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'Taking Cover' update: A senator and soldier try to get to the truth


Earlier this year, NPR's podcast Taking Cover told the story of a friendly fire in Iraq back in 2004. Two Marines and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in the tragedy, which also wounded more than a dozen others. Our reporters learned that the son of a prominent politician was involved in the mistake, and the whole thing had been covered up. Now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is asking the Marine Corps for answers. NPR's Tom Bowman and Graham Smith bring us the latest.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: April 12, 2004. U.S. Marines accidentally launched an 81-millimeter mortar on one of their own positions during fighting in Fallujah - among those killed, Lance Corporals Brad Shuder and Rob Zurheide. Zurheide's wife, Elena, was expecting their first child.

ELENA ZURHEIDE: April 12 was my due date. I was due on April 12, and my husband died on April 12.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: The Marines didn't tell Elena the truth about how Rob died. They said it was enemy fire. She heard rumors it was an accident, but she wasn't officially informed it was friendly fire till more than three years later. And even then, a lot was held back. She wants to know why.

ZURHEIDE: Because that's what I view all of this as - a big, fat lie.

BOWMAN: When NPR reached out to the Marine Corps leadership after the podcast ran, telling them about our investigation, about Elena and several wounded veterans who'd never been told the truth, the Marines said there'd be no response. But there's someone else now looking for answers about what went wrong that day and why it was so poorly handled afterwards - Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee.

MARK KELLY: Robert Zurheide's widow, Elena, is one of my constituents. His son Robert, who wasn't even born when he was killed, is there in Tucson with his mom.

BOWMAN: Going to Kelly's office, you walk past the orange spacesuit he wore as an astronaut and a photo of the fighter jet he flew in the Navy. He was a combat pilot like John McCain, the Republican war hero whose desk Kelly now sits behind.

KELLY: They deserve answers. It's important that they get them - not only them but the folks who were wounded. You know, why were they not informed? You know, why did it take this long? It shouldn't. They should be informed immediately. The Marine Corps has regulations, and they need to follow up.

SMITH: When we went to the Marines for answers, at first they said they couldn't find any documentation of the friendly fire. Then they gave us conflicting stories about what had happened. And then they failed to even follow regulations and reach out to the wounded vets. But Kelly's a senator. They won't ignore him. The senator told us he recently met with the No. 2 Marine officer, General Christopher Mahoney, and he raised the issue of this mishandled incident.

Had he any idea what you were talking about, or...

BOWMAN: What did he say?

KELLY: Yeah, he was familiar with it. And he told us he's going to get us some answers, and I trust that he's going to do that.

BOWMAN: One of the wounded troops Kelly wants answers for is John Smith. Smith was a Marine corporal. He lost a leg and the use of one eye that day.

SMITH: Hey, John.

BOWMAN: We visited him recently in Maryland. He ambles out of his house slowly, walking with a stiff gait.

JOHN SMITH: Y'all ready?

SMITH: Great to see you.

SMITH: Likewise.

SMITH: How you been?

SMITH: I can't complain - enjoying myself for the holidays. How's everything been with you, though?

BOWMAN: All good, all good.

SMITH: John's working on his master's degree in mental health counseling, and he's a hip-hop artist on the side. He says he still thinks about that explosion that mangled his leg every day.

SMITH: For about 10, 15 minutes in the morning, I'm back in 2004 'cause I have to put myself back together every time.

SMITH: You got the prosthetic. Yeah.

SMITH: Exactly. 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.

SMITH: By Pentagon regulations, someone from the Marines should have met with Smith and given him a copy of the investigation almost 20 years ago.

SMITH: I have never been contacted on this at all, like, for none of it.

SMITH: You haven't heard anything official from the Marines.

SMITH: Nothing at all.

BOWMAN: And you learned about it from the podcast.

SMITH: Exactly.

BOWMAN: What is that - what do you think about that?

SMITH: I think it's - honestly, the only word I can say is disgusting. Like, you espouse the words honor, courage, commitment. And you want us to follow them. And we give our life to follow. But when the ball falls on you, it's all of a sudden not important.

BOWMAN: So why were John Smith and others never told the truth? Well, here's what we uncovered. One of the Marines involved in this deadly mistake, the officer who plotted this mortar mission was First Lieutenant Duncan Hunter Jr., son of Duncan Sr., then a California congressman and the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

SMITH: Among those wounded that day in Fallujah were two U.S. Army soldiers. We met Joe Colabuno on the National Mall last summer. You can hear the cicadas. He remembers seeing the mortar round fall while he and his friend were having a smoke in the school courtyard where the Marines were holed up.

JOE COLABUNO: So he got blasted forward. I got blasted against - there was a little wall.


COLABUNO: You know, and Shihab was standing in the absolute worst possible way that you could be standing, and something explodes next to you.

SMITH: Shihab was their interpreter, an Iraqi who took the job to help support his young brothers and sisters back in Baghdad.

COLABUNO: Shihab was just like this, staring up at the stars.

BOWMAN: Joe Colabuno and his friend John Nelson were both badly wounded, could have been medically retired. But they fought to stay in. Both are still on active duty and hold the rank of sergeant major. The Marines have never told them the truth about their wounds and the death of their friend, Shihab.

SMITH: Colabuno always assumed the explosion that day in April 2004 was caused by the enemy until we told him what really happened. He's never talked much about that day.

COLABUNO: I don't carry it like a weight. I carry it somewhere, I guess. But - and war sucks. War is hell, right? I mean, we know that. We know this. But it's so stupid to - why would you cover it up? But...

SMITH: He points to the Capitol building looming at the end of the Mall.

COLABUNO: As long as these guys understand it - and the further away we get from war, the less they understand the the cost of war going forward, right? I mean, it needs to be an incredible tax on the nation to go to war. It should be because we need to think real [expletive] hard before we do that.

BOWMAN: Which gets us back to why Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona tells us he's looking into this case. He says beyond these men and the families getting the truth, it's important for the military to learn from their mistakes.

KELLY: To prevent future ones and to figure out why it happened. And then you need to put in some, you know, processes and procedures to make sure that stuff like that does not happen again.

BOWMAN: We also wrote to the Army Chief of Staff, General Randy George, who had his lawyers reach out to the Marines, referring the questions on to them.

SMITH: Meanwhile, the Marines who fought in Fallujah 20 years ago are planning a reunion in California in February. They've invited Colabuno and the other soldier, too - men who they never got to know at the time but who share the same tragedy. They hope by then they'll get some answers from the Marine Corps. I'm Graham Smith.

BOWMAN: And I'm Tom Bowman, NPR News.

CHANG: Tom and Graham are the hosts of NPR's investigative podcast Taking Cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Graham Smith is a producer, reporter and photographer whose curiosity has taken listeners around the U.S. and into conflict zones from the Mid-East to Asia and Africa.