For some families, Marines fall short on friendly-fire protocol
By Greg Jaffe,
More than 500 mourners packed the Oak Hills Church to honor the Marine who was killed in combat in Afghanistan on Oct. 6. Schmidt’s father, David Schmidt, is the team doctor for the San Antonio Spurs, and several of the team’s stars mourned with the family.
“I literally watched Benjamin grow up,” basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson said at the service.
What the family and the mourners did not know was that Schmidt, 24, had been accidentally killed by another Marine.
It was hardly a secret among the members of Schmidt’s unit in Afghanistan. Within 30 minutes of his death, most of his fellow Marines knew that he had been felled by friendly fire.
Some of Schmidt’s closest Marine friends in San Diego, where the unit is based, also learned from colleagues in Afghanistan how Schmidt died. “I knew about 10 days after he was killed,” said one, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident. “I kept it to myself. I didn’t tell a soul.”
The Marine said he stayed silent because he was told that the Corps had an established routine for notifying grieving family members in cases of friendly fire. But the Schmidt case and the aftermath of a 2010 Marine fatality suggest that the Corps’ protocol leaves some families frustrated despite recent efforts to improve the process.
An October 2007 investigation of 91 Marine friendly-fire incidents by the Corps’ inspector general found only four instances in which the Marines notified family members in a “timely manner” of investigations. Six of the 91 incidents resulted in fatalities, and in the other cases, Marines were wounded.
The report found that the Corps’ shortcomings were “the result of unclear procedures, outdated directives and a confusing chain of command.”
After the inspector general’s report, the Corps made across-the-board changes to ensure that families were told of friendly-fire investigations.
A Marine Corps spokesman said the process works. “In the vast majority of circumstances, families are updated immediately when an investigation into the cause of death changes,” said Maj. Shawn D. Haney, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps manpower and reserve affairs. “This is especially important when an investigation determines that friendly fire may be the cause of death.”
A reporter’s call
Becky Whetstone, Schmidt’s mother, learned from a Wall Street Journal reporter how her son died. The reporter, who had been embedded with Schmidt’s unit, said he had been told by military officials that the family had been formally notified by the Marine Corps.
Whetstone, who was driving when she took the reporter’s call, said she nearly crashed her car. “I can’t tell you how much it hurts,” she said. “I wonder what else are they going to tell me?”
The most high-profile case of a bungled friendly-fire notification involved Pat Tillman, a former NFL star who was killed in 2004 while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. Records indicate that some of Tillman’s superiors exaggerated his actions and withheld details to protect Tillman’s commanders.
The Marines’ shortcomings, by contrast, appear to be the result of bureaucratic confusion. Following the December 2010 death of Sgt. Matthew Abbate, his family was left frustrated and uncertain about the circumstances of his death.
Abbate’s family initially was told by the Marine Corps in December that his death was caused by “enemy fire.” When new information emerged to suggest that the death may have been caused by a 500-pound U.S. bomb, commanders in Afghanistan were quick to launch an investigation.
The family learned of the investigation about a week after Abbate was killed, according to the Corps.
Abbate’s wife and his mother asked their Marine Corps liaison officer to help obtain a copy of the investigation, but they were told that the findings were not available, said James Binion, the Marine’s stepfather.
Their request appears to have been misdirected or misplaced, a Marine Corps official said.
“I don’t think there is a conspiracy,” Binion said. “I think it is a couple of numbnuts who don’t know what they are doing.”
After inquiries from The Washington Post, the Marine Corps said it would provide the family with a copy of the report, which was finished this summer.
Schmidt’s parents were told that an investigation had been initiated into his death, according to Marine Corps officials. But no one mentioned the possibility of friendly fire, family members said.
Marine Corps officials in the United States learned of the friendly-fire investigation Oct. 10 and had 30 days to notify the family under Defense Department regulations, the Corps said.
The Marines did not call to notify Schmidt’s parents that their son might have died as a result of friendly fire until after Schmidt’s mother was told by the Wall Street Journal reporter on Oct. 24 and a story appeared the next day in the San Antonio Express-News.
Schmidt’s mother, a former Express-News columnist, told the Marine officer not to bother coming to her house. “I don’t need you to come over in a fancy suit and tell me something that I already know,” she recalled saying.
The Marine Corps notification officer came anyway, to offer apologies. “You can tell them you hate them, you can curse them, but they keep coming back,” Whetstone said.
Schmidt’s parents divorced several years ago. His father does not feel the same anger over the Marines’ failure to notify the family of the investigation. “My son’s service was held up with a great deal of dignity and honor” at the memorial ceremony, the father said.
Honored for valor
Schmidt, a sniper, was recognized for his valor during his first tour of Afghanistan when he killed a Taliban fighter who was firing on Marines. He volunteered for his second tour in Afghanistan even though he had become disillusioned with the war, said members of his family and his Marine Corps friends.
Schmidt’s father said that the knowledge that his son had died as a result of friendly fire might have detracted from the praise for his son’s heroism at the funeral, which was covered on the front page of the Express-News.
“I don’t have a problem with how it all went down,” his father said. “It is not perfect, but it is what it is.”
Before he left for his second tour of Afghanistan, Schmidt revised his will so that his $200,000 life insurance payment would endow a scholarship for a history graduate student at Texas Christian University. Schmidt attended the school as an undergraduate for a year and a half before dropping out to join the Marine Corps. He planned to return to the school after his tour.
“Benjamin wasn’t sure that investing in a freshman like himself would have been a good use of the money,” said his father, who also donated $200,000 to the fund.
Schmidt wrote down the other requirements for the scholarship shortly before he deployed to Afghanistan. Applicants had to have a record of community service and a minimum 3.0 grade-point average.
Schmidt’s college grades were below 3.0. “I was pretty surprised how strict the criteria were,” his father said. “Benjamin wanted to invest in someone who would be a success.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.