Senator wants Marines to explain why wounded troops weren't told the truth
Elena Zurheide was relaxing at her home in Camp Pendleton, Calif., due to deliver her first child. It was April 12, 2004. On the other side of the world, her husband, Rob, lay dying.
A U.S. Marine mortar had sailed through the sky and dropped nearly on top of him, inside a dusty courtyard of a school in Fallujah, Iraq, where he and other members of his Marine unit were hunkered down, fighting insurgents.
But when a Marine officer came and knocked on Elena's door, he didn't say her husband and two others had been killed that day by a horrible mistake. He told her Rob was killed by enemy fire.
The Marines finally acknowledged it was friendly fire three years later, under pressure from Congress, but Elena still has questions.
"All of this is a big fat lie," she says. "Why did they keep it secret to begin with?"
Earlier this year, NPR's podcast Taking Cover tried to get to the truth. It revealed that the son of a prominent politician was involved in the mistake — and the whole thing had been covered up.
Now, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is asking the Marine Corps for answers.
"Robert Zurheide's widow, Elena, is one of my constituents," Kelly told NPR, sitting at his office on Capitol Hill. "His son, Robert, who wasn't even born when he was killed, is there in Tucson with his mom."
"They deserve answers. It's important that they get them," Kelly said. "Not only them, but the folks who were wounded. Why were they not informed? You know, why did that take this long? They should be informed immediately. The Marine Corps has regulations, and they need to follow them."
Kelly is himself a combat veteran who flew A-6 fighter jets during the first Gulf War and later became an astronaut. He sits behind a desk that used to belong to another Navy pilot, John McCain, and said he knows the importance of keeping faith with military families.
Kelly said he met recently with the No. 2 Marine officer, Gen. Christopher Mahoney, and asked him about the friendly fire that killed Rob Zurheide, Brad Shuder, and an Iraqi interpreter. Nearly a dozen others were wounded, some serious enough to receive a medical retirement.
"(Mahoney) was familiar with it. And he told us he's going to get us some answers," Kelly said. "And I trust he's going to do that."
When NPR went to the Marines for answers, at first they couldn't find any documentation of the friendly fire, so NPR sued in federal court to get a copy of the investigation. The Marines also gave conflicting stories about how the friendly fire happened. And even once the details came out in Taking Cover, they failed to follow their own regulations and reach out to the wounded veterans.
One of the men still waiting is John Smith, a Marine corporal who lost a leg and the use of an eye in the blast. These days he's working on a master's degree in mental health counseling, and he's a hip-hop artist on the side. He moves slowly, with a stiff gait.
He said the explosion comes to mind each time he straps on his prosthetic leg.
"For about 10, 15 minutes in the morning, I'm back in 2004 because I have to put myself back together every time," Smith said. "So it's like I don't get to move all the way forward. But, I mean, after I put myself together, my daughter runs down, and I'm like, 'Hey, I'm here now.'"
By Pentagon regulations, someone from the Marines should have met with Smith, explained the circumstances of the incident that injured him and given him a copy of the investigation some 20 years ago. Instead, he learned it was friendly fire from NPR three years ago.
Smith is still angry at the Marine leadership for failing to tell him the truth.
"The only word I can say is disgusting," he said. "Like, you espouse the words honor, courage, commitment and you want us to follow them, and we give our life to follow them. But when the ball falls on you, it's all of a sudden not important."
As revealed in Taking Cover, one of the Marines involved in the deadly mistake — the officer who plotted the mortar mission — was 1st Lt. Duncan D. Hunter, son of Duncan L. Hunter, then a California congressman and the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The younger Hunter declined to talk about his actions that day, when NPR spoke with him earlier this year. His father, who visited the Marine base in Fallujah a few weeks after the blast while it was still being investigated, told us in a long interview he had never heard of the friendly fire.
Some of the senior Marine officers who were in Fallujah when the blast occurred declined to talk, including those who would later become household names: James Mattis, who served as defense secretary under President Donald Trump, and John Kelly, who was Trump's chief of staff.
But many lower-level Marines and soldiers sat down with NPR. Among them was Joe Colabuno, one of two Army soldiers wounded in the school courtyard.
On the National Mall in Washington, D.C., last summer, sitting on a bench and almost drowned out by the buzzing of cicadas, he recalled seeing the mortar round fall while he and his friend were having a smoke in that school courtyard. Not far away was his Iraqi interpreter, Shihab.
Shihab had taken the job to help support his sisters and brothers, his family members later said. NPR is not using Shihab's full name because his family still lives in Baghdad, and members fear they could be under threat from people who still resent the Americans.
"I got blasted against — there was a little wall, you know," Colabuno remembered.
Colabuno also recalled Shihab, standing relaxed, looking up through the opening of the schoolhouse courtyard right before the blast.
"Shihab was just ... staring up at the stars," he said, his voice breaking.
Colabuno and his friend John Nelson were both badly wounded. They're still on active duty and each reached the rank of sergeant major. The Marines never told them the truth about their wounds and about the death of their friend, Shihab.
Colabuno said he always assumed the explosion that day in April 2004 was caused by the enemy, until NPR told him what really happened. He's never talked much about that day.
"I don't carry it like a weight. I carry it sometimes I guess, but I mean...," he said, his voice trailing off. "I mean, war sucks, war is hell right? I mean, we know that. But why (be) so stupid to ... why would you cover it up?"
Colabuno points off in the distance to the U.S. Capitol, where Congress meets.
"The further we get away from war, the less they understand the cost of war going forward," he said. "I mean, it needs to be an incredible tax on the nation to go to war. Because we need to think real f***ing hard before we do that."
Marines who were in Fallujah the day of the attack — who still bear the scars, the anger, the guilt, the sense of loss — plan to gather at Camp Pendleton in February for a 20th reunion. Among those in attendance will be Elena Zurheide and her son Robert.
They've also invited the two Army soldiers wounded that day, Colabuno and Nelson — men they never got to know at the time, but who shared the same tragedy.
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