as well as their family.

Like the 2/1 Marines, the Tillman brothers took part in the initial invasion of Iraq, then, in 2004, Afghanistan. In mid-April, the convoy Pat was in heard gunfire and explosions as it exited a narrow canyon. Pat and the others left their vehicles and climbed up a ridge. He took cover with another ranger and an Afghan militia fighter behind some rocks to keep watch over a following convoy of troops from his unit, including his brother.

BOWMAN: But when this group emerged from the canyon, they mistook Tillman and the others for Taliban. They killed his Afghan comrade and kept shooting even as he hollered, I'm Pat Tillman. I'm Pat Tillman. Three of their bullets struck him in the head. The other ranger lying nearby screamed for help. Within a day, the Army hierarchy, officials at the Pentagon and the White House knew the truth. Men in Pat's unit who saw what happened were told not to say anything about it, that there was an investigation underway. Nobody told Pat's brother Kevin what really happened.

SMITH: Back in California, Pat's wife and mother got those knocks on the door - Army officers with bad news. They were told Pat was killed in a Taliban ambush. And that story, the story that the most famous soldier in the U.S. Army had been killed by hostile fire, quickly makes the news.

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: And I'm Melissa Block. A former professional football player who left the NFL to join the Army has been killed in action in Afghanistan. Two years ago, Pat Tillman walked away from...

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: According to Pentagon sources, 27-year-old Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed last night when his patrol was ambushed in southeastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

SMITH: But, of course, just like with the Shuders and the Zurheides, the story the Tillmans were told, the story we all were told - it wasn't true. I'm Graham Smith.

BOWMAN: I'm Tom Bowman. This is TAKING COVER from NPR. There are a lot of reasons the military and the administration would have wanted to keep this news from the public. April 2004 may have been the worst month of the entire war. President Bush's press conference in mid-April started with a list of the many crises - the growing insurgency in the battle raging in Fallujah, rising violence in Iraq's south. The first question raised an ugly parallel.


TERRENCE HUNT: Thank you. Mr. President, April is turning into the deadliest month in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, and some people are comparing Iraq to Vietnam and talking about a quagmire. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half Americans now support it. What does that say to you, and how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

GEORGE W BUSH: Yeah, I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy is - sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy.

SMITH: And then by month's end, it gets even worse. This story breaks on "60 Minutes" - Abu Ghraib.


DAN RATHER: Americans did this to an Iraqi prisoner. According to the U.S. Army, the man was told to stand on a box with his head covered, with wires attached to his hands. He was told that if he fell off the box, he would be electrocuted.

SMITH: The humiliation, the sexualized torture of Iraqi men by American soldiers, both female and male, led to widespread anger among Iraqis. The country is coming apart. In the midst of this, there's a power vacuum that's leading to the rise of Al-Qaeda there, an organization that long had a safe haven in Afghanistan but whose presence was never known in Iraq during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Increasingly, the two wars are becoming one, what the Bush administration calls the global war on terrorism.

BOWMAN: For weeks after Pat's death, his family had no reason to doubt the Army's story. Pat was killed by Taliban fighters as he hopped out of his vehicle in that canyon in Afghanistan.


RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: In San Jose, Calif., yesterday, several thousand people turned out to honor Pat Tillman.

BOWMAN: The memorial was a patriotic spectacle that seemed more about burnishing support for the war than comforting the family. ESPN carried it live. California's first lady, Maria Shriver, spoke.


MARIA SHRIVER: Forty-three years ago, in his inaugural address, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, who was speaking for his generation, made a suggestion to all generations to come. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. By your deeds, by the choices you made, Pat, you and so many other young Americans have lived those words.

BOWMAN: And the Army made up an entire story about Pat fighting off the Taliban so his fellow rangers could get to safety, a fiction at the heart of the Silver Star citation a friend unwittingly read to the crowd. We'd read all about this in Jon Krakauer's biography of Tillman, "Where Men Win Glory." But the thing is Pat was so famous, and so many guys in his unit knew the real story - an explosive story - it all started to fall apart after just a few weeks.

JOHN HENDREN, BYLINE: The Army initially said he was killed while leading troops in battle. Months later, Army officials acknowledge what they suspected within hours of his death - that he was killed by the so-called friendly fire of his fellow rangers. Regulations require...

BOWMAN: Pat's mom, Dannie, talked to NPR about her frustration.

DANNIE TILLMAN: They could have said that we don't know. We're doing an investigation. But what they did is they made up a story. That's not a misstep, and that's not an error. They made up a story. It was presented on national television. And we believe they did that to promote the war.

SMITH: The more we talked with people involved in the Marine friendly fire, the more people kept bringing up Pat Tillman, the more frustrated we became at the stonewalling from the military, the more we felt like we had to talk with Pat's mom, Dannie. In part, it was because her success in uncovering the lies told by the Army led directly to our story and the Marines. But also, she became an expert in this kind of cover-up. Maybe she could help us understand what was going on.


SMITH: We'll be right back.

What did I do? Are you Dannie?



D TILLMAN: Oh, hi. You're Graham. I just...

SMITH: It's so nice to meet you.

D TILLMAN: ...Texted you. Hi.

BOWMAN: Hi. Tom Bowman.

SMITH: This is Tom.


BOWMAN: Very nice to meet you.

D TILLMAN: Nice to meet you. I parked, like, a mile away.

SMITH: Oh, no.

BOWMAN: Oh, that's too bad.

SMITH: We met Dannie at a hotel cafe near where Pat grew up in San Jose. She remembered back to that big memorial service. The whole family was still in shock, still believing the Army's initial story about how Pat died.

D TILLMAN: So we pictured him literally being shot right at the vehicle. I mean, we thought he'd got out and he got shot. That's how we pictured it for weeks. And then we didn't hear the made-up story that they gave until we went to the memorial. And I don't - I had nothing to do with that memorial. I don't know how it came about.

BOWMAN: But soon after, Dannie got a call from a local newspaper reporter.

D TILLMAN: He asked me what I thought about what - the latest news on Pat or something like that. And I said, well, I don't know what you're talking about. And he said, well, that Pat was killed by friendly fire. And I just said, well, I don't have anything to say about it, and I hung up.

BOWMAN: Dannie talked to her son Kevin, who served with Pat. He told her they'd been lied to. The Army had just broken the news to Kevin that Pat was killed by soldiers in his own platoon. Soon, Dannie received a visit.

What was your reaction?

D TILLMAN: Well...

BOWMAN: What was on your mind?

D TILLMAN: Just the incompetence. You know, just the leadership was just so poor.

BOWMAN: But did you think it was intentional as opposed to...

D TILLMAN: I didn't at first. I don't think anybody did. But later on, me more than anyone thought it was intentional.

BOWMAN: But why?

D TILLMAN: Propaganda, just simply propaganda.

SMITH: Just like in the case we're investigating, the families weren't told the truth. Rob Zurheide's widow, his parents, Brad Shuder's parents - nobody told them there was an investigation, not for three years. But in the case of Pat Tillman, killed just 10 days after the two Marines, the Pentagon's story quickly fell apart.

D TILLMAN: I think they thought that people are going to remember this, and then the rest is just going to fade. No one will really care. And they just didn't think that we'd pursue it because I think they thought that by us doing that, it would diminish Pat. But nothing could diminish Pat to us. And so who cares what other people think? So I don't think that occurred to them at all.

SMITH: Working with lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill, the family forced new investigations and hearings for years, including hearings into whether the military was hiding other friendly fire deaths. And it's because of their stubborn demands that all the branches appear before members of the House Armed Services Committee three years later, in June of 2007, to explain family notification policies.


JOHN MCHUGH: How long does that normally take?

MIKE DOWNS: Well, it took...

MCHUGH: And I'm not talking about that one case.

DOWNS: Sir...

MCHUGH: Normally.

DOWNS: We only have two cases to reference.

MCHUGH: Well...

DOWNS: And the most recent one in 2005 took one month and four days, sir.

MCHUGH: Which is beyond the legal standard. My point is we don't really have a consistent policy. And I understand...

SMITH: That's Marine Corps Brigadier General Mike Downs being grilled by Representative John McHugh.

BOWMAN: The members were right to be skeptical. Here's something you should know. Three officers who were in Fallujah and had direct knowledge of the friendly fire at the schoolhouse were in key positions three years later in Washington, when this hearing took place. One was General James Conway, now the commandant. Remember; he's the one who agreed with Mattis that no one would be punished. Another, Brigadier General John Kelly, who'd been a top aide to Mattis, was head of legislative affairs, which helps prepare Marine officers for exactly this kind of testimony. And working for Kelly, the battalion commander who would approve the mortar mission, Gregg Olson. Olson told us he was working on the Senate side, so he didn't know much about the House hearing. Generals Conway and Kelly - they wouldn't talk with us. All of them were well-informed about the friendly fire that killed Brad Shuder and Rob Zurheide. But in his first hearing, Downs never mentions it, even when pressed by the subcommittee chair, Congressman Vic Snyder.


VIC SNYDER: Yeah. But does the fact that there have been only two confirmed incidents of friendly fire - does that make - cause you to step back and say, or anyone senior to you, that perhaps our system is not turning up every incident, given the great involvement of the Marine Corps in some very difficult fighting from the early days of the war, and you only have two confirmed incidents of friendly fire?

DOWNS: Well, I would - in order to respond to that, I would have to question the performance of duty of individuals that knew something to occur or suspected something to occur that didn't follow the mandate. And I'm not prepared to do that. I haven't been over there, and I just wouldn't idly question the integrity or performance of...

SNYDER: I mean, you heard - you're very much aware that the Army went back and found incidents in which they have had to adjust those conclusions based on the facts that have come out about other cases.

DOWNS: I guess also, Mr. Chairman, I've found that if somebody is suppressing bad news, they don't get to do it forever. There are too many individuals involved. And it sometimes takes time, but bad news surfaces.

SMITH: Bad news surfaces. Well, it doesn't happen all on its own. In this case, the members of the committee pressed. Staffers had already learned that there were more cases that the Marines weren't admitting to. The members demanded the Marines go back, check their records and return. A month and a half later, they're back for another hearing.


DOWNS: On behalf of the commandant of Marine Corps, I apologize for our errors. We thank the subcommittee for this opportunity to correct the record.

BOWMAN: You've heard this tape before, this belated admission of the friendly fire in Fallujah, this promise the wounded would get the truth. It only came about because of the efforts of the Tillman family, grieving and angry over the loss of Pat and the cover-up.


DOWNS: I spoke to Lieutenant General Mattis, the commander of Marine...

BOWMAN: As for the Tillmans, they finally got an apology, indirectly, from a general who was in Pat's chain of command, Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal. That came in 2009, five years after Pat died, when McChrystal was testifying before the Senate seeking a promotion to be the top officer in Afghanistan and getting grilled about the Tillman case.


STAN MCCHRYSTAL: We failed the family. And I was a part of that, and I apologize for it. And I would say that there is nothing we can do to automatically restore the trust which was the second casualty of 22 April. The first was the loss of a great American. The second was a loss of trust with a family and wider than that with some additional people. I will say that...

SMITH: McChrystal says it was all a mistake - pointed to the heavy fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Pat's mother doesn't buy that. She says it was deliberate. It was propaganda trying to sell the war. After that hearing, McChrystal asked to meet with her. She declined.

BOWMAN: So what - which - what do you think, all these years later, about all of this?

D TILLMAN: Well, I think it's a culture of - there's several cultures of - political culture, the military culture - of covering up, of lying, of being afraid to admit to a mistake. And that's pervasive.

BOWMAN: But in your case, you were able to push people to get to the bottom of it. You were able to have hearings. In the case we're working on, these people aren't famous.

D TILLMAN: Right. Course, we got a lot of attention because Pat's name allowed that. And they couldn't get any answers. You know, it's like, we were fortunate. So I also felt like we had an obligation in a way, you know, to bring this to the forefront.

SMITH: Dannie also doesn't accept the explanation that commanders are looking out for the families when they tell them that their loved ones died in battle fighting the enemy, weaving heroic narratives that just aren't true.

D TILLMAN: 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. I mean, it's really traumatizing. And you trust them. You want to trust them. And we felt most comforted by the military after he died, then come to find that they were sort of our enemy because they were, you know, lying and using Pat and using us, and yeah. So they really need to stop doing that. I don't know why they think it helps. It doesn't. It doesn't help anything.

BOWMAN: Vic Snyder was a congressman you heard grilling General Downs in 2007. He's now retired, and he's proud of the committee's oversight work.


BOWMAN: The hearings had forced the Marines to tell the truth about the deaths of Zurheide and Shuder.

SNYDER: Perhaps the inaccuracy would have persisted for all time for those families but for those hearings. The problem is if, literally, a process kind of jacks them around for months and years in a way that it doesn't get resolved or leads them down a wrong path, and then more information comes out that takes them in a different direction, that is - that's not good for that family. But that kind of thing is not good for us as a country.

SMITH: We told the congressman about the initial tip, the notion that this whole thing was covered up because Duncan Hunter was chairman of Armed Services at the time of the incident.

BOWMAN: What do you think about that?

SNYDER: Well, two things - maybe it now is making sense to me why you're digging around on this after 15 years or more. But I - this is the first I've heard of anything like that. I don't have any comment to make.

BOWMAN: Well, there were at least two other people who might be able to shed some light on our tip - the Duncan Hunters, father and son. And you know what? We finally tracked down both of them. That's ahead on TAKING COVER from NPR.


BOWMAN: Duncan Hunter Sr. left Congress to run for president in 2008 - a brief run. He also wrote a book, "Victory In Iraq." There's a lot of detail about that first battle of Fallujah. We told him we wanted to talk about the war and that period in specific...

SMITH: Check, check, check, check.

BOWMAN: ...Set up a time to talk at his hotel when he was in D.C. for meetings.

You know, everything - we're focusing on 2/1...

SMITH: We sat in the hotel's empty restaurant - started talking about that key moment in Fallujah back in 2004 when the Marines were ordered to halt their offensive.

BOWMAN: And that's when they were told to stop.


BOWMAN: And then you said your son...

HUNTER: They were moving them back. Yeah.

BOWMAN: And you said your son called...


BOWMAN: ...On the SAT phone.


BOWMAN: Tell us about that.

HUNTER: Yeah. Well, yeah, well, I was - I got a call from him while we were - while I was chairing the Armed Services Committee. And they said - I said, well, hey, we'll take this later, and said (laughter) it's from Fallujah. So when we got on the phone, he was - you know, he's very straightforward. He was cussing all politicians in general and said...

BOWMAN: Including you?

HUNTER: ...We'd just been ordered to stop the attack. What the hell's going on? And - yeah.

BOWMAN: What did you say to him?

HUNTER: I said, that can't be. I said - and I said, call me back in a couple hours.

SMITH: Well, his son was right. The offensive stopped.

HUNTER: At that point, the Arab press pivoted from, we're being brutalized by the Marines, to, we just beat the - we're beating the Marines. Right? So they - so you ended up with every al-Qaida in the world wanting an I was in Fallujah T-shirt.

BOWMAN: Right. So we talked to a lot of folks, a lot of the Marines from 2/1. They're hunkered down.


BOWMAN: And then there was that incident on the 12 of April.

HUNTER: Well, now, which one are you talking about?

BOWMAN: There was a mortar that fell into the schoolyard.

HUNTER: You're going to have to take a look at the book and refresh me on that.

SMITH: No, it's not actually in the book. Well, this was...

HUNTER: There was a lot of mortars falling. What - you had civilian casualties?

SMITH: No. No. Actually, this is one of the stories, as we've been talking with the guys from...


SMITH: ...2/1...


SMITH: ...Who - you know, it's not mentioned in your book, and it's not mentioned in Bing West's book or really anywhere. It's sort of a lost story. But as it turned out, it was a friendly fire.

HUNTER: Don't know about it. Yeah. Yeah.

BOWMAN: And your son - because he was with 2/1 - did he ever mention it?

HUNTER: No. I mean, my memory of Fallujah is the one that I just described to you. Yeah. Yeah.

BOWMAN: And somebody told me about this several years ago. We started looking into it. You know, they said, you know, Tom, you've been to Iraq a lot. Did you ever hear about this friendly fire incident? I said, well, no. I spent a lot of time there and never heard about this. So we were told it was an investigative report. So we asked the Marines.


BOWMAN: You know, we filed a FOIA. We said, you know, do you have this report? And they couldn't find it. So then we were like, well, maybe there's nothing there. And then we find the relatives of those killed. And, you know, one of them had the report, gave it to us. So we started reading the report.


BOWMAN: And I assumed you would kind of know about it because your son is mentioned because he was in the operation center, and he wrote a statement for the report.


BOWMAN: So I assumed he would have told you about that.

HUNTER: May have. But, I mean, that's...


HUNTER: When you're taking these buildings and you got bullets going every which way...


SMITH: And so one person had said that they wouldn't be surprised if they buried it because they didn't want to piss you off.

BOWMAN: Do you buy that? Does that make sense to you that they would have...

HUNTER: You know, I don't buy being sucked into an incident that I know nothing about. Yeah.

SMITH: So he didn't shut us down, but he maintained he really just didn't know anything about it. He did, however, have thoughts about friendly fires in general.

HUNTER: And, you know, I don't think that makes the heroism of the people who were in the fight any the less heroic. The friendly fire was a little - has always been a little bothersome because I think, to some degree, I'm thinking - and I'm thinking of the Arizona football player who was killed...

BOWMAN: Pat Tillman.

HUNTER: ...With friendly fire. Yeah, it - to some degree, it's used to stigmatize the person who was killed by it. Right? His death was turned into a review of the system that kept this hidden for so long. It was - and so that's a call by the press. It's sensationalism. It sells Coca-Cola. But - no, but I thought that subordinating his heroism to the here's-how-we-screwed-up story was disserved.

BOWMAN: But I think - and I was covering the Pentagon at the time. I remember that very well.


BOWMAN: And I remember shaking my head, talking to people at the Pentagon at that time saying, why don't you guys just come out at a briefing at the Pentagon? You have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs come out, call a press conference and said...


BOWMAN: ...We had a double tragedy today.


BOWMAN: Pat Tillman, who - you're right - gave away everything to serve his country, was killed by his own troops. It was horrific, and I'm going to tell you the story about what happened that day. He went back to help his comrades, and he was killed. It's a tragedy. They messed it up by - you see?

HUNTER: See; I don't disagree with you that the Army screwed that thing up. And obviously, they covered it up. My point is that's true, but the real tragedy is - at least from my perspective, is that that story became the overwhelming story, and the bravery of Pat Tillman was subordinated to it.

SMITH: We thanked him for his time and asked if he would pass word to his son that we wanted to talk.

HUNTER: He hadn't talked to the news media for a long time.

SMITH: We were talking to...

HUNTER: Just remember...

SMITH: What we didn't know during this interview but learned soon after - Chairman Duncan Hunter visited Iraq early summer of 2004, visited Fallujah, where he had a meeting with General James Conway just two days before Conway signed off on the Mattis decision to drop punishments - makes it a little harder to swallow that he never got wind of this thing. But anyway, we gave him our business cards.

BOWMAN: Pass those on to your son.

HUNTER: And I've got your stuff here.

SMITH: Yeah.


SMITH: Yeah. Thanks again.

BOWMAN: Hey. Thanks again. Have a good meeting here, too.

SMITH: Well, what do you think of that?

BOWMAN: Interesting.

SMITH: Hard to figure. No idea - never heard anything about it. Duncan never mentioned it.

BOWMAN: No way the kid's going to call us.


BOWMAN: Good call. The cards, the request to talk, even the letter we had hand-delivered to Duncan Hunter Jr. by a mutual friend, a reporter who had covered the Fallujah deployment - nothing worked. Several times, we even dropped by the father's house in the San Diego foothills. That's where Hunter Jr. lives these days.


SMITH: All right. So, Tom, where are we at, man?

BOWMAN: Well, we're finally going to knock on Duncan Hunter's door and see what we get.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How can I help you?

SMITH: Oh, howdy. Is Duncan around?


SMITH: He's not here today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm not his keeper, dude. I have no idea where he's at or what he's doing.


SMITH: OK. OK. Sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He stays up there.


SMITH: S***. I stepped in dog s***.

BOWMAN: See if second time's the charm.

Hey, how are you doing?

SMITH: Hey, how you doing?

BOWMAN: Congressman?

JOHN HUNTER: Pardon? No, I'm just - I'm his brother.

SMITH: Oh, hey. You look very similar.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman with NPR.

SMITH: Graham Smith. Good to meet you.

BOWMAN: We're actually looking for Duncan Jr. Is he around?

J HUNTER: No, they're up - they're in Texas. They're driving back now. Sorry to disappoint you with the lower Hunter.


SMITH: Do you have a good number for him, if we could give him a call?

J HUNTER: I don't have his number, but I'll just have him call you.



BOWMAN: Awesome. We appreciate it.

J HUNTER: OK. Thanks.

BOWMAN: Have a good one.

J HUNTER: Talk to you guys later. Bye-bye.

SMITH: He seemed nice. Don't have his number, but I'll talk to him - tell him you called on the number that I don't have.


BOWMAN: Third time here. Third time's the charm.

SMITH: Hopefully.


SMITH: We really wanted to give him a chance to respond to the things we'd learned from the report and been told along the way.

Maybe we should bail soon anyhow. All right. Going to turn this off for now.

So we decided we had to go one more step. He had a court date coming up - child support adjustment. We asked our colleague Steve Walsh to go there. He waited at the courthouse door - got Hunter's attention as he went through security.


STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Mr. Hunter, I'm with National Public Radio.


WALSH: I'd like to ask you about your involvement in the 2004 friendly fire.

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: Hey, it's nice of you to be here - came all the way to El Cajon Court.

WALSH: Can you tell me how you're involved - about your involvement that day?

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: The Marine Corps's handled this. They've looked into it. I was a lieutenant.

WALSH: Can you describe what you did that day? You were in the fire control room.

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: There was no fire control room. It was an apartment complex in Fallujah.

WALSH: And so what did you do that day?

DUNCAN HUNTER JR: I did artillery.

SMITH: He did artillery. Well, our colleague was told he couldn't record inside the courthouse, so that was the end of that. Hunter wouldn't talk about his role plotting the mortar mission that ended up killing people at the schoolhouse. He wouldn't talk about how the families were so badly treated and whether it might have had to do with his father's position.


SMITH: When James Mattis overturned the punishments for this friendly fire, he blamed the fog of war. But when you look at the whole scope of this disaster beyond the battlefield, it seems the haze obscuring all of it smells more like smog than fog - man-made.


BOWMAN: So three years into this investigation, what do we know? We know the officers realized immediately this was friendly fire, but everyone was told not to talk about it until investigation was completed. The families of Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder were told the men died from hostile fire. We know the investigation wrapped up just four months later, and General Mattis handed a copy of the investigative report to the battalion commander who approved the mortar mission - told him to read it. But neither Mattis nor any other senior officer made sure the families got a copy.

We also know that, just as that source told me in a D.C. whiskey bar, the son of a powerful U.S. politician was involved in the deadly screw-up. Duncan Hunter Jr., son of the House Armed Services Committee chairman, was in Fallujah, was there in the room at the fire control center that night - one of three men handling the mortar mission.

SMITH: We know the battalion commander, another of those three men, somehow revised the story given to the JAGMAN investigator, but we don't know why. He initially told us that the mishap started when Hunter pointed to the wrong target on a map. He later revised that story saying that upon reflection, he realized he got it wrong. Regardless, we know Hunter Jr. was never cited for his role in the deadly mistake. The battalion commander and Hunter said he was still in training - bird-dogging. Although another officer disputed that, saying Hunter was, in fact, doing the job.

And we know that after the explosion on June 28, 2004, Congressman Duncan Hunter visited Fallujah and met with General Conway. Two days later, on June 30, Conway signed off on General Mattis' decision to overturn the punishments, effectively closing the book on the whole incident.

BOWMAN: We know even the leaders of Echo Company were not told when the investigation was completed as called for in the report, and it appears no lessons were learned from it. We know April of 2004 was a terrible month for the U.S. war effort, and nobody wanted another bad news story. Even three years later, the Marine Corps initially failed to disclose this incident to Congress. We know when they were dragged back to Capitol Hill a second time, they promised to share the results of the investigation with all of the men who were seriously wounded in the explosion. They broke that promise.

SMITH: We know the Marines, at first, told us they couldn't find a copy of that JAGMAN investigation. It took years of litigation and a federal judge forcing them to look again, and in more places, before the Marines finally coughed up a copy. And when they did turn over the JAGMAN, it was highly redacted, withholding all of the information about punishments being overturned.

BOWMAN: We know General Conway, who became commandant, said he couldn't even remember this case - a tragedy other generals told us was the worst Marine-on-Marine friendly fire in decades. And then he refused to sit down for an interview, just like James Mattis.

SMITH: And we know that nobody was punished for the failure to notify the families and the wounded.


BOWMAN: We don't know if the Marine Corps will ever make this right. We asked General David Berger, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, whether the Marines would investigate this situation, whether anyone would reach out to the families of the dead to apologize and whether the wounded men would receive full copies of the investigative report so they could at least put it in their medical files. Maybe those things will happen.

SMITH: And with all of that in mind, consider the case of Pat Tillman, the case everyone knows was covered up. Duncan Hunter Sr. himself said as much in our interview. Even there, there's no smoking gun. There was no punishment. Nobody ever took the blame or really - as Pat's mom, Dannie, told us - ever accepted responsibility for lying to the families and to the American public.

BOWMAN: Yeah, but no one ever told you why it was covered up.

D TILLMAN: No. Or who...

BOWMAN: Or who did...

D TILLMAN: ...Or where it originated. Nobody - we don't know where it originated. No, we don't.


BOWMAN: And if the mother of the most famous soldier in the country can't get that, maybe it was always too much to expect the military to do the right thing for the families of Robert Zurheide and Brad Shuder.


SMITH: But we're not finished because remember - there was a third man killed in the explosion at the schoolhouse - an interpreter. He's not mentioned anywhere in the investigation, but as much as the official accounts may want to erase the very existence of that interpreter, we can't. We can't ignore him because the guys - they remember him. They insisted he not be forgotten.

BOWMAN: We weren't sure if he was a U.S. citizen, whether he was working for a contractor or the U.S. military directly. We didn't know if his family had ever been contacted, although even if they were, it's doubtful they got the straight story. For years, we wondered if we might find this guy's family, explain things.

SMITH: We'd figured out that this interpreter was in the schoolhouse that day not working for the Marines but for a U.S. Army PsyOp team. That's psychological operations. Basically, their job was stuff like dropping leaflets, urging locals to clear the city or taunting the insurgents over loudspeakers into exposing their positions so that snipers could take them out. Breaking enemy morale. PsyOp is part of special operations, so not super easy to find. But after yet another late-night search, I discovered a Facebook page with shoulder patches used by different units. And from comments on the page, I deduced who was in Fallujah at that time. This patch had a gorilla shouting into a megaphone. One call led to another, and that's how I ended up on the phone with one of the PsyOps soldiers who was actually in the school with the Marines, one of the guys who'd been with the interpreter, a recently retired sergeant major named Duane Jolly. He was out in Hawaii.


SMITH: Hey. Is that Duane?

JOLLY: Yeah.

SMITH: It's Graham.

JOLLY: Oh, hey. Hey. OK.

SMITH: Thank you so much for talking with me - for agreeing to talk with me.

JOLLY: Yeah.

SMITH: So let me tell you a little bit about me and...

JOLLY: Yes, please.

SMITH: ...What I'm trying to do because you don't know me from Adam, but...

JOLLY: Right.

SMITH: ...I'm a producer at National Public Radio, and...


SMITH: ...I've been working for, actually, a couple of years to try to understand really what went down.

It was strange. We'd basically come to accept that we'd never crack the mystery of this third man. But here we are, finally talking with someone who knew him. Duane was a staff sergeant then, the PsyOp team leader.

JOLLY: And I had 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: Can you tell me about him? Did you know his family?

JOLLY: Oh, yeah. I know that his - I don't know exactly where his family lived but somewhere in Baghdad. I know they were a Shia family. He was quite devout. In fact, there were some PsyOp messages that he just wouldn't do because he didn't want to curse in it, you know?

SMITH: Yeah.

JOLLY: Like they - the Marines are going to f*** you in the a** or something like that, you know, just something s***ty just to - and he was like, no, no, no, I can't say that. He just - you know, he was like, look. I want to help you in every way I can, but I'm not going to lower myself, you know, in the eyes of my God, basically...

SMITH: Yeah.

JOLLY: ...Was kind of his thought, you know?

SMITH: Right.

JOLLY: And, you know, liked his chow, loved his family and just, you know, pretty gentle, devout dude. He had a - in fact, I still have it. I still have his prayer stone at my house. He had a prayer stone that, you know, the Shias - they use this - whenever they are praying, they use a stone, and they put their head on that when they bow down. His dad was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, so he was the breadwinner for the family. And I think he had one brother and maybe two sisters.

BOWMAN: Jolly and his team had been in Fallujah for months by the time the Marines arrived, but they moved around a lot between units. Late afternoon, April 12, they linked up with Echo Company.

JOLLY: And the Marines brought us back to that school after everyone else had gotten there.

SMITH: Right.

JOLLY: Yeah. We - I mean, we literally had, like, dumped our gear. And the two other guys are smokers, so they decided to go have a cigarette.

SMITH: And did Shihab go with them, or was he with you?

JOLLY: So Shihab - he was always hungry. So Shihab went - there was a pile of MREs on the - it would have been the eastern side of that courtyard. So that's - Shihab was over there digging through the MRE box. He was a pretty devout guy, so I'm sure he was looking for one that didn't have any pork in it.

SMITH: Right.

JOLLY: But that's when the mortar hit.

SMITH: Did you know - I mean...


SMITH: ...You couldn't have known it was a mortar at the time, right? Just something blew up?

JOLLY: Yeah. Well, I mean, I didn't know - I picked myself up against the wall because it threw me against the wall. And, you know, everything was, you know, like, dirt. You know, I couldn't see anything, and my ears were ringing, and I wasn't sure what had just happened. I just knew that I was against the wall, and I was trying to breathe and thought, oh, well, that's not good. And then I kind of went forward towards the courtyard because I want - you know, I mean, I knew my guys were there a little bit ago. So I'm trying to find my guys. And I had found - I walked forward and I could hear people yelling to my left.

SMITH: His whole team was down. Shihab took a ton of damage to his legs, his back, his head. The two others, like so many of the Marines, had been cut down. They were evacuated through the firefight. Dwayne rode to the field hospital with Shihab, who was incoherent, he'd lost so much blood.

You must have felt like you were on Mars. I mean, you show up, and within 20 minutes, you're the last man standing out of your team.

JOLLY: Yeah.

SMITH: What...

JOLLY: Well, what really sucked was not only - all right, so the worst - and this is the part, you know, really f***s me in PTSD. And the worst part about this whole thing for me is that when we were hiring Shihab, you know, I went to Baghdad to pick a new interpreter. And I don't remember why, what happened to the old one, but I needed a new interpreter. And Shihab didn't want to go to Fallujah because he knew that Fallujah is a bad place. And plus, Shihab was a Shia.

SMITH: Yeah.

JOLLY: And Fallujah is full of Sunnis. And he didn't want to go, but I told him - I said, you know, don't worry, buddy. You know, if people start shooting at us, you just get behind me. I guarantee you I'll take care of you. And that's the part, you know, in therapy that I really have had a hard time with and still do. I'm powering through it now, but I'm trying not to think about it too much - is the fact that I told him he'd be fine, and then he gets killed. And that really f***s me up pretty bad.

SMITH: Yeah.

JOLLY: Well, of course, nobody can catch a mortar. I mean, it's not like I could jump in front of that. But still, I felt like, you know, he trusted me. And, you know, he was a great guy, and he's still dead.

Yeah. They medevaced him to Baghdad. And so it was a couple of days later, after this particular - once I dropped him off at the hospital, I went and found my - it's not his fault. But, you know, I went and found my detachment sergeant. And when he opened that door, I, like, threw - I had someone's bloody boot, and I, like, threw it at him. I'm like, everybody's in the f***ing hospital. So, you know, when you're that much emotion, you know, just venting on somebody. So anyway, I went and found him. And I was like, give me some f***ing cigarettes - because I had stopped smoking after Kosovo. I was at Kosovo in '99. And - but I needed smokes that day.

SMITH: You know, I - my hope has always been to find out about the interpreter who was with the PsyOp team and see if I could find his family and find out, like, if they had ever learned what happened and maybe to get to Baghdad at some point.

JOLLY: Man, if you do, you have to tell me. I would be so happy just to, you know, tell them, you know, what he meant to me and how awful, you know, I guess, or how - I don't know - just how much his memory still lives within me every single day. Every single day.

SMITH: I can hear it, man.

JOLLY: Yeah. So, in fact, at one point 10 years ago or so, probably - you know, I was not nearly as composed as I am now, so - and I was drinking a ton, and I was an absolute mess. I used to - I would drink till I'm blackout drunk, and then when I wake up in the morning, I'd see where I'd looked up his name to see if I could, you know, find his family or whatever. I'd see his name, like, you know, in my history, search history on the computer.

SMITH: Yeah.

JOLLY: But I don't remember doing it. You know, I just saw it. And, like, ugh. And then that makes it worse, and then I'd drink some more. And that - you know, I'll always carry that guy. You know, real quick, when I was really having a hard time, my mom - she's married to a Vietnam vet. And I had called him. And, you know, I was crying, and I was like, bro, you know, is this s*** ever going to go away? He was like, nope. And 17 years later, he was not wrong. Doesn't go away.

BOWMAN: I'm not surprised at all by Duane's obvious pain, his love for Shihab because interpreters become like brothers in a combat zone. They don't just help you navigate the language or the culture, avoid taboos. They also can save your life. There are times when interpreters are heroes. I know. Our interpreter and fellow journalist in Afghanistan, Zabi Tammana, would tell us what roads to avoid, what villages. Too dangerous, he would say, after getting off the phone with his contacts. That all ended on a stretch of highway in western Afghanistan nearly seven years ago outside the city of Marjah. We were ambushed, and Zabi desperately tried to save our friend, NPR photographer David Gilkey. Both of them lost their lives.


SMITH: Having finally found his identity, knowing Shihab was from Baghdad, we knew we'd have to find his family, go visit them. Duane shared Shihab's full name, but we don't want to disclose that here, for reasons you'll come to understand in our next, final episode. We reached out to NPR's Iraqi reporter there, Awadh al-Taei, sent him a picture Duane shared with us. Awadh worked for months, searching databases, visiting neighborhoods to ask around, going to the morgue, to hospitals, looking for records. And we can't overstate how much he worked it.

BOWMAN: He was pretty sure he'd identified the neighborhood where they lived. He asked around in shops, did anyone know Shihab, his family? Finally, at a small food store, the manager says he might know one of Shihab's brothers. He makes a call. Soon, a nervous young man approaches. Awadh told us about it over the phone.

AWADH AL-TAEI, BYLINE: I told him, hi, I am a journalist, and I am looking for someone, his name, and this is his picture. He told me, yes, this is my brother picture. And, you know, his tears start. And he tells, from where you get this picture? I told him, from a journalist based in U.S., and we need information about you and your brother we might met or something like this.

BOWMAN: This young man and his siblings - they had no idea exactly how Shihab had died. They'd been told by a U.S. officer that their brother was killed by terrorists.

SMITH: Next time, in the final episode of TAKING COVER, Tom and I head to Baghdad. There's one more lie we want to set straight, one more family that's been left in the dark for too long.

ARKAN: I don't care. So why he didn't tell us? I don't f***ing care about any f***ing thing. Why he lied to us? That I want to know.

BOWMAN: And we go to Fallujah, the city where all of this started, to visit the schoolhouse and meet some of the people on the other side of the American occupation.

UNIDENTIFIED SHEIKH: (Through interpreter) The Americans occupied that school. People start thinking and make meetings, how to make the resistance groups to fight the Americans because people - and start to educate people and recruiting them to join the resistance because you think people - these resistance group are saying the Americans came by force. We will force them by force to leave.


BOWMAN: TAKING COVER is created and reported by us, Tom Bowman and Graham Smith. And we should note we work at NPR. We are not commercial media. We are not state-sponsored media. We work for you, the listeners. And the single most important thing you can do to support our work is to give to your local public radio station, become a member, get involved.

Among the other people putting their shoulders to the TAKING COVER wheel - our producer Chris Haxel, also our editor Robert Little, along with Kamala Kelkar.

SMITH: We have production help from Nic Neves. Our music comes from the Humpmuscle Rolling Circus and The Pomeroys. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and me, with help from Nic. Our engineers are Josh Newell and Maggie Luthar. Our fact-checker is Barbara Van Woerkom. Special thanks to CSPAN this week for archival tape and to Lulu Garcia-Navarro and Eric Westervelt, as well as Didi Schanche, Larry Kaplow and Caroline Drees. If you'd like to share your thoughts with us directly, I'm, and Tom is That's T-B-O-W-M-A-N. We 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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