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.
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.
The decision to re-deploy the Bradleys had fateful consequences. As Nott led his team and the prisoners back to the command post on foot, night had fallen. Nott was walking down the middle of Balad Ruz's main street with the Iraqi prisoners on his left. To his right was medic Emily Devers. Alongside her were Anderson, Hensley and the interpreter.
All at once, car headlights lit them up from behind. Nott fired a warning shot and directed the car to turn around. Another car approached. Anderson fired a second warning shot. He and Hensley dropped back to tell the driver to find another route. "Once the car was stopped and turning around we ran back to link up with the rest of our people and the detainees," Hensley recalled.
Back at the command post, Young says the mood was one of "stress and excitement." A group of soldiers heard small arms fire. Sgt. Brian Beem later recalled seeing silhouettes of at least six figures approaching from about 250 meters away. He thought they might be suicide bombers. Sgt. Michael Garvin, a scout, later said he saw the outline of three men in traditional Arab dress. Garvin thought they were hostile Iraqis. In fact, they were Nott's three handcuffed prisoners.
Garvin ordered Sgt. Chris Creech, commander of one of the Bradleys parked in front of the command post, to turn his vehicle 180 degrees. "Get those dismounts," Garvin said using the military term for combatants on foot. There was a burst of small arms fire somewhere. As the Bradley lurched forward, Creech fired his machine gun, spewing a fusillade of bullets toward his target.
Sgt. Tim Cramer, riding on the Bradley, saw "multiple dismounts moving east toward the [command post] at a fast pace in front of a civilian car with headlights shining." That was probably Anderson and Hensley running to catch up with Nott and the others. Cramer opened fire with his 9mm pistol. Sentries on the roof of the command post fired their M-16s. Inside the Bradley, Creech fired again.
Ty Hensley found himself in a hailstorm of bullets. "I dropped to the ground and rolled to my right into the ditch besides the translator," he later recounted. Anderson, with an AK-47 strapped around his body, thought a member of the wedding party was retaliating. He dove for cover, too.
In the middle of the street, medic Devers stood frozen. "I couldn't move," she recalled in an interview. "I could see it happening. I could hear people yelling 'stop, stop.' I saw a tracer come toward me. I watched it hit in front of me and a piece [of pavement] came up and hit me."
Over the rattle of gunfire, came shouts of "Cease fire! Cease fire!"
Anderson was moaning on the pavement, his left ankle shattered by a machine gun bullet. Musa the interpreter had a gunshot in his stomach and a hole in his hand. He told his American friends he was dying. (He would survive.) The three Iraqi prisoners lay scattered about, handcuffed and wounded. Emily Devers's left leg was gushing blood.
Nott lay dead, killed by massive chest wounds.
Who killed Leif Nott?
Not U.S. troops, said Defend America, the Pentagon's Web site for "news about the war on terrorism." On Aug. 3, 2003, the site reported that Nott had been killed by "hostile fire." It wasn't until Nott's funeral in Cheyenne a week later, that his family heard the true story from a friend of Leif's.
Not the Iraqi insurgents, said Maj. David Chase. He was assigned to investigate in early August. He concluded that the "friendly fire incident" was "primarily the result of inadequate situational awareness."
Not the soldiers who actually fired the fatal shots, say Les Nott and Mickey Anderson. They hold Capt. Young responsible because he did not notify the troops at the command post that a friendly patrol was returning. Young, now teaching at West Point, says he did not know Nott's whereabouts. He says he still grieves for his friend and wonders "what if."
"Where I failed -- where we failed -- was that I didn't check back that he [Nott] had made it back to the [command post]," he said in a telephone interview. Young faults the two soldiers on the Bradley for failing to identify the target before firing. "The gunner is supposed to identify the target and the commander is supposed to give the order," he says. "They didn't do that."
In their statements, Sgts. Cramer and Creech said that given all the shooting going on that night, they had to assume the shadowy figures were enemies.
Maj. Chase concluded that there was plenty of blame to go around that night. He faulted Alpha Troop for "excessive use of warning shots," which "led to the perception that the patrol [led by Nott] was enemy."
Another contributing factor, he said, was a shortage of body armor. Out of 134 soldiers in Alpha Troop, exactly nine had the Army's highest-quality armored vest. Army units throughout Iraq were short of body armor in the first year of the U.S. occupation. Expecting U.S. troops to be welcomed rather than attacked by insurgents, war planners had called for a lighter, swifter force that lacked heavy protective gear. In Balad Ruz, Chase noted, the armored vest shortage forced most soldiers to conduct patrols in lightly armored "chicken vests." That was what Leif Nott was wearing when he died.
The Army's inquiry concluded that Nott's death was a result of communication failures involving jumpy, ill-equipped soldiers. Chase recommended tightening up unit procedures, but no disciplinary action.
Les Nott called the report "a coverup."
"My God, seven people got shot up. Leif is gone. Mickey Anderson will never walk normally again," he said in an emotional phone interview. "And the Iraqis, they were handcuffed. You can't shoot a handcuffed prisoner just because you're in Iraq. It's an army, not a bunch of barbarians."
Les Nott says he has asked Wyoming's congressional delegation to look into his son's death. Anderson, who also told this story to documentary filmmaker Stuart Sugg, has asked the Inspector General of the 4th Infantry Division to reinvestigate.
The Army has not publicly identified Nott as a victim of friendly fire. A spokesman said the Army has a policy of not updating cause of death information in press releases. Central Command has posted on its Web site official reports into three well-publicized friendly fire incidents from the early weeks of the war. But Centcom, which oversees Iraq operations, has not issued a press release containing the words "friendly fire" since April 14, 2003.
Emily Devers, now at Fort Hood, Tex., calls Nott's death "a total accident." She says she understands why the Army has not been candid. Nott's story "will make people think less of what is going on" in Iraq, she said. But Devers, who supports the U.S. role, added, "Everybody needs to know this kind of thing does happen. And it happens more often than you think."
However often it does happen, the official record should reflect how our soldiers died. The truth shouldn't be an internal Pentagon matter or confined to whispers among survivors. A friendly fire death isn't a meaningless death if the knowledge of what happened helps prevent other tragedies. Only then can a family's wounds, and a nation's, start to heal.
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