Unhappy Accidents

When it comes to casualties in Iraq, Fort Lewis Rangers are their own worst enemies.

For the 75th Ranger Battalion, based at Fort Lewis, the deadliest foe in the "war on terrorism" may not be the enemy.

Four of the fort's nine Ranger fatalities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and training exercises since 2004 have been caused by accidents, including the notorious friendly-fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman. The latest was last month, when 23-year-old Spc. George Libby of North Carolina was killed in Afghanistan. (The Army hasn't yet revealed whether his death was due to a mishap, tactical error, or friendly fire.) However, members of the battalion who are now back in the Northwest tell Seattle Weekly that negligence may have at least contributed to three of the Ranger deaths that have been officially classified by the military as "hostile fire."

The Army disagrees, although Army spokesperson Carol Darby said she was unable to comment on individual cases.

Members of the 75th Ranger Battalion might be excused for questioning official versions of events. The friendly-fire fatality of fellow 75th Ranger and ex–pro footballer Tillman, 27, in Afghanistan was initially covered up, and Rangers were ordered not to speak publicly about it. The shooting became the most investigated military death since the war on terror was launched in 2001, and, to Tillman's family and many others, it is still unresolved.

"Since Pat," says one Ranger, "there have been a number of accidents in which Rangers were either killed or disabled." (The Ranger, who served in Iraq, asked not to be identified, saying he faced "severe repercussions" if his identity were revealed.) "Being a Ranger is a dangerous job," the soldier notes. "Unfortunately, I think the battalion has come close to killing and injuring more of its own than the enemy has."

The Fort Lewis battalion of 580 tan-beret Rangers, who typically deploy in small teams in high-risk fire zones, is one of three battalions that make up the 75th Ranger Regiment. The two others are based in Georgia, and all are under the Army's Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. Training at Ranger School, a grueling trial of physical and mental endurance, has helped keep losses low—at the hands of the enemy, at least.

Both Georgia battalions of the 75th have also experienced a high rate of accidental deaths. A Weekly review shows 21 members of those two battalions have died since 2001, almost half from nonhostile causes. They include a sergeant killed when he accidentally set off a grenade, two Rangers who died during training, three more who died in accidental vehicle rollovers, and four who died in accidental chopper crashes.

The soldier who spoke with the Weekly says he and others believe negligence was a contributor to the 2004 death of Pfc. Nathan Stahl, 20, of Indiana, killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb not long after Tillman died. The Ranger says Stahl had been riding in a vehicle protected with quarter-inch Iraqi armor that "wasn't anything that you would ever sanely use" to stop bullets and bombs. Commanders were aware of the high risk of sending Stahl and others out on patrol in poorly armored Humvees, says the Ranger. But, "They ignored [the risks] until Nathan died, and then banned Rangers from riding in the unprotected backs of trucks....The armor actually acted as shrapnel from the impact of the IED [improvised explosive device]."

He also cites the 2006 death of two Rangers attempting to clear an Iraqi building they shouldn't have been inside of, he claims. A loudspeaker was used to ask insurgents to surrender; after a short wait, the Rangers—Staff Sgt. Ricardo Barraza, 24, and Sgt. Dale Brehm, 23, both of California—were sent inside to detain or kill them. "This goes against every tactical instinct a Ranger has," the Ranger says. "The element of shock and surprise is removed, and the warning allowed insurgents to barricade and prepare for the coming assault. The result: two dead Rangers." It's a tactical policy no longer practiced, he says.

John Pike, a military expert with GlobalSecurity.org, says the Ranger's interpretation of events—in the Barraza and Brehm deaths, anyway—are certainly debatable. Pike acknowledges he doesn't know the full details of the entry order, "but that seems to me to be a command judgment."

But he says the experience of the Rangers is not unusual. "It continues to be the case that a significant fraction of the Americans who die in Iraq die due to accidents." Similarly, he notes, "There were more U.S. service members killed in accidents than were killed in action during the first Gulf War back in 1991." The latest figures show that of 3,750 U.S. fatalities in Iraq, 670 are considered nonhostile or accidental. In the first days of the war in 2003, accidental deaths actually exceeded hostile deaths, Army figures show.

The two Fort Lewis Ranger deaths (besides Tillman and Libby) that are officially recognized as accidental occurred during training exercises at Fort Lewis. In 2005, Pfc. Blake Samodell, 24, a Ranger from Davenport, in Eastern Washington, was killed in a nighttime static-line airborne jump when the parachutes of two other Rangers became entangled and the soldiers dropped onto Samodell's open chute, witnesses said. All three fell to the drop zone and were critically injured; Samodell later died from a skull fracture.

In 2004, Pfc. Devin Peguero, 20, of California, was shot by another soldier in a live-fire training exercise. The Army never announced details of the incident. But the Ranger who spoke with the Weekly says "a number of targets were [accidentally] misplaced, allowing Rangers going through the range to fire into an area where other Rangers were recovering and practicing for their next iteration [sequence]," killing Peguero with a bullet to the neck.

There's a reason why the public isn't informed of some of these details, he adds. "We are never allowed to talk to the media."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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