By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Army officials destroyed critical evidence that could have determined who shot and killed Pfc. Jesse R. Buryj at an Iraq checkpoint in May 2004, one of several problems with the friendly-fire inquiry that may permanently shroud Buryj's death in mystery, according to an Army inspector general's review.
The lengthy inquiry found that criminal investigators destroyed bullet fragments, agents failed to collect ballistic evidence from weapons at the checkpoint, medical personnel made incorrect notations on Buryj's records and military officials knew his death was a friendly-fire case months before they officially notified his family.
As a result, Buryj's family buried him believing he was killed when his vehicle was rammed by a dump truck. They did not learn that he was shot by friendly forces until nine months after his death, and a lack of physical evidence means it is nearly impossible to know what happened that night.
Buryj's death -- which came just days after the high-profile friendly-fire killing of former football player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan -- also exposed a rift between U.S. and Polish forces. A group of Polish allied troops was also manning the checkpoint, and U.S. officials sought to blame them for the soldier's death.
The inspector general found no specific effort to cover up the incident. The review shows, however, that initial investigators believed there was a need for international sensitivity. One unnamed investigator told the inspector general that there was a sense that U.S. investigators could not "say anything bad about the Poles," even though they were convinced Polish shots killed Buryj (pronounced BOO-dee). Investigators ultimately ruled that the Poles probably fired the fatal shot.
Peggy Buryj of Canton, Ohio, has long believed that details of her son's death were obscured or delayed to protect members of his unit or Polish troops in 2004, an election year during which President Bush often praised Poland's contribution to the fight against terrorism. Buryj said she is still furious about the way the Army has handled her son's case, and she feels it has now slammed the door.
"They said that anything that could go wrong did go wrong, that it was a series of unfortunate mistakes," she said after an Army briefing. "They apologized, and I think they were sincere in their apology. But the whole thing just shows incompetence, from the notification to the very end."
Jesse Buryj, 21, of Canton was killed on May 5, 2004, when an Iraqi dump truck sped through a coalition military checkpoint in Karbala and ultimately crashed into his vehicle, sending him tumbling to the ground. Soldiers initially believed that the fall injured Buryj, but he actually took fire from either the U.S. troops around him or the Polish troops nearby. A bullet pierced his back and caused massive internal injuries.
Later, when Buryj's family learned that a gunshot killed him, they believed it was hostile fire, though the people found in the dump truck were not carrying weapons.
The 47-page report, presented to Buryj's family by the Army's inspector general, Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Green, found that criminal investigators failed to conduct ballistic tests on four U.S. weapons fired that night and did not collect Polish weapons for testing.
Because the case was incorrectly labeled a hostile death, criminal investigators inadvertently destroyed the only evidence that could be used to identify a weapon -- a 5.56mm bullet fragment -- in the fall of 2005. At that time, criminal investigators destroyed evidence in a number of hostile-death cases in which evidence could not be matched to individual weapons, and Buryj's case was mistakenly among them, the report said.
"Before September 2005, CID kept the bullet extracted from PFC Buryj as evidence," the report said, referring to the Criminal Investigations Division. "Had the four U.S. weapons been tested, this might have eliminated doubts over whether U.S. weapons fired the fatal round."
The report also exposed a casualty reporting system marred by gaps and inconsistencies. The Buryj case, along with others, prompted major changes in the way the Army notifies families of war casualties. Those new policies were put into effect in April, three months after Buryj's story was reported publicly and after the secretary of the Army asked for a review.
Col. Patrick Gawkins, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operation Center, said mistakes in the case "prevented a more timely, accurate notification" of the family. He noted that the complexity of the situation added to the confusion and that a vast majority of cases are reported correctly.
"Providing accurate casualty circumstances when you are attempting to rapidly notify a family of a loss is an extremely challenging task," Gawkins said. "We have continued to improve all aspects of casualty support because this is precisely what we owe our fallen soldiers and our families. We have definitely analyzed the Buryj case and other publicized cases to identify problems and fix the system."
Typically, casualty officials in the United States track such deaths via medical records, investigative reports and official notifications from the field. Though Army officials claimed to have notified the family about the nature of Buryj's death not long after it occurred, there are no records of such a conversation, according to the report. Incorrect medical records led to incorrect entries in Buryj's casualty report, which in turn led to incorrect information getting to the family.
"The casualty reporting in the PFC Buryj case was often inaccurate and untimely," leading to errors and delays, according to the inspector general's report.
One of the delays that particularly bothers Peggy Buryj concerns the final investigative report, which places responsibility on the Polish troops. It was completed by Multi-National Corps-Iraq on Sept. 6, 2004, 124 days after the incident. It was then forwarded to the U.S. Central Command weeks before the U.S. elections but stayed there until Feb. 18, 2005 -- a total of 165 additional days.
Polish officials have repeatedly disputed the U.S. findings, saying their troops were not responsible for Buryj's death. The inspector general found that U.S. criminal investigative agents were aware of the international sensitivities and the fact that the loose military coalition was losing members at the time.
Peggy Buryj said she is resigned to the idea that she may never know what happened to her son.
"I feel like I gave them my son and they've done nothing but dishonor him," she said.