On Aug. 1, 2003, the Pentagon announced that Army 1st Lt. Leif E. Nott had "died of wounds received from hostile fire." That, as it turned out, was not true. Nott had been accidentally shot and killed in the Iraqi city of Balad Ruz by fellow U.S. soldiers.
Fourteen months later, the erroneous press release has still not been corrected, an indication of a painful truth: In a difficult war, friendly fire deaths are the most difficult to accept. The U.S. military acknowledges 12 deaths by friendly fire in Iraq since March 2003, according to Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a spokesman for Central Command. That's about 1 percent of the 1,000-plus U.S. deaths in Iraq.
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But as the story of Leif Nott shows, the true frequency of friendly fire incidents is hard to pinpoint. Nott's death is still not counted among the 12, despite an official Army finding given to the family in May 2004, that he died at the hands of his own fellow soldiers.
Friendly fire deaths embody the difficulties the Army faces daily in the dangerously chaotic conditions of Iraq. Unlike soldiers who die defending Iraqi citizens or defusing bombs or fighting insurgents, the accidental victims of battlefield confusion are agonizing reminders of the realities of war. Soldiers -- and the societies for whom they fight -- prefer not to dwell on these deaths. For them and their commanders, the imperative is to move on; tomorrow holds the promise of new peril. But for a victim's friends and family, the impulse is to look back and to demand answers.
"The Army's handling of this was really terrible," says Nott's father, Les, a retired Army sergeant living in Cheyenne, Wyo. "It's a nightmare."
On the night of July 30, 2003, Lt. Leif Nott was ready for action. Balad Ruz, a city of more than 80,000 people 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, was not exactly a hotbed of Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation. But under Saddam Hussein, July 30 had been celebrated as a holiday, so all of Alpha Troop, 1-10 Cavalry in the 4th Infantry Division, was on alert.
At age 24, Nott stood out. A West Point graduate, he could converse in five languages. Capt. Wes Young, Nott's friend and commanding officer in Alpha Troop, relied on the personable Nott, his executive officer, to forge good relationships with the local population.
It was early in the occupation and the "mission accomplished" banner of May 2003 was just giving way to tense "stability" operations to quell a growing but faceless anti-American insurgency.
So when gunfire erupted around 9:30 that night from a residential neighborhood 200 meters west of the Alpha Troop command post, Young ordered Nott to escort Musa, the troop's Iraqi interpreter, down the street and drop him off with soldiers in a couple of Bradley armored vehicles patrolling the area.
Nott, however, took charge of the patrol at his own initiative to find the source of the gunfire, Young told me in a telephone interview. He said, "I didn't have a problem with him taking the initiative, but he didn't take a hand-held radio and tell me."
Soon, Nott and the patrol came upon a crowd gathered outside a house for a wedding party. Nott's easygoing but authoritative style calmed a potentially tense situation, according to Sgt. Mickey Anderson, who accompanied Nott that night. Nott questioned the bridegroom, his father and the best man, while other guests offered the U.S. soldiers food and drink.
Searching the house, Anderson said, he found a warm AK-47 behind a couch. Two other soldiers dispute that, saying Anderson had brought the AK-47 along when he left on patrol, a violation of troop rules. In any case, Nott told the three Iraqi men that he was going to detain them for questioning. Anderson and another soldier, Pfc. Ty Hensley, put plastic handcuffs on the men and prepared to load them into the waiting Bradley vehicles.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Alpha Troop soldiers were getting hit with the boldest attack against U.S. forces in the six weeks they had been there. Insurgents hiding in a palm grove ambushed a passing U.S. patrol with rocket-propelled grenades. Neither of the two Bradleys on the spot could return fire because of mechanical problems. They returned to the command post.
Young then ordered the two Bradleys that were accompanying Nott's patrol to go immediately to the scene of the ambush. They rumbled away without Nott or the prisoners. Young said he had no idea that Nott was about to load prisoners into those vehicles. Anderson says he had radioed the command post that Nott was leading the patrol in the search for the gunfire. Young says he received no such message.