Marines lied to the family of an Iraqi translator killed by friendly fire : Taking Cover Tom and Graham meet Shihab's brother in Baghdad — but he's wary. They also visit Fallujah, to find the schoolhouse and talk with people who were on the other side of the occupation. Then, finally... back to Camp Pendleton.

The Gulf School

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A note before we start - this program deals with war. You'll hear descriptions of violence and strong language.


Previously on TAKING COVER...


DANNIE TILLMAN: There are several cultures - political culture, the military culture - of covering up, of lying, of being afraid to admit to a mistake.

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

ELENA ZURHEIDE: And then the two that were killed.

SMITH: Three killed.

ZURHEIDE: There were two. I was told...

SMITH: Two Marines. There was an Army interpreter.

ZURHEIDE: Really? That's...

SMITH: Yeah.

ZURHEIDE: ...News to me.

SMITH: My hope has always been to see if I could find his family and maybe to get to Baghdad.

DUANE JOLLY: Man, if you do, you have to tell me. I would be so happy just to tell them - I don't know - just how much his memory still lives within me every single day.


BOWMAN: In the middle of Baghdad, there's a warren of narrow walkways with stalls and little shops. The air has a sweet scent. There's food and ice cream and bags of spices and nuts.

SMITH: Skateboards and soccer balls and T-shirts.

AWADH AL TAIE, BYLINE: Yeah. It's mostly secondhand. Yeah.

BOWMAN: Clusters of older men sip tea and chat, haggling over antiques. They call it the thieves' market.

SMITH: I could use a pair of sneakers, to tell you the truth.

BOWMAN: Oh, go with those gold ones.

SMITH: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Back in 2007, when Graham and I were last in Baghdad together, we could never walk around here among the locals or, really, anywhere else - too dangerous. Kidnappings, shootings, even truck bombs - they happened all the time. We're clearly not locals, so we got some curious glances, even a couple of smiles, but no hard looks.

AL TAIE: So a shortcut.


BOWMAN: We're here with Awadh al Taie from our Baghdad office and NPR photographer Claire Harbage to finally talk with the family of Shihab, the third man killed in that friendly fire, the one left out of the investigative report. This was his hometown. After we got his name from one of the soldiers, Awadh found his family. We'll meet one of his brothers tonight.

AL TAIE: We may finish our tour inside the market.

SMITH: We emerge into Baghdad's Tahrir Square, Liberation Square.

AL TAIE: Up there, there is the T walls. We call it the borders between protesters and the security forces.

SMITH: There's a heavy police presence. It's always been a hub for demonstrations, most recently protests over poverty and government corruption. A couple dozen cops in black body armor watch over the traffic, sweating in the sun.

AL TAIE: So many protesters being killed and wounded, in this place especially.


SMITH: This country - it's kind of a dysfunctional democracy these days. Factions bicker over the creation of a new government. They fight about oil revenues and representation. There aren't running gun battles in the streets anymore, but Iranian-backed militias do occasionally fire a rocket towards the fortified Green Zone, government buildings and foreign embassies.

BOWMAN: We're walking across a bridge now over the Tigris River. And back when we were here, our life was in a one-block street. And at each end, there were these huge, concrete blast walls with a guard at either end with an AK-47. It's just so weird to walk around Baghdad openly through the thieves' market and down the street around Tahrir Square.

SMITH: And we'd hear bombs all the time. I mean...

BOWMAN: Not only bombs. You'd hear small weapons fire, like, a block away. I remember once there was a fight between one former government official and the current government official's militia. And we called and asked about it. They said, oh, yeah, these guys are just fighting - no big deal. Watch out for the bike - another lane.

SMITH: What Americans call the Iraq War may be over, but not what it unleashed - bitter sectarian tensions, broken families and cities still struggling to rebuild. And don't forget there are still more than 2,000 American troops in Iraq. Some partner almost every day with Iraqi forces to go after the remnants of ISIS. So that war on terror - it lives on, no end in sight. I'm Graham Smith.

BOWMAN: And I'm Tom Bowman. This is TAKING COVER from NPR. We told you from the beginning that we're working to learn about the lives lost and why the families and the wounded still don't know the truth about what happened to them on the worst day of their lives. But there's still one more family, an Iraqi family that never even heard a rumor about the friendly fire. They want to know what happened. We're here to tell them the truth.

SMITH: OK - check one, two.

Awadh has arranged for Shihab's youngest brother, Arkan, to come to our hotel. It's kind of an audition. He wants to meet us. We hope that he'll help set up a meeting with the whole family so we could hear about Shihab - get a sense of who he was and tell them what we'd learned about his death.

Over here would be better, I think.

BOWMAN: All right.

SMITH: It'll be a little quieter.


SMITH: Claire, yeah.

HARBAGE: Nice to meet you.

SMITH: So you speak English?

ARKAN: Yeah. It's not too good.

SMITH: I don't speak any Arabic, so...


SMITH: Can we go over in the corner here, and we'll chat?

ARKAN: Yeah.

BOWMAN: We tell Arkan we heard a little bit about Shihab from the guys who were at the schoolhouse.

SMITH: And we also want to be able to share with you what we've learned about the incident because I'm sure that you never really got...


SMITH: ...Much information.

ARKAN: Yeah. No. They didn't tell me anything about that accident.

BOWMAN: As Arkan listens, even in this upscale hotel, he's edgy, glancing around the lobby to see if he's being watched. And he's clearly worried about neighbors seeing Westerners visit the family home.

SMITH: So when you get the phone call saying that Awadh was looking for Shihab's brother, what did you think?

ARKAN: Scared too much.

BOWMAN: You didn't think it would be good news.

ARKAN: Yeah. That scare me. Just till now, I'm scared. I'm terrified.

SMITH: Even right now, talking to us?

ARKAN: Even right now.

SMITH: I understand. Yeah.


SMITH: Well, I'll tell you, we don't bite (laughter).

ARKAN: No. It's not about that. No. I'm scared about the situation.

SMITH: Yeah.


SMITH: Arkan says his family has had to move more than a dozen times since Shihab was killed, fearful of those neighbors and of rumors. In so many of America's conflicts, interpreters are essential. But like journalists, they operate in a liminal space, a sometimes uncomfortable existence on both sides of cultural boundaries. Military interpreters in Iraq, Afghanistan, back in Vietnam - they might save soldiers' lives. They've doubtless saved many local lives, too. Yet for all of the friction they can ease, they're often seen as sellouts or traitors by their fellow countrymen. That's why we're not using Shihab's surnames. Even today, his family is in danger because of his work with the Americans. As a teen, Arkan was badly beaten by militia members because of it.


BOWMAN: He won't commit to the visit, says he'll need to talk with his older sister. Maybe the interview isn't going to happen. He tells us they live in an apartment behind a mechanic's garage. If we're going to come by, it will have to be after dark, after the workers are gone. We'll have to keep a low profile.

SMITH: The next morning - good news. Awadh tells us they've worked it out. We're back on track. The family will meet us that evening - Arkan, his older sister, who's the matriarch of sorts, and a younger sister, Aliaa.

BOWMAN: The neighborhood we're headed to - early in the war, it was pretty much a no-go zone, a mixed neighborhood of Sunni and Shia that descended into sectarian clashes. Even in late afternoon, the sun is beating down. Awadh takes us to a little shop for sodas, here in what used to be a launching area for rockets fired toward that Green Zone.

SMITH: I got to say, your Coca-Cola's pretty good.

AL TAIE: Yeah. It's called Baghdad...

BOWMAN: With the end of the day, it should be safe for us to go to their home. We get word the workers have left.

HARBAGE: So we're going in as low-key as possible. I put my camera away.

ARKAN: Not yet. Just keep the camera down.

HARBAGE: No, no. Yeah. I put it in my bag.

ARKAN: Yeah. Yeah. No problem.


SMITH: Good to go?

AL TAIE: Yeah.

BOWMAN: We slip into the auto repair shop. Arkan is there smiling, and he leads us between a tool bench and a white car with its hood up, out a back door and along a dimly lit walkway. We come to another building in the back of the garage. He invites us into a bright sitting room - whitewashed walls with high ceilings, couches set along three sides.

Hi, Tom. Very nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Nice to meet you too, boss.

SMITH: We ask Arkan to shut off the noisy air conditioner - it's a radio thing - even in the Baghdad heat.

But it can wait for a minute if you want.

And as we're settling in and they're beginning to bring in cups of tea and trays of baklava, the older sister, Nidhal, is talking with Awadh. He's explaining why we're here, and they're becoming more and more animated.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Nidhal wants Awadh to ask us a question.

AL TAIE: Does he killed by American shelling?

SMITH: That's kind of at the part of the story here.


BOWMAN: It was a mistake. It was an accident.

SMITH: We want to tell them all about this.

AL TAIE: I tell them by a friendly fire.

BOWMAN: Yes. Yes.

AL TAIE: Yeah?

SMITH: Yeah. But this is part of what we want to actually talk about with them.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: Nidhal is shocked.

NIDHAL: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: She says Shihab's death caused them incredible hardship. She had to work as a housekeeper, take care of sick people to make ends meet.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic). She's very angry because she said, I suffer a lot after Shihab's death.

BOWMAN: We told her we would share everything we'd learned.

Is it OK?

AL TAIE: They will listen from us...

BOWMAN: And we're OK?

AL TAIE: And then they will tell us about Shihab.

BOWMAN: OK, good.

AL TAIE: If they have any questions, they should ask us about it.



BOWMAN: We tell them about the Marines who were killed, about the friendly fire, about our visit with Elena Zurheide, that she shared the report with us, and about our journey up the chain of command.

SMITH: We tell them about how for years, we couldn't get a name for Shihab until we found the PSYOP team, and about how the men who bound Shihab's wounds remember him talking about them - his family.

You know, before he went unconscious, he was talking about his sister and how proud he was of his sister and how much he cared about his family and how much he loved them. And I also wanted to say that...

NIDHAL: (Sniffling).

SMITH: Even though the report didn't say anything about the Iraqi interpreter, it was very important to these Marines and to the medics who were there that everybody remember there was a third man killed. They wanted to make sure nobody forgot him, but we didn't know anything about him.

BOWMAN: They hand us a small stack of photographs.

ARKAN: So he has the same photos that - they have the same photos that Duane sent.

BOWMAN: Right. That's a great picture.

Nidhal says their mother died when the kids were little. Their father was an intelligence officer. But eventually, he became disillusioned with Saddam's regime and came under suspicion. She says he was assassinated by Iraqi agents in Dubai. That left the children - four boys, two girls - on their own. In this family of orphans, the two eldest became like mom and dad. Nidhal worked to help Shihab finished college. Then he became the main breadwinner. After the invasion, he signed up as an interpreter for the Americans.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) When the Americans first arrived, we all loved them. Shihab loved them. He used to bring us all to the train station to see the U.S. soldiers. So that was part of it. But also, we desperately needed money.

SMITH: Tell me a couple of stories about things you remember that you love about him. He raised you.

ARKAN: Yeah. He's like a father, not like a brother. He's a, like, friend. (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Arkan says Shihab taught him taekwondo and chess. He remembers Shihab used to win even after taking most of his pieces off the board. He also showed them woodworking, made them little toys, and he taught them all how to swim. He'd take the whole family down to the river.

ALIAA: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: The youngest, Aliaa, jumps in.

ALIAA: (Through interpreter) He told us we had to study. He had a small library. He would help with homework, and if we finished a book, he would let us watch cartoons on his computer or from a DVD.

SMITH: And then they tell us something surprising, sort of tragic. It has to do with one of the other brothers, Ammar. After Shihab was killed, Ammar went to work for the Americans.

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: He says 90% of the reason why Ammar became an interpreter was because of the grudge he held against the insurgents.

BOWMAN: So he joined the army to avenge...

AL TAIE: To avenge from the insurgents, from the terrorists.

BOWMAN: Because he assumed his brother was killed by insurgents.

AL TAIE: Yes. Yeah.

BOWMAN: They say Ammar moved to the States more than a decade ago. They think he's still working with the American military, but they haven't heard from him for two years.

SMITH: I also wanted to say, just to all of you, I mean, it's very awkward to tell you the things we've learned because it's not good news. It's - but we feel like you deserve to know the truth.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) Shihab was making good money. He said he would buy us a house one day, but I remember the last time I saw him in early April. We stayed up so late talking, but then when he told me he was going to Fallujah, how the situation there was escalating, an ominous feeling rose up.

BOWMAN: What's the last thing you said to him? Did you say be careful? Did you say, I'm worried about you? Do you remember what you said to him?

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) I told him this might be our last farewell. Three days after he went away, I had a dream. Shihab was there, and he told me, they are sending me to Arizona. And I asked him, why Arizona? And he told me because it's very beautiful over there. Well, he went away to Fallujah and a few days later, neighbors told us American soldiers arrived in armored vehicles knocking on doors. They were looking for Shihab's family. Nobody would tell them where we lived. Then a friend of his, Fadi, came to say Shihab was killed.


NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) He said we should go get his body from the morgue.


BOWMAN: Nidhal says shortly after the family buried Shihab in the holy city of Najaf, she and the oldest brother were asked to go to the Green Zone to meet an American general. She doesn't remember his name.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) The general was very heartbroken for Shihab. He cried when he first saw me. He offered his condolences, and he gave me this certificate.

BOWMAN: They hand the document to us. It recognizes Shihab's service to the Marine Corps. The last line - Major General Mattis would like to thank you for your sacrifice and devotion in helping the great nation of Iraq.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) Yes. And he gave me $9,000 and handed me his clothes and belongings.

SMITH: At that time, families of U.S. service members received a death gratuity of $100,000, and most got a quarter-of-a-million-dollar insurance payout. Shihab's family tells us they got $9,000 cash and a certificate of appreciation. What they didn't get was the truth.

BOWMAN: And again, I just want to be doubly sure - the general definitely said it was a terrorist, an enemy rocket.

ARKAN: (Non-English language spoken).

AL TAIE: So he said the terrorist launched a rocket and caused the death of Shihab.

BOWMAN: But nothing about what happened and how it happened.

AL TAIE: Never. No - any details about when and why.

ARKAN: Just to say he killed by terrorist, not friendly fire.

SMITH: We hand them a copy of the investigative report. Arkan can read English, but we've had the summary translated to Arabic.

So I know this is a lot to read. And you didn't even get a chance to read that part. Do you want to take a second to read it?

We explained the essence of the findings in the report.

Nobody ever said that it was done on purpose. Nobody was trying to hurt their Marines. What they said was it was just a mistake, and it landed in the wrong place. But there's no doubt whatsoever that it was definitely an American mortar.

ARKAN: Why he didn't tell the truth?

SMITH: Well, that's the question.

BOWMAN: Well, here's the thing. We should start it...

ARKAN: I don't want anything.

BOWMAN: Well, we should...

ARKAN: Why he didn't tell the truth? I don't care. So why he didn't tell us? I don't f***ing care about any f***ing thing. Why he a liar to us? That's I want to know - why he's a liar to us.

BOWMAN: Well, that's what I was going to say. You guys were lied to. The American families were lied to, told the same story, that it was hostile fire. It was enemy fire. It was terrorism.

SMITH: But your question, Arkan, is exactly the question we've been asking. Why did they lie to the families?


BOWMAN: Remember, the Zurheides and the Shuders - they'd heard rumors almost immediately, and the Marines eventually told them it was friendly fire. Shihab's family - they've been living with this lie for nearly 20 years.

NIDHAL: (Through interpreter) I always liked the Americans. For me, the American soldiers were above everything, especially the Marines. When Shihab first worked with the Marines, you could never imagine how much I loved them. If an Iraqi spoke badly about an American, I would hate the Iraqi and love the American. Ever since they got rid of Saddam, I had this deep faith that those soldiers were more honorable than Saddam and Iraqi politicians because the Americans rid us of agony and of untold suffering. I felt that way up until this moment. But now it turns out that I was such a fool. I was so wrong.

ARKAN: Is that country of freedom?

SMITH: It's a screw-up. I mean, this is part of why we're here. I mean, I don't think there's any difference between Iraqis and Americans. And you deserve to look at the report and know what happened. They should have told you the truth.

BOWMAN: We talk for a while longer, answer what we can, tell them how Duane Jolly said he wonders whether one day he could visit them, return Shihab's prayer stone.

ARKAN: He's welcome.

BOWMAN: They also ask if we have any advice how they might approach the American government for help. Living in poverty in Baghdad - it's not easy.

ALIAA: (Through interpreter) When we lost Shihab, we lost both spiritually and financially. So what can the American side offer now to compensate us? We are not asking too much. Maybe if they can just find a job for me or for Arkan.

SMITH: We have to tell them we're not really sure. It seems like that would be a question for the U.S. embassy. And we're surprised when, despite all the anger and disappointment, Arkan tells us he still wishes he could move to the United States someday.

It's very special to be here with you and with your family. And we appreciate you having us into your home.

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: And thank you for the delicious tea and for the sweets.

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Excellent.

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Thank you.

NIDHAL: (Speaking Arabic).

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

NIDHAL: (Speaking Arabic).

ARKAN: (Speaking Arabic).

NIDHAL: (Speaking Arabic).

AL TAIE: We would like you to stay here with us. And we will make dinner.

BOWMAN: We thank them again, but we've intruded enough, and we still have work to do sorting out the logistics for our next stop - Fallujah.


BOWMAN: The drive from central Baghdad to Fallujah is just over 30 miles.

See these crossed swords up ahead?


The highway cuts through a flat expanse, a patchwork of fields and long stretches of desert.

It's pretty - it doesn't - there's not, like, a dust storm, really, today. But everything looks a little dusty.

AL TAIE: Yeah.

SMITH: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And I just saw the highway sign said, Abu Ghraib, this way.

SMITH: You saw that just now?


SMITH: We have to stop at a couple of checkpoints. There's a long line of cars and trucks on the side of the road. Soldiers look over our papers, pop the trunk.

BOWMAN: Reporters need to get government permission to enter Fallujah. There are still traces of ISIS, and it's on the route Iranian militias take to get to Syria. But we really want to visit the schoolhouse, see for ourselves this place that's become so important, almost mythical, in this story. And we wanted to talk with people who are on the other side of the conflict - the occupied.

SMITH: Awadh arranged a meeting with a couple of sheikhs, local tribal leaders from the Jolan neighborhood where the schoolhouse is. They also taught at the school back in the day. We'd heard so much from the Marines about the violence, the insurgents at the tire barricade. What was it like for the Iraqis who lived there?

BOWMAN: What does that sign say there in front of us?

AL TAIE: Welcome in Anbar province, the city of reconstruction and peace.

BOWMAN: Yeah, it looks a lot different.

SMITH: Yeah, it looks a lot different.

AL TAIE: This is a new thing.

BOWMAN: Buildings going up.

AL TAIE: This is the new municipality building for Fallujah.

BOWMAN: A lot of construction here.


SMITH: Fallujah's nickname is the city of mosques, and the minarets rise high above the buildings. Some are bright with white and blue tiles laced with gold script, but some are still heavily damaged from tank and artillery rounds.

AL TAIE: So this building and this building - their owners refuse to renovate it.

HARBAGE: And this one, too, up to the right?

AL TAIE: Yes, yes, yes.

SMITH: And did they leave them kind of partially still damaged so people remember?

AL TAIE: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Look at this minaret up here.

SMITH: The pockmarked and broken towers loom over the city.

AL TAIE: We are very close to the school.

SMITH: So we're in the Jolan neighborhood.

AL TAIE: We are in Jolan neighborhood.

BOWMAN: You got people walking around, a little girl with a backpack heading to school, it looks like.

AL TAIE: This is the school.

SMITH: This is the school.

AL TAIE: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Right here on the left.


BOWMAN: Wow - a nice, pale pink wall.

SMITH: This is the school.

BOWMAN: Look at the little girl in the picture on the side there. Yeah.


BOWMAN: It's hard to believe that Marines were doing block-to-block battles right around here.

SMITH: Yeah.

BOWMAN: It's so peaceful - looks like any normal kind of town. You would get no sense there was any war here.

SMITH: And this is safe. We can get out of the car and...

AL TAIE: Yes, yes.

SMITH: ...Walk around.

AL TAIE: Let me talk to the manager.

BOWMAN: Awadh heads over to the school to talk with the headmaster, see if he can help us get in.

SMITH: I guess it's OK to just get out. I mean, I feel - it's like I feel like I shouldn't. And then I'm like, well, here we are. What are we doing? But I don't want to draw attention. I don't know.

BOWMAN: Right in front of the school, we're walking down the street where the Marines said the insurgents were setting up a stack of tires. They were going to set them on fire and use the smoke as cover to move around. It's probably 200 yards or more from the school.

SMITH: No, I'd say much less. I mean, if you look at the map and you look at the grid, it's - when we're talking about just this road right here, it's...


SMITH: ...Maybe not quite a football field.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BOWMAN: Awadh calls us back over. He's by the gate with the headmaster. He says we can come in but just for a quick tour.

SMITH: Hello. Hi.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Nice to meet you.

BOWMAN: Nice to meet you, sir.



BOWMAN: Oh, here we are. Ah. This is the old...

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: In the courtyard here, we see benches. And...

SMITH: Did this used to be open?

AL TAIE: This is the new design. It was - this one used to be open.

BOWMAN: So this all was open.


BOWMAN: We have little backpacks that are painted on the wall and balloons with numbers on them and...


BOWMAN: So this is where there was so much death and destruction. Now we see little girls with...

SMITH: Yeah.

BOWMAN: ...In their school uniforms. They're kind of curious about who we are.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: It's amazing, isn't it?

SMITH: It's amazing.

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Such a beautiful school. It's really so sweet.

BOWMAN: What does does this say?

AL TAIE: Respect the teacher.

BOWMAN: That's what it says on the wall?

AL TAIE: I respect my teacher.

BOWMAN: We look out a window at the back of the school over a sprawling cemetery - a jumble of headstones and a dusty hill rising up to a mosque.

SMITH: So that minaret was one of the places that gave these guys so much trouble.

BOWMAN: Oh, they had fighters up in the minaret?

SMITH: Yeah.

We've heard about this cemetery, the terror of running across it through a firefight. It's hard to imagine.

BOWMAN: Oh, there's a funeral going on now. You can see them carrying the coffin, a group of people off in the distance.

SMITH: Anyhow, they don't let us stay for long. And we have to get to that meeting with the sheikhs. One of their houses is just down the street, a couple hundred yards past where the tire barricade was.

Wow. What a beautiful room. This is so nice. Thank you.

BOWMAN: This is the home of Sheikh Sheikh Awwad Muhammad Abdullah Al Ma’adheedi.

AWWAD MUHAMMAD ABDULLAH AL MA'ADHEEDI: You are welcome. This is your house.

SMITH: Thank you so much.

MA'ADHEEDI: And feel free. And you are not a guest. You are the owner of this house now.

BOWMAN: Another sheikh, a little younger, sits nearby. He was the guy who led us into the school, Sheikh Nawwaf Jabbar Hussein Ali. Sheikh Ma’adheedi reclines on a sofa. He has a trim white beard and is dressed in traditional robe with a headscarf. He's retired. Back in 2004, he was headmaster of what we've always just called the schoolhouse. We learned its real name, The Gulf School.

SMITH: We're wondering if you can talk to us a little bit about what it was like when things changed here, when the Americans started coming for the people of this neighborhood, Jolan.

MA'ADHEEDI: (Through interpreter) When the Americans came, it was a huge problem. From the beginning, nobody here could accept foreigners seizing Fallujah. Despite the horrors of Saddam, the people needed security and peace, not killing and destruction. No Arab would tolerate humiliation and injustice.

BOWMAN: You said when the Americans came, it was a problem. What was the problem when the Americans came?

MA'ADHEEDI: (Through interpreter) Well, for example, a cousin of mine who was supportive of Americans got stopped with his family at a checkpoint. He couldn't understand the U.S. soldiers, and they couldn't understand him. He decided to drive away. And the soldiers opened fire, hitting the car, and killing his eldest son, just like that. They shattered the life of a once secure and peaceful family. And then, just five years ago, my cousin himself was killed by ISIS.

SMITH: He remembers his sons being arrested for talking back at a checkpoint, neighbors' houses being raided at night, his brother giving a neighbor's daughter a ride to the hospital and then coming under fire. The girl was hit, and she's been paralyzed ever since.

BOWMAN: He says other relatives were shot at from helicopters, tossed into the American prison at Camp Bucca, hundreds of miles away.

SMITH: The other sheikh, who was the assistant headmaster back then, nods in agreement.

NAWWAF JABBAR HUSSEIN ALI: (Through interpreter) We used to hear that the Americans were educated and civilized people, but it turned out they were barbaric. At first, we hoped they would bring us prosperity. But instead, they did nothing but occupy schools and government buildings. And the attitude became ubiquitous among the people that unless you fight against the Americans, the Americans will never leave the city.

BOWMAN: Did you know any of these people who were part of the resistance? Did you think it was a good idea? Did you support the resistance?

ALI: (Through interpreter) We didn't have a choice. The resistance rose up from the people of Fallujah themselves. Even I was part of the resistance at first. But eventually, infiltrators joined the ranks. Me and my neighbors decided to retreat because al-Qaida was taken over, and the picture became really fuzzy. The real resistance fighters had to withdraw.

BOWMAN: So things got much worse after they hung the contractors. The Marines came rushing in. Did you stay here, or did you did you leave?

ALI: (Through interpreter) So each of these options was too bitter to swallow. Had we chosen to stay, it would have been a tragedy to live at the mercy of mortars and missiles. And had we chosen to flee, then we would have lost a place we called home. And we would have been doomed to the unknown.

BOWMAN: In the end, the sheikh and his family did flee the city - stayed with relatives in a rural area hours away.

SMITH: How did you feel when you heard that your school where you had spent so much time teaching children had become, like, a military...

MA'ADHEEDI: (Through interpreter) It was painful because it meant life there had come to a standstill, that there would be no more education. All aspects of life had stopped. So there was only killing, displacement, injustice and persecution. When I returned to the school at the end of the year, there were shell fragments, broken doors and shattered glass.

SMITH: One of the things that we've learned, Sheikh, was that the Americans at one point made a mistake and they dropped a mortar on their own Marines inside the school, and they killed three of their own men.

MA'ADHEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).

ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

AL TAIE: (Speaking Arabic).

BOWMAN: One last thing. So two Americans were killed when the mortar went into the courtyard and exploded. Two Americans were killed - also an Iraqi interpreter. And we met with the family of the Iraqi interpreter. They were all lied to by the Americans. The American families were lied to about what happened. They were told it was insurgents. The Iraqi interpreter's family were told it was terrorists that killed them.

MA'ADHEEDI: (Through interpreter) The Americans should have faced the truth with courage and honor. It would be understandable if you lied to your enemy, but how could you deceive and lie to your own people, to your friends? This is totally unacceptable.


BOWMAN: We're doing a story on the American Marines who were here at this school in fighting. But what do you think about the American politicians that decided to invade Iraq? Did they ruin the country?

ALI: (Through interpreter) Yes. They ruined and destroyed our country. We had to flee the city because of what they did. And beyond that, they brought al-Qaida here. Al-Qaida was based in Afghanistan when they attacked the great towers in New York, but the Americans brought them to our city. And they did the same with ISIS. Had there been earnest and good intentions toward us, the Americans would have apologized for what they did and try to offer something for the people to compensate for all the harm they inflicted. They could have built public parks, schools or even repair the power grid to restore electricity.

MA'ADHEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).

SMITH: Thank you.

MA'ADHEEDI: (Speaking Arabic). (Laughter).

SMITH: They, too, ask us to stay and eat, but, again, we don't want to impose.

Ask not for whom the bell beeps. It beeps for us. They want us to put our seatbelts on. Yes. Beep, beep, beep, beep.


BOWMAN: Our final chapter, just ahead on TAKING COVER from NPR.


JASON DUTY: Well over half way. No, no, no. Well over halfway. I mean, really...

SMITH: This journey ends where it began - Horno Ridge, the hill near San Diego, where 2-1 Marines remember their dead.

DUTY: A rutted mess. It's going to take us a little while to get up there...

SMITH: Only this time, we're not hearing about it. We're hiking it.

DUTY: Right? I mean, you can see the crosses. You can almost throw a football over a mountain.

SMITH: And it's rugged - loose dirt and stones, so steep at times you have to use your hands.

Tom, this is stiffer than I thought it would be.

BOWMAN: Yeah. You and me, both, man.

Horno is on Camp Pendleton, so you need a security pass and an escort. Jason Duty agreed to bring us up. He's still on active duty, a master chief.

DUTY: How are you doing, Tom?

BOWMAN: All good.

DUTY: Heck yeah.

BOWMAN: We can hear a huge training exercise in the distance. Hundreds of Marines firing machine guns and artillery. This is Jason's fourth time climbing the hill. He tells us about bringing up some junior corpsmen who worked for him just a few years ago. There were eager to deploy with the Marines. He wanted to give them a taste of how tough it would be.

DUTY: It's easy to be gung-ho in your apartment in San Diego or in your work center doing medical sick call, when you get to go home at the end of the day or go down to the Gaslamp and party it up or whatever. It's different when you go into a job knowing that you're going to bury some of your friends.


SMITH: After almost two hours, we come out on top. The clearing is maybe 60 yards wide. What began as one cross on a lonely hilltop has grown into a small forest of memorials as the Pendleton Marines deployed and redeployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've walked past dozens of crosses and other memorials. There's a star of David for one fallen Marine, a Buddhist shrine for another. Each of them is surrounded by mementos, dog tags, ammo cans, empty beer bottles, labels bleached in the sun.

BOWMAN: What runs through your mind when you come up here?

DUTY: What's that?

BOWMAN: What runs through your mind when you come up here?

DUTY: Most of the time, how bad that f***ing hill sucks. I miss some of these guys. I was friends with some of these guys. I lived with some of these guys. You know, I drank beers with a lot of these - when I did. I quit drinking some months ago completely, but I was one of the ones who'd come up here and bring some beer with me and drink with them. Even though they're not physically here, I'd pour one out for the homies, you know?

BOWMAN: At the far side of the field, we come to the spot where Jason and his comrades, Rob Zurheide, the chaplain, raised their monument nearly 20 years ago. This cross towers over the others, and we see around the base what Marines and sailors carried in their rucksacks over the years.

SMITH: You know, one of the things Radetski talked to us about was that a lot of the guys will kind of bring up, like, a heavy rock or some kind of a thing...

DUTY: Yep.

SMITH: ...To sort of, I guess...

DUTY: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Share in the suffering to some extent.

DUTY: That's what all those are. Yeah. Tons of sandbags with names painted or markered on them, rocks, pictures. And I think this is a good central place - when guys die overseas, they're buried all over the world, all over the country, all over, you know, different states, home cemeteries back in Montana or Ohio or wherever. But this is a place where you know you can always come visit your brother. They're here.

BOWMAN: So it's been 20 years of war.

DUTY: Yeah.

BOWMAN: I mean, it's for the most part done now.

DUTY: For us, anyway. Not for them.

BOWMAN: Right.

DUTY: But yeah, for us.

BOWMAN: When you look back in the 20 years - all you've been through, all these guys have been through - I mean, what did it achieve when you...

DUTY: Nothing. Not a f***ing thing. Because you don't go to war on an ideal. You don't go to war - and that's why we - and we never declared war on anybody. We went in there to be the world's police. And, again, I'm speaking from my own personal opinion here. We went in there without a clear objective in mind. And I think the intentions were good. But, again, the road to hell is paved with good ones.

SMITH: Can I ask you a question? Like...


SMITH: When I was listening back...

DUTY: Yeah. Yeah.

SMITH: I don't know whether this is true, but it seems like sometimes, when you were talking about the fight, you kind of hesitate for a second before you say, like, the bad guys or the enemies - like, that's a little too simplistic of a way to think about whoever was on the other side of the thing, OK? I just wonder - like, we - so we went, and we met his family, and we ended up going to Fallujah. We went to the schoolhouse, which is still a schoolhouse. It was full of little girls...

DUTY: Yeah.

SMITH: ...Learning English.

DUTY: Good. And that's one of the things that these guys died for, so the little girls in Iraq could learn at school - to go to school.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

DUTY: And I think that's a noble cause.

SMITH: And we talked with a couple of the people who had been teachers at the school, were sheiks, and they were kind of - they weren't hardcore fighters or anything, but they had maybe even considered themselves to be part of the resistance at a time. And...

DUTY: Yeah.

SMITH: ...They were more like, you know, our neighbors are getting harassed and these things. When you get...

DUTY: When you talk to any of the Vietnamese people from the Vietnam conflict - they were, you know, Viet Cong - VC - the non-uniformed, irregular fighters - they didn't think they were the bad guys.

BOWMAN: As Graham and I walk among the memorials, Jason goes off by himself for a bit. Then, after a while, he calls us from across the clearing to where there's a row of more than a dozen crosses, almost identical.

DUTY: I did just notice that that cross right there by itself is dedicated to that one corpsman, Matthew Soviak, who was killed in - at the airport in Afghanistan. And I think most of these are smaller ones, too, or individual crosses for some of those Marines and sailors - well, sailor - and Marines, too.

SMITH: Jason's talking about the chaotic scene in the late summer of 2021 as the U.S. abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan. Huge crowds pressed around the perimeter gates of the airport in Kabul, people trying desperately to get out of the country. At one gate, August 26, a suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing an estimated 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members, including 11 Marines from 2/1. One of the first Americans killed the very first day of the Iraq war and some of the last Americans to die in Afghanistan - they're all here, all part of 2/1.

BOWMAN: We spent some time, look out on the Pacific, finally start the descent. As we hike down, Jason calls us over.

DUTY: So you were asking me earlier about the pause and then the choice of phrasing I use to describe our adversaries over there. You know, 20 years ago, a younger me might have even - might have used some more derogatory terms, maybe even some what we call epithets. Terrorists is always a good word - buzzword to use. But I don't really feel like those guys were terrorists. I don't think the right definition of terrorist works for who we were fighting in Fallujah - the civilian clothed guys. Terrorists attack civilian targets in order to induce panic, fear and terror.

SMITH: Right. It's like a political...

DUTY: Yeah, exactly. Those guys weren't attacking civilian targets. We were in their country, for Christ's sake. The guys who flew the aircraft into the World Trade Center on September 11, those were terrorists. The guys we were fighting in Fallujah, they weren't terrorists. They were - they weren't even insurgents because we'd never pacified them in the first place. They were, in their mind - and I feel that even though I don't like it, it's the appropriate term - they were resistance fighters.


BOWMAN: When we started this investigation, it was all about a tip. But over the years, our journey became more than proving this tragedy was covered up for political reasons. Spending time with the corpsman, the Marines and soldiers, the families and the sheiks helped us see the damage, the heartbreak they all share when politicians in general set off for war.

SMITH: We've been a little anxious that this digging, airing all of this out, might cause yet more trauma to the people who were wronged. But the guys have been listening, and they tell us that hearing one another's raw memories, they realize how much they all needed to tell this story. We've also heard from Brad Shuder's folks who'd been too heartbroken to talk before. They've been listening, too. Glenn and Rosemary wrote to say that hearing all of this helps them fill in some painful blanks.

BOWMAN: They remember the wounded men from Brad's unit, including Carlos and Costello, visiting months after the explosion, raising questions and then three years later, the group of Marines including a general arriving to deliver the official notification - so many officers they couldn't fit at the dining room table. Glenn, he can't forget how the general told them that once he left their home, he had another appointment nearby. He was headed off to play a round of golf.

SMITH: Rosemary wishes she'd told those officers she had more respect for the Marines from Brad's platoon who came, broken as they were, than that general and his entourage.


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 got production help from Nic Neves. We want to take a moment and say we appreciate the feedback we've been getting, and we encourage you to give the show a rating, write a review and tell your friends about it in person, on social media, whatever works.

BOWMAN: We had a lot of help on this episode from Awadh al Taie, Ahmed Qusay, and our colleagues on the international desk, Larry Kaplow and Didi Schanche. Greg Dixon worked the logistics, and Caroline Drees advised on security. We had voiceover help from Mousa Mohammed, Akram Saleem, Rafah Abdulhadi and Israa Al-Rubei’i who also helped translate our recordings from Iraq.

SMITH: Our music comes from Rob Braswell, Pete Duchesne, Brad Honeyman, The Humpmuscle Rolling Circus - hey, Dean Clegg - and the Pomeroys - Pete, Ted Ehlers and Jim Rioux. Sound design by Josh Rogosin and me, with help from Nic. This episode was engineered by Josh Newell. Our fact-checker is Barbara Van Woerkom.

We've had additional editorial input from Christopher Turpin, Andrew Sussman, Bruce Auster, and Tony Cavin, as well as the supervising editor for Embedded - Katie Simon - and Liana Simstrom, who is the Enterprise Storytelling Unit's supervising producer. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR's ESU.

BOWMAN: We'd like to thank the visuals team - Claire Harbage, Emily Bogle, Alyson Hurt and Nicole Werbeck - and NPR's legal team, especially Micah Ratner, as well as attorneys Thomas Burke, Jean Fundakowski and Caesar Kalinowski. A special thanks to Nancy Barnes, who supported this series right from the beginning, along with Anya Grundmann, senior vice president for programming and audience development, and Edith Chapin, acting senior vice president of news.

We'd also like to offer huge and heartfelt thanks to Brigid Shulte and Lexi Diao for their guidance on scripts and for putting up with us through all of this.

SMITH: And finally, thanks to everyone who contributes to NPR stations across the country. Your generosity makes this work possible. If you aren't currently a supporter, please get involved. Cut us a check. And there's another way to help. If you want to support in-depth investigations like TAKING COVER, sign up for Embedded+. It supports NPR's journalism. Plus, you'll get access to future Embedded podcast series sponsor-free, including the new series "Buffalo Extreme," coming in just a couple weeks. Subscribe by going to And thanks if you already have.


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