Who's Shooting Who?

How the U.S. Military strung along the family of a Fort Lewis soldier killed by "friendly fire."

THIRTEEN DAYS after Fort Lewis Ranger and ex–pro football player Pat Tillman, 27, was killed in Afghanistan, a Fort Lewis military policeman named Jesse Buryj, 21, was killed in Iraq. In life, the famous chiseled athlete and the small-town baritone horn player never met. But their deaths have followed a parallel course. Both were victims of "friendly fire," the military's oxymoronic euphemism for death at the hands of a fellow soldier. And who exactly killed them, and under what circumstances, remains a mystery.

The Army is trying to answer that question in the high-profile Tillman case. It has undertaken four investigations in three years and is now performing a fifth review to answer questions about a possible Army cover-up and whether the killing was intentional, which could lead to criminal charges.

In contrast, the Buryj case has fallen silent. The service is satisfied with blaming an unknown soldier from Poland, even though the Polish government denies the claim and Buryj's mother in Ohio says she was told an American soldier has confessed to shooting her son.

"My son is another Kennedy—nobody seems to know who shot him," says Peggy Buryj with a hard laugh. She's grateful for the Army's attempts to provide her with information, although each new answer raised more infuriating questions. And she doesn't begrudge the Tillmans for the attention they've gotten, having conferred and commiserated with the family. Peggy Buryj feels the Tillman case has helped open the eyes of other parents to questions about the Pentagon's casualty reporting methods. And like the Tillmans, she suspects a military cover-up. "Where's my criminal investigation?" she asks.

Understandably, the Tillman case has gotten more notice. Pat Tillman was the Arizona Cardinals defensive back who gave up a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the Army in 2002. He signed up with his brother Kevin, who gave up a promising baseball career, eight months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. They ascended to Ranger School, were assigned to Fort Lewis' elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and served together in Iraq and Afghanistan. A hero to many, Pat Tillman was killed April 22, 2004. He was the 106th U.S. fatality in Afghanistan, where, as of this week, more than 370 have died.

His death made international headlines. The funeral was nationally televised. Moments of silence were held, flags were lowered, and memorials were established in his name. He's been given a special display at the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, his picture and story included in the NFL's "Wartime Heroes" exhibit and elsewhere.

Jesse Buryj's life was comparably modest. He grew up in Ohio, played in the high-school band, and joined the Army after graduating in 2002. Hoping to someday become a police officer, Buryj wound up in Fort Lewis' 66th Military Police Company, which, in addition to MP duties, can also be involved in combat situations. He shipped off to Iraq in February 2004 and was killed three months later. He was the 761st U.S. fatality in Iraq, where, as of this week—the war's fourth anniversary—more than 3,200 have died.

The name Buryj is Ukranian, by the way. It's pronounced BOO-dee. But, as Buryj's mother says with a chuckle, "In the Army, you'd never survive with a name that sounds like 'booty.' So he didn't complain when they started calling him Spc. 'Burage.'"

Buryj's death rated mostly small headlines back home. Family and friends turned out for the service, and citizens paused in the street as his procession passed. He was remembered as the typical good guy who strikes out for a career in the military. He had slung a few burgers at Wendy's and married his high-school sweetheart, Amber, a piccolo player in his school band, in a wedding ceremony officiated by the band's director.

He was honored in Canton, too, a gritty former steel town 45 minutes south of Cleveland. That's his hometown. He's buried in a small church cemetery there. Though he never became the local cop he'd hoped to be, his name is included on a list of fallen officers remembered at an annual Canton police memorial event.

The uneven contrast of their lives and their Canton memorials is reflected in the differing levels of investigation into the two soldiers' deaths, Buryj's family thinks.

The Army initially told both families their sons were killed during firefights with the enemy—Tillman ambushed in the mountains near the Pakistani border, Buryj fatally injured when his armored vehicle turned over during an attack in Karbala, south of Baghdad. Each family buried its loved one thinking the soldier was slain by forces aligned with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That's hard enough to take. But it wasn't true.

Five weeks after Tillman's death, the Army revealed he was killed by his own troops—one, or several, of four U.S. soldiers—something the Army knew from the start. "Cease fire, friendlies," he is said by a witness to have futilely shouted, "I am Pat fucking Tillman, damn it!" He was hit in the head by three bullets and torn apart.

Fellow soldiers wrapped Tillman's body in a poncho and later burned his bloody clothing and body armor—because they were a biohazard, the soldiers claimed. Commanders meanwhile debated how and when they'd admit the fratricide. They were silent, Tillman's father, Patrick, would say later, because "they killed their poster boy" in an unpopular war during an election year.

Family pressure and heavy media coverage eventually prompted the four different investigations, with results of the fifth soon to be released. The latest probe is, in part, a review of the earlier ones, the Army says. It's supposed to clear up disputed details of Tillman's death—whether it was a "fog of war" accident caused by the confused inability to determine friend from foe, or possibly death by "fragging" (an intentional shooting). A secondary probe could also establish whether officials tried to criminally cover up details of the case.

Truth has been just as elusive and delayed in the Buryj case, as his family sees it. But theirs is a lonelier fight for a son no less loved. Mother Peggy remembers looking out her window and seeing the uniformed officer on her doorstep that sad day in May. She put off going to the door. The longer she waited, the longer Jesse would still be alive.

"He said Jesse was killed when a truck rammed his Humvee," Peggy Buryj says, referring to what a casualty officer told her. Her son was among a small contingent manning a checkpoint when a heavy dump truck sped out of the night toward them. Buryj, a Humvee turret gunner, fired hundreds of rounds, killing the driver and saving fellow soldiers' lives, the record shows. But the truck kept coming, knocking over the Humvee and throwing Buryj to the ground.

At first, Peggy Buryj believed the incident to have been an accident. That's what she was told by the military, according to an Associated Press report the day after his death: "'Everyone was fine, but Jesse's stomach was hurting him,' she said she was told. 'They took him to a hospital where they found he had massive internal injuries, and he died on the operating table.'" She didn't know it at the time, but he also had a bullet inside him. The fatal wound had not been obvious at the scene, but the mangled slug was discovered in a postmortem CAT scan.

No one in the truck had fired at them, the soldiers reported that day. That meant Buryj was killed by his own troops.

But it was more than two months before the Army told the Buryj family their son had been shot. When the death certificate arrived in July, it listed a "penetrating gunshot wound of the back."

The family was surprised and confused. There was no indication who fired the shot.

Peggy Buryj began making calls, writing letters, and sending e-mails. Fortuitously, President Bush came to Canton that summer during the 2004 election campaign and met some of Ohio's grieving war families. Peggy got a brief audience and asked him to help her learn more. He promised to do what he could.

But for the most part, the family was on its own. Peggy, 53, who works part time, learned how to file Freedom of Information Act requests with the Army. In February 2005, she and husband Steve, 54, a worker at an Akron plastics company, received a copy of Jesse's Army autopsy report. Nine months after Buryj's death, his family for the first time saw the official words "friendly fire," or death resulting from mistaken aim or misidentification of the target.

"We had no idea until then," the mother recalls.

Buryj is one of possibly two dozen U.S. service members killed by their own troops or allies in Afghanistan and Iraq—on the ground and in mistaken aerial attacks—out of more than 3,570 deaths. (The ratio was much worse in the 1991 Gulf War, with 35 out of 148 U.S. combat deaths from friendly fire.) The Army confirms 17 fratricides since 2001, and documents obtained by the Army Times last year turned up six other suspected friendly-fire incidents involving the deaths of nine U.S. soldiers. Several British and Canadian soldiers have also been killed by Americans. It can be devastating to all involved. Last month, the London Sun said a cockpit recording of two U.S. pilots—who'd just learned they'd accidentally killed a British soldier on the ground—captured them saying "I'm going to be sick" and "We're in jail, dude." Last week, a London coroner's inquest found the soldier's death avoidable and "criminal."

Fog of war is "the generic answer" to many of the deaths, says John Pike, a military expert and director of the D.C. think-tank Global Security, "though there are always more specific elements in each case." He didn't want to comment directly on Buryj's or other individual cases, but said, "Combat is an enormously confusing, chaotic environment, which is one reason ground troops spend so much time training, so that when faced with actual combat, they are able to respond instinctively." The services have been developing new techniques and technology to prevent such deaths, including sewing electronic chips into military clothing that can be seen on computer screens in vehicles and aircraft.

Some of the very first deaths in the "war on terror" were from friendly fire. A 2,000-pound U.S. bomb missed its target and killed three Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan in December 2001. One of the dead was Army Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, whose mother and stepfather live in Seattle; they were informed within 24 hours of the well-publicized bombing that left 20 other U.S. soldiers injured, and six allied Afghan fighters dead. The first American soldier to die from "unfriendly," or enemy, fire was Army Sgt. Nathan Chapman, 31, of Puyallup, who was killed the next month in Afghanistan.

The military uses the term "nonhostile fire" to describe what are usually noncombat deaths caused by fellow soldiers, oftentimes merely by stumbling or failing to secure a weapon. That's what happened to Capt. James Shull of Kirkland, for example. He was accidentally killed in 2003, on routine patrol in Baghdad, when one of his men tossed a rifle into the back of a Humvee and the M-16 discharged. Shull, 32, married with three children, was killed instantly.

The Army's casualty reporting methods have been questioned in other friendly-fire cases, such as the death of Army 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, 26, from California. He died in May 2004 in Iraq—killed in action, his family was initially told. They later learned, by requesting military records, that the tank commander died from the accidental discharge of an unmanned machine gun (incredibly, it had been triggered by a tree limb as the tank passed under it). The reporting system also failed for the families of two California National Guardsmen, Spc. Patrick McCaffrey, 34, and Lt. Andre Tyson, 33, killed in 2004 supposedly in an enemy ambush in Iraq. It wasn't until last summer that the Army finally admitted the two were murdered by members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps they were training.

Last year, the Army reviewed nearly 800 fatalities in an attempt to improve its reporting. The service says it found seven cases—Tillman's and Buryj's among them—where families were misinformed. Lt. Col. Kevin Arata of the Army's Human Resources Command in Virginia says that led to "major steps" to improve the casualty-report process. Another layer of review, by field-grade officers, has been added to verify the accuracy of initial casualty information, Arata tells Seattle Weekly, and any war death now will get a more thorough look "to ensure families ultimately received the most accurate information."

New procedures to cross-reference and double-check investigations are in place, Arata adds, and families now are entitled to receive a follow-up report, redacted and declassified, "to verify or clarify the initial circumstances in a much shorter period of time."

That's well and good, says Peggy Buryj, if it prevents other families from going through the misery she has endured. But she thinks an independent entity should be established to help families hack a path through the Army's tangled bureaucracy. "The only people shooting that day were the good guys," she says. "I buried my son not knowing that."

It wasn't until Army officials arrived at her home in April 2005, handing over a "final" report, that she learned Buryj's unit had been on a joint mission with Polish troops, who then had about 300 soldiers in Iraq.

And "most likely," the report said, one of the Poles had killed her son. But when Buryj put in a call to the Polish Embassy in D.C., "they denied it," she recalls.

The embassy confirmed that denial to Seattle Weekly. Defense attaché Maj. Rafal Nowak says the Polish government conducted its own inquiry into the death, and "the conclusion was that the Polish troops were not responsible for Buryj's death." The inquiry determined that the bullet fragment found in Buryj's body was standard 5.56 ammunition used by both U.S. and Polish troops, but that it couldn't have been fired by a Polish soldier because the Polish unit was positioned to shoot at the truck and not toward the checkpoint where Buryj was posted.

After two field investigations, the U.S. Army couldn't fully resolve this and other questions. With the Buryjs pushing for more details, in part through their congressional representatives, the service's watchdog agency, the Army inspector general's office, last year decided to undertake a new probe, reviewing both the case and the investigations into it.

Last November, the report arrived, leaving Peggy Buryj lost in her own kind of fog of war.

She learned for the first time that, like in Tillman's case, as many as four American soldiers, in addition to the Polish troops, had apparently been suspected of firing the fatal bullet.

But the bullet fragment taken from Jesse Buryj's body had been lost—accidentally destroyed in late 2005, the inspector general said, when it was mixed in with evidence from hostile-fire cases and criminal investigators tossed them all out.

"They threw away the bullet!" exclaims a frustrated Peggy Buryj. That news hit her in much the same way the news of Tillman's clothing destruction affected his stunned parents. "I lost the last bit of confidence I had in the Army," Buryj says.

The fragment could have been instrumental in determining which gun had fired the fatal shot. But it may have been a moot point: The IG also discovered that no ballistics samples were taken from the suspect weapons after the shooting in 2004.

"Had the four U.S. weapons been tested [and the bullet retained], this might have eliminated doubts over whether U.S. weapons fired the fatal round," said the report.

The IG outlined a series of Army errors compounded by more mistakes, paperwork screwups, and unexplained reporting delays, although the probe found no evidence of an intentional cover-up.

The Army's methods in the case were "often inaccurate and untimely," the IG concluded. The Army officially declared the shooting "a tragic accident" likely caused by an unknown ally.

With her son's story lacking the final, whodunit chapter, Peggy Buryj would like to see a full-scale probe like the one being done in the Tillman case by the Army Criminal Investigative Division, under orders from the IG. There's reasonable cause, she says.

"I think it may have been someone from the 66."

At least, that's what she was told, she says, by one of the officers in Jesse's 66th MP Company.

A lieutenant, he "came to our house last February [2006]," Buryj says."He had heard me on a radio show talking about Jesse. He called and asked if he could come by and talk to me. He was very afraid and at first wouldn't tell me his name.After a while, I figured out who he was." She won't publicly identify the officer.

"He told me who had confessed to killing Jesse. [The officer] was not there when Jess was killed, but he was there when the confession was made and the reports were falsified."

Buryj says she relayed the information to the IG's office, but was told the officer who had spoken with her had since left the service and the Army lacked jurisdiction. The IG's office won't comment today.

"They totally discredited him by saying he was demoted while in Iraq and had an ax to grind with commanders of the 66th," Buryj says. "That may be true, but people I've talked to in the 66th say it isn't."

Time is working against her now, as it is for the Tillmans. Three of the four likely shooters in Tillman's case are out of the service, free from military punishment.

"I think they're waiting for the same thing in Jess' case," says Buryj, suggesting the Army can just drop the case altogether if the alleged shooter of her son leaves the service.

A civil lawsuit would be expensive and perhaps futile—the military services are shielded from most tort claims for injury and death under a 60-year-old law known as the Feres doctrine, which, for the "good of the service," immunizes the military from what could be a barrage of claims.

Besides, says Buryj, if key evidence is missing, other than asking for a criminal probe, "There's just no place I know to go from here. Is it good enough? No. But what can I do about it? I guess you just live with your frustration."

She pauses.

"He was funny; that's the one thing I miss most. He was the funniest person I ever met. We were always on the same wavelength." She visits him weekly, sometimes driving past the football fans downtown.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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