A Trail of Pain From a Botched Attack in Iraq in 2003

By JAMES DAO

New York Times

April 15, 2005

MANASSAS, Va. - On a clear night two years ago during the invasion of Iraq, Specialist Jeff Coyne was sitting in his Army supply truck when a thunderous explosion shattered his windshield, throwing him like a rag doll and dislocating two discs in his back.

"How could we have gotten hit?" Specialist Coyne wondered as he staggered to safety, baffled that the Iraqis could have such fire power. The cries of wounded men punctured the desert air. "It came out of nowhere."

What he could not know then, but soon came to suspect, was that the explosion had not been caused by Iraqi mortars. His artillery unit had been hit by an American fighter jet and its signature weapon, a laser-guided 500-pound bomb. Three soldiers died and five were wounded, including Specialist Coyne, in one of the worst cases of "friendly fire" during the 2003 invasion - one that has drawn little public attention.

A reconstruction of that April 3 bombing from interviews and military documents - including an investigation report obtained by The New York Times that was released to families of the dead but not to the wounded - shows that a cascading chain of errors, poor judgment and miscommunication by American forces stationed in three countries contributed to the botched attack.

Specialist Coyne, now retired from the military, received a Purple Heart for his injury. But he says that at the award ceremony at Fort Sill, Okla., his superiors instructed him to keep quiet about his suspicions that he had been bombed by American forces. The Army has never given Mr. Coyne an official explanation for the accident.

"I'm not looking for somebody to spend their life in prison for what happened to me," said Mr. Coyne, a strapping 30-year-old who now walks with a limp and a cane, said in an interview in his modest apartment here. "We just want the truth. We're all Americans. There's no reason to lie to us."

The mistaken attack has remained little more than a footnote in the story of the invasion. No one was charged and no one was disciplined. Soldiers wounded in the bombing, who did not get the investigation report, have been left to trade rumors on its cause. Until recently, some believed the explosion was caused by an Iraqi grenade, while others blamed non-American coalition forces.

Samuel C. Oaks, whose grandson Sgt. Donald S. Oaks Jr., 20, died in the attack, did get the investigation report in late 2003. But for him it is not sufficient. Over the past year, Mr. Oaks has written to the White House, members of Congress and the Air Force demanding that someone be held accountable and that the pilot be required, at least, to apologize. He says he has yet to receive an answer.

"In court, they expect you to show remorse when you've done something wrong," said Mr. Oaks, a disabled welder from outside Erie, Pa. "There's no remorse here."

It has often been that way when combatants attack their own forces. In recent years, it has taken a diplomatic crisis, such as when an American pilot mistakenly bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002, or a famous casualty, like Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former National Football League player, who was killed by fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in 2004, for such accidents to receive wide public scrutiny.

The error that led to the 2003 bombing began when an Air Force F-15E crew mistook the American artillery unit for an Iraqi missile battery largely because the crew was allowed to believe, incorrectly, that a Navy plane had been shot down that night in the same area by an Iraqi missile. The error was compounded by a decision by the artillery unit to shut off infrared strobe lights that would have identified it to the pilot. And it was sealed by confusion over who was responsible for checking the location of American troops. The Army says it has not tried to play down the accident, and is studying it and similar incidents to prevent mistakes.

Improved training and technology helped reduce such accidents during the Iraq invasion, officials note. There were about 10 incidents in which American troops attacked their own side in 2003, resulting in nearly 20 American deaths, according to independent surveys, a drop from the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when about three dozen Americans died in such accidents.

The principal investigator, Brig. Gen. David M. Edgington of the Air Force, concluded that the fighter pilot - a veteran Air Force instructor whose name has not been released - had rushed his decision to bomb. But the general also concluded that no one had acted criminally, negligently or recklessly, and he recommended that no one be disciplined. The United States Central Command accepted his recommendations.

"There were numerous opportunities for breaking the chain of events leading to the release of this weapon," General Edgington wrote. He declined to be interviewed. So did Gen. T. Michael Moseley of the Air Force, who was in charge of air operations in Iraq in 2003 and signed off on General Edgington's report. A spokeswoman for Fort Sill said no one from the artillery unit was available to comment.

On the night of the bombing, Battery D, First Battalion, 39th Field Artillery, made camp about 30 miles southwest of Baghdad. The unit had just rolled through the Karbala Gap and was firing rockets toward Baghdad Airport in support of the Third Infantry Division.

The unit had shut off the infrared strobe lights known as fireflies used to identify it to allied aircraft because of intelligence that Iraqi snipers could see the lights through night-vision goggles.

But First Lt. John Fernandez, an artillery platoon leader who lost both feet in the bombing, said in an interview that the unit's vehicles were also equipped with tape and heat panels that should have made them visible. Some vehicles also carried homing beacons that marked their positions for commanders at distant bases. And there were three dozen vehicles in the encampment - too many to be a plausible gathering of Iraqi forces, he thought.

"There were lots of indicators we were friendly," said Lieutenant Fernandez, a West Point graduate.

But Battery D's rocket launches had generated alarm among American pilots.

According to the investigation report, a lack of critical information had caused the confusion. Hours before, a Navy F/A-18 fighter had been shot down near Karbala. American commanders at air bases in Saudi Arabia and Qatar suspected that an American Patriot missile had struck it, in part because a Patriot had mistakenly shot down a British Tornado jet about a week before. The Patriot's role was later confirmed by the military.

But that night, "information went out from Crows Nest" - a commander's perch - that no one would discuss the possibility of a Patriot accident, an officer later told investigators. As helicopters and jets were assigned to the search and rescue mission, they were allowed to believe that an Iraqi surface-to-air missile was the culprit.

One of those jets was an Air Force F-15E fighter. Earlier that night, the pilot and his weapons officer, both instructors with seven years experience flying missions over Iraq to police the no-flight zone, had seen what looked like a surface-to-air missile hit the Navy fighter. As they searched for the pilot, they saw what appeared to be missiles fired from near the crash site - and were convinced it was an Iraqi battery firing on American aircraft.

It was, in fact, Battery D. But when the pilot and his officer looked for indicators that it was a friendly unit, they saw none and requested clearance to attack. Believing the warplane was in danger, and without checking for friendly ground forces, the crew of an Awacs reconnaissance plane gave the pilot a green light.

The explosion threw Lieutenant Fernandez out of his cot. Kicking off his sleeping bag, he realized his feet had been torn apart. He grabbed his Kevlar vest, helmet and gun, then tried to pull Sergeant Oaks, who had been sleeping beside him, away from the burning Humvee, which was loaded with ammunition and was leaking gasoline.

They escaped before the Humvee exploded, but it took more than an hour for an evacuation helicopter to arrive, according to the report. Though Sergeant Oaks, 20, was conscious as he was flown away, witnesses said he died within hours. Two other soldiers, Sgt. Todd J. Robbins, 33, from Pentwater, Mich., and Sgt. First Class Randall S. Rehn, 36, of Longmont, Colo., were also killed, probably instantly.

At daybreak, soldiers discovered pages from a Bible scattered around the remains of the Humvee. Sergeant Oaks's family believe they came from his Bible, which he was trying to read cover to cover.

"It was the most devastation I had seen in the war," said William E. Thompson, an Army reservist who photographed the scene.

Lieutenant Fernandez, who has retired from the military, says he no longer frets about how the accident might have been avoided. Now 27, he lives on Long Island with his wife and their infant daughter and is attending graduate school to become a math teacher.

Still, he occasionally wonders. "I know that the pilot didn't mean to do it," he said, adding he hopes that the pilot had taken "some preventative measures" to make sure he was going after the enemy. "If not, then he should be held responsible."

Jeff Coyne wants to go to college to become a sports journalist. But he struggles with back pain and says he has found the Veterans Administration bureaucracy difficult to navigate. He says he still grieves deeply for the dead.

"It always seems in war they take the best ones from you," he said.

And Samuel Oaks's bitterness runs deep. He and his wife, Mary, helped raise Donald, the quiet, hardworking only son of their only son, after his parents divorced when he was 5. They tried to discourage him from joining the Army and worried frantically when he was deployed to Iraq. But he loved the military and rose rapidly in its ranks, winning promotion to sergeant posthumously .

Just before the second anniversary of the accident, his father visited Sergeant Oaks's grave, a simple black stone etched with his likeness a few miles outside Erie.

"You'd think it gets easier with time," Donald Oaks Sr. said. "But it doesn't."