An Army Death, and a Family Left In the Dark

Jesse Buryj dances with his wife, Amber, at their wedding on Oct. 18, 2003. He left for Iraq a few months later.
Jesse Buryj dances with his wife, Amber, at their wedding on Oct. 18, 2003. He left for Iraq a few months later. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Army Spec. Jesse Buryj was in the gun turret of a Humvee that night, guarding a traffic circle in Karbala, Iraq. The soldiers were on edge -- they had been warned about a car bomb -- so when a dump truck came barreling into the intersection, they opened fire from all sides. But the truck kept coming and crashed into Buryj's armored vehicle, sending the 21-year-old hurtling to the ground.

The next day, May 5, 2004, an Army officer notified Buryj's wife and parents in Canton, Ohio, that he had been killed in a crash early that morning. Several days later, as the family pressed for more information, a casualty assistance officer said that Buryj also had been shot. A death certificate that arrived in July listed a gunshot wound as the cause of death, but provided no information about the circumstances.

Peggy Buryj asked everyone she could to help find out the details of her son's last hours. She even asked President Bush when she and other grieving parents met with him during a campaign stop in hotly contested Ohio. He promised to look into it. Soon afterward, she said, his campaign called and asked her to appear in a commercial for him, but she declined.

Months went by with no clarification. "We had a lot of questions," said Amber Buryj, 22, Jesse Buryj's bride of seven months. "We were left in the dark."

And in the dark they stayed. Family members say they were not told Jesse was killed by "friendly fire," though the Army later said they were. They did not know that Polish soldiers with Jesse's unit may have fired the fatal shot and that his death had the potential to cause a rift with a coalition partner right before the 2004 presidential election. They asked friends in Jesse's platoon what had happened, but the soldiers had been told not to discuss the incident until the investigation was complete.

Even today, 20 months later, Peggy Buryj -- a Bush supporter who believes strongly in the Iraq war -- is left with swirling questions, a shattered faith in the Army, and the unsettling feeling that her son's death has been sullied by partisan politics and international intrigue.

The Tillman Parallel

Of the approximately 1,500 Army deaths so far in the Iraq war, 11 have been officially attributed to friendly fire. Even Army officials acknowledge that the number is too low, citing the difficulty of ascertaining the cause of death during intense firefights.

But military experts agree there's another reason friendly-fire cases are often left unexamined: morale. Retired Lt. Col. Charles R. Shrader said these incidents can be so devastating to other troops that it is "not helpful" to investigate most of them. "The only reason for pursuing one of these things is to work out the rules and principles to avoid it in the future," he said.

Friendly fire was responsible for 10 to 14 percent of casualties in the Vietnam War and 12 to 14 percent in World War II, according to Army statistics. Most incidents are the result of misidentified targets and the "fog of war," as was the case with Jesse Buryj (pronounced BOO-dee).

Buryj was killed just days after former professional football player Pat Tillman was mistakenly gunned down by his own men in Afghanistan, and Buryj's family likens his case to the more famous soldier's death.

The Army first reported that Tillman died while charging up a hill at the enemy. He was awarded a medal for bravery, members of his unit were told not to discuss the incident, evidence was destroyed and the nature of his death was hidden from his family until after his nationally televised funeral.

And while Tillman's case had the potential to become a public relations disaster in the United States, Buryj's death had international ramifications. U.S. officials alleged within internal channels that Polish troops killed him with reckless shots. Polish officials said Polish troops could not have killed him. Tests that could have determined the truth were not conducted.

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