Friday, August 25, 2006

Army reviewing Afghan and Iraq casualty reports

Army reviewing Afghan and Iraq casualty reports

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The Army is reviewing casualty reports on American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere since 2001, a response to complaints that it has not always given families accurate information.

The review covers hundreds of casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, two senior military officials said. It also includes American soldiers killed in neighboring countries in support of the two operations.

In coming weeks, the Army will issue a directive formalizing the review, according to the military officials. One spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because officers at the highest levels of the Army are still making minor changes. The other described the initiative in memos obtained by The Associated Press.

"We are actively screening every Criminal Investigation Command report to ensure that there were no disconnects with the Casualty Reporting System. We are about half way through with that mission," one of the memos states.

The purpose of the forthcoming Army-wide order is to tell units in the field that they must tell the Army's headquarters of any change in investigative findings that differs from what a family was initially told, a third official said.

Brig. Gen. Anthony A. Cucolo, who heads the Army's public affairs office, said the Army's move is not new but a continuing "rigorous and routine review of current casualty cases with outstanding issues."

Lt. Col. Dan Baggio, an Army spokesman, said that because of the constant turnover of units in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is important to remind troops that the casualty reports must agree with the actual events that occurred when a soldier was killed.

"It's important to reinforce that the information we provide the families is accurate," he said.

The step follows high-profile mistakes in telling families the circumstances of soldiers' deaths.

The best-known is that of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the one-time NFL star from San Jose, Calif., who quit football to join the U.S. Army Rangers and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004.

Tillman's family was originally told he had been killed by enemy fire. Five weeks later, they learned he was shot dead by fellow Rangers after an ambush.

The military suspected it was a friendly fire death within hours, but failed to tell the Tillmans despite a regulation on the books directing it to do so, said the soldier's mother, Mary Tillman.

She called the move positive, but she said the Army must follow up and deliver any new information to surviving family members.

"People will be able to come to terms with the truth, but if you were lied to once, then you're always going to be distrustful," she said in a telephone interview.

Two months after Tillman died, Lt. Andre Tyson and Spc. Patrick McCaffrey, two California National Guardsmen, were killed by the Iraqi civil-defense soldiers they were training.

The Army initially told the families the two men were killed in a conventional ambush. It was two years before their survivors learned they were slain.

The Army is not reopening investigations into the deaths of all soldiers killed in action, but it is revisiting them to ensure family members were informed of the Army's most accurate and updated findings.

The review has been quietly underway for more than two months, but the directive has not yet been sent to units in the field.

It will order Army units down to the battalion level to dig up so-called 15-6 investigative reports routinely conducted after combat deaths. Battalions that have been or are in Iraq or Afghanistan are being directed to ship copies of the initial casualty reports to top Army officials.

The Army will compare the initial reports to the follow-up investigations, looking for discrepancies in conclusions, according to military officials.

If the Army finds such a discrepancy, it will reappoint a casualty notification team, prepare a new report for the surviving family members and revisit the family to make personal notifications, one official said.

Marine Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Fazekas said he was not aware of any similar review by the Marines.

A soldier's death may result in multiple investigations for a number of reasons. Follow-up inquiries are often launched when a first layer of military investigators concludes they need to probe more deeply. For instance, sometimes a crime is suspected but investigators in the field do not have access to resources such as ballistics testing.

Follow-up inquiries are commonly conducted by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID, and by the Combat Readiness Center.

The full scope of the effort was not clear Thursday. Officials who spoke said they did not know how many soldiers' deaths would be included, or the circumstances that would trigger review. But it will certainly include several hundred deaths, one official said. Another said the review will include all combat deaths in the two theaters.

That would mean the review would cover some 2,000 reports. Nearly 1,800 Army soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003. More than 230 have died in Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press tally.

Nadia McCaffrey, the mother of Patrick McCaffrey, welcomed the move but said she was cautious in her optimism because the Army has moved slowly to inform her in the past.

"So now again we have to see how long it takes for people to act on it," she said from her home in Tracy.