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'Taking Cover' podcast exposes cover-up of deadly friendly fire incident

 May 2, 2023 at 1:37 PM PDT

S1: In the 20 years since the Iraq war began. So much about the controversial conflict has been examined , revisited and scrutinized. But a new podcast from NPR explores a forgotten incident from the early days of the war , a deadly case of friendly fire that claimed the lives of two American servicemen and one Iraqi translator. And at the heart of this incident , former San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter. But his involvement and the following investigation was covered up and written off until now. Here's an excerpt from Taking cover.

S2: Three years ago , a good source gave me a tip. The deadly friendly fire incident in Fallujah had been covered up for political reasons.

S3: I mean , I'm not looking to be a part of a smear campaign like meant to make the Marines look bad. If your goal is truth , I'm down for the truth to come out.

S4: A formal investigation was buried so deeply. The Marine Corps told us even they didn't have a copy.

S5: We do not lie to our Marines. I mean , it's in our motto. It's in our motto , Semper fidelis. Always faithful and faithful means we tell the truth no matter how much it hurts.

S6: There's something that hasn't been disclosed yet.


S7: Why the fact that nobody has said anything , no paperwork , nothing. And I'm just now finding out there was even an investigation. That's kind of unsettling.

S1: Joining me now with more on this story behind this new podcast is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith from NPR's Investigations Unit. Welcome to you both.

S4: Hey , thanks so much.

S1: Hey there. Glad to have you guys with us. First , this friendly fire incident has been largely unknown up until now.

S2: And the tip was there was a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 2004 during the first battle of Fallujah. And as you alluded to , the source said the whole incident was covered up because the son of a powerful politician was involved in this incident. The politician was Duncan Hunter from San Diego. He was then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee , and his son was a marine Lieutenant Duncan Hunter , Jr. Now , two Marines were killed in this incident , along with an Iraqi interpreter in about 12 or so were wounded , some of them very seriously wounded. And we've been told it was the worst Marine on Marine friendly fire in decades. And it involved two one Marines out of Camp Pendleton. Now , Jake , there's no mention of it in the history books and really no details in the press coverage at the time. And here's the other thing. The families were told their loved ones died from hostile fire , from insurgent fire. They were never told it was an investigation and never told when the investigation came to an end. They were told three years later and I have a day job covering the Pentagon. So I got together with a colleague , Graham Smith. We spent a lot of time together in Iraq and Afghanistan , and we started digging into this. And here's the other thing. There was no mention of the friendly fire , you know , and in the Marine investigation , the Marines said we can't find any investigative report. So I got together with a colleague , Graham Smith. He's a producer. We spent time together in Iraq and Afghanistan. So , you know , when something like this happens , there's always an investigation. But when we went to the Marines asking for the investigation of this incident , they said we can't even find one.

S1: So many questions here. I mean , break it down for me.

S4: There was all kinds of stuff going on in Iraq. The south of the country had been basically fairly calm , just blew up when Muqtada al-Sadr sort of told Shiites that they needed to fight back against the occupation. There was the Blackwater incident where some American contractors were killed and hung from a bridge. It was a huge reaction from the White House and across the country. And then this happened on the 11th , but it wasn't spoken about at all. But ten days later , Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. A little later in the month , Abu Ghraib , the prison torture scandal broke. The war was very unpopular and they were heading into an election season. So when this happened , it was in the middle of what was called the first battle of Fallujah. Some Marines from Camp Pendleton , two one Marines , Echo Company , second Platoon were in a schoolhouse , basically hunkered down because the fighting had gotten so intense , America's Iraqi partners were freaking out and they said , cease fire. Everybody was sort of standing where they were not engaging more than just regular patrols. And these guys in the schoolhouse were having a small engagement. There was a decision made to drop a mortar on a tire barricade that was being used down the street to create sort of cover so the insurgents could move around and that mortar mission went wrong. And that's really where where a lot of this stuff starts is what happened with that mortar mission , what went wrong ? And then when we finally got some idea of what went on there , the question becomes , well , how was it covered up ? Why was it covered up ? So there's sort of two mysteries stacked on top of each other.


S2: That's why it was covered up that the Marines buried this thing. And what we found in our investigation was that Duncan Hunter was involved in the effort to call in the mortar. He was plotting the target on a huge map. You put a pin into the map and there was another lieutenant next to him who said the target was it was confusion about how far the target was from friendly forces. And that was that was part of the confusion. And then a lieutenant colonel came in and basically said , launch the mission. But there was confusion. But at the end of it , Duncan Hunter was never held responsible because the lieutenant colonel , the battalion commander at the time , said he was under instruction in training and therefore he escaped punishment. The lieutenant who helped call it in with them said , no , no , no , he wasn't under instruction. He was actually doing the job. And in the end , that lieutenant and another lieutenant , as well as the battalion commander were recommended for punishment. All those punishments were brushed. Decide by a general name , James Mattis , who of course , later became defense secretary under Donald Trump. He brushed them all aside. So in the end , nobody was punished for this deadly mishap.


S2: He made visits to Iraq and he also made a visit to Fallujah two days before another general signed off in this investigative report. So , again , it's very curious that he says he never heard anything about this friendly fire incident. We spoke with them. It's all very , very curious. But in the end , it seems like what we told what I was told in this tip turns out to be pretty true. We think that is accurate , that it was covered up because of Duncan Hunter or his dad.


S2: And also he wrote a book on Iraq called Victory in Iraq with a lot of detail about this first battle of Fallujah. Nothing in there at all about the friendly fire incident. And we did talk with Duncan Hunter Junior , briefly. He was at a court hearing in San Diego , and he basically brushed us off , said , you know , I was in Fallujah. The Marines handled this investigation. And he said , you know , I was an artillery officer at the time , which is accurate. But what he failed to say when we pressed him was I was in that fire support center helping call in this mistaken mortar mission.

S1: And , you know , Tom , you you mentioned this earlier , and I want to go back to it. A major finding in your podcast is a report on this incident that was once declared lost by the Pentagon.

S2: They kept looking and looking. And we eventually got a copy of the report from the wife of one of the Marines who was killed in this incident. And Graham can pick up there.

S4: We did a lot of searching around to talk with the folks who were there in the schoolhouse and the families of the guys who were killed. And I have to say that that's really where the podcast ends up going , is an exploration of these guys lives , you know , in the context of this tragedy. But this woman , Elena Girouard , whose husband , Robert , was one of the two Marines killed , told me on the phone that she thought she still had a copy of this report. She couldn't quite put her hands on it , but we decided we were going to go out to Tucson and visit her. And when we went out there , it was it was a little nervous making because they hadn't been able to find it still. And they're just scouring the house. And finally , finally , this little kid found it in a drawer that was sort of forgotten about and came out and brought it to us. And that really opened everything up for us because we were able to see all of these statements. We were able to see how they were recommended punishments that were then brushed aside. And it was it was that that allowed us to leverage the Marine Corps to then go back and search again and again and in different places and finally turn up another copy of the report. You know , we just kept filling in blanks as we had more and more conversations with people who were actually there.

S2: I guess the real compelling part of this podcast , Jade , is it goes beyond just figuring out why this was covered up. There's no question it was covered up. It's also as grim and you know , the compelling interviews we had with the Marines and the Navy corpsman of Echo two one , just amazing interviews with these guys , very thoughtful and very troubled. Not only that they were lied to , but just how they've been dealing with this friendly fire incident , the survivor's guilt that they still have almost 20 years later. And the last episode , we go to Iraq to visit the family of that interpreter who was killed. That family was also not told the truth. They were told that their loved one was killed by terrorists and they were given $9,000.

S1: I've been talking with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith of the Investigations Unit about their podcast taking cover. We'd love to hear your thoughts about this incident. Give us a call at (619) 452-0228. Leave a message or email us at midday at Coming up , we continue the conversation with more revelations about what the families of the deceased and wounded Marines were told and why they were lied to.

S4: Being told this sort of fictional tale doesn't do anybody any good. We need honesty and transparency from the folks who are running this thing. And when we're denied that , it erodes your faith in the organization as a whole.

S1: We'll be right back. Welcome back to KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman , joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith of the Investigations Unit. We're talking about their podcasts taking cover , which unravels their deep investigation into a tragic , friendly fire incident during the Iraq war. Turns out it was covered up. And at the center of this is Duncan Hunter , Junior and senior.

S2: They lost their friends. Some of them were seriously wounded. One guy who we talked with lost a leg and we ended up telling some of these Marines what happened that day. They were never told it was friendly fire. And we asked one of them , you know , when did you first learn it was friendly fire ? And he said about two minutes ago. And he said , you know , my Purple Heart doesn't mean as much anymore.

S1: Yeah , because I wanted to ask you , you know , this lack of transparency into a deadly incident , I mean , did this in any way disillusion them to the meaning of their service in the military ? Yeah.

S4: I mean , I think some of them knew that something had gone on. Some of them suspected something had gone on. And they were always sort of incredulous that they weren't getting clear answers about exactly what had gone on. So what they've said to us and the families of the people who were killed as well is that , you know , sometimes the military , when something like this happens , it's embarrassing. And in this case , there are larger political forces at work , maybe , but they they sometimes try to tell a narrative to the people , you know , that it was a heroic fight against the enemy and everybody was doing all the right stuff. And what the families and the guys have said to us is , look , we're grownups. We want the truth. We want to know what went on so that we can have some closure and move on with our lives. And being told this sort of fictional tale doesn't do anybody any good. We need honesty and transparency from the folks who are running this thing. And when we're denied that , it erodes your faith in the organization as a whole.

S1: In the podcast , we also hear from a widow of one of the men who was killed.

S4: This is the widow of Rob Zahar , one of the Marines who was killed. And she's actually the person who finally delivered us a copy of the report that allowed us to open up the whole rest of the investigation. And what she said was she had somebody knock on her door , you know , the day Rob was killed and she was told he was killed by hostile fire. And she was under that impression until a few still weeks later when a friend of Rob's called from Fallujah from a smartphone and told her the truth. And she was devastated because now she didn't know what to think. And it wasn't until three years later that the Marines finally visited her to give an official notification. It was friendly fire. And even then , there were so many blanks to fill in.

S6: Yeah , like I drive for Uber and it's like people ask about your life and you talk about your life and then you get a bad review. It's like , Well , then why do you ask about my life ? It's like I gave you a snippet of my life and then you get a bad review. And quite honestly , I think it all boils down to people want to forget about it. I mean , this is Iraq we're talking about. We should have never been there to begin with. And so , I mean , but yet here my husband is dead for your freedom and you guys don't care. Nobody cares.

S8: How do you process that ? I mean.

S6: You can't I can't. I probably have all my mental health issues because of this.

S2: It's important to note that Elena Erhard , her husband , died on April 12th , 2004. That was her due date for their first child , a boy that was born later , a couple of weeks later.


S2: And I think that's why you want a free and independent press to dig into some of these stories to find out exactly what happened. I've been covering the Pentagon 25 years , and a lot of friends of mine are former Army officers and will have a beer or something. And I'll tell them when I'm working on , they'll say , Oh , yeah , yeah. We covered up some things , too. And one guy told me , you know , I was a battalion commander in Afghanistan and Green Berets came in to go after the Taliban and they ended up actually killing Afghan Border Patrol police. But it doesn't. So we just paid off the families and no one ever heard about these things happen , sadly , all the time.

S1: So six episodes of this podcast have dropped. There's a seventh coming.

S4: But the guys who we interviewed who were there in the schoolhouse , the corpsman who were treating people told us again and again , you have to remember , there was a third man killed. There was an Iraqi interpreter , but nobody knew him because he was with an Army psyops unit who had only just shown up. So for the first couple of years that we were doing this story , we had no idea who this guy was. And it was only like late in the game that we finally got a name and we were able to work with NPR's local reporter in Baghdad , who worked incredibly hard to finally find the family of this man. And I'll let Tom pick it up from there.

S2: So we did find the family and spoke with them. And you can imagine they were very , very angry that they were lied to. And we told them what happened. We told them , listen , the American families were lied to as well. That's something you share in common. But again , very , very bitter about what happened. And interestingly , one of their other brothers ended up joining the American military to work as an interpreter to avenge his brother's death by terrorists because , again , they were told he was killed by terrorists. And then I think also we drove to Fallujah , to the schoolhouse where this friendly fire incident happened , obviously rebuilt. And the girls , little girls running around with backpacks and this joyous place. Now , that was a scene of such horror and death. And we ended up talking to a couple of sheiks in the area. And both , you know , one is retired. He worked at the school and the other is currently the headmaster at the school. And again , we spent so much time with the Marines in the Navy corpsman talking about what it was like and the fear they had of fighting the insurgents and so forth. And these two sheiks told us , obviously , we lived under that occupation and we were getting shot at and humiliated and embarrassed by these Marines. One guy said , you know , a relative and threw a rock at the Marine truck and they ended up killing him. Another said , you know , a guy was guy they knew. I think a relative was coming into a checkpoint and the Marines couldn't understand him. He couldn't understand the Marines. He starts driving away and they open fire and kill his son. So what was fascinating thing for us is to get we spent a lot of time again in Iraq covering the war is to get a perspective so many years later by those who lived under the occupation and what they went through. And again , these are just kind of regular people , you know , and they said we supported the insurgency because we don't want anybody occupying our country.


S2: This is really our podcast is in some ways kind of a microcosm of the entire Iraq war that was built on the misconceptions and. Mistakes , lies. And you're kind of. You know , this is kind of a part of that. What happened ? It would be talked to one general who was really , really thoughtful guy , John Toulon , and he said , you know , we were in Fallujah and he was a colonel at the time. He said , we didn't know who we were fighting and we didn't know who was in charge of the city. And you just sit back and think , you know , you guys had no idea what was going on in that country. And these sheikhs again said , you know , you guys ruined our country. We never had al-Qaida. We never had ISIS here. You brought them here. And another thing , everyone thinks the Iraq war is over. There's still 2000 American troops in Iraq and some of them are partnering with Iraqi counterterrorism forces to go after the remnants of ISIS. 20 years later.

S1: I've been speaking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Graham Smith from NPR's Investigations Unit about their new podcast , Taking Cover. Thank you both for joining us today.

S9: You're welcome. Glad to do it.

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, heading into court, Oct. 7, 2019.
Matt Hoffman
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, heading into court, Oct. 7, 2019.

In the early days of the Iraq War, a deadly incident of friendly fire claimed the lives of two American servicemen and one Iraqi translator. The truth, however, was buried.

A new investigative podcast from NPR explores why the incident was kept hidden for years, and how it involved both former San Diego congressmembers Duncan Hunter Jr. and Duncan Hunter Sr.


Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent

Graham Smith, NPR investigations senior producer