Another ‘Pat Tillman’ Case Emerges

By: Greg Mitchell

For the past five weeks, in this column, I have spotlighted the misreporting of American deaths in Iraq and among veterans of that war here at home. Over and over, the press — and parents and spouses — have been lied to about how young Americans in the military have died. Now another case, this one involving Jess Buryj, a soldier from Canton, Ohio, who (it turns out) died in a friendly fire incident ? shot in the back ? has gained some attention.

The U.S. military has tried to blame Polish soldiers for his death, but a soldier who served with Buryi told his parents an American G.I. was actually at fault. Buryj?s father was so shaken by the alleged cover-up that he came to question whether the body they buried was even their son?s.

The Associated Press had announced the death of the soldier back in March 2004, asserting that he had died “while heroically trying to stop an attack on an Army checkpoint.” Of course, they are at the mercy of the military for any information.

?Jesse Buryj, 21, of Canton, fired more than 400 rounds at a dump truck trying to crash the checkpoint near Karbala,” AP related. “He shot the driver of the truck, which then crashed into the Humvee in which he was riding, an Army sergeant told his mother, Peggy Buryj, on Wednesday morning.”

The official U.S. casualty report said that Buryj had died of “a back injury” caused by “hostile enemy activity.” Actually,
the dump truck was filled with dirt or sand, not explosives, and was driven by civilians who had no weapons.

Buryj had a new wife named Amber. On one of the ?fallen heroes? message boards on the Web, she wrote: ?I want to thank all of you for your lovely comments. I would also like to just tell you all Jesse was an absolutely amazing man, of which no one could ever compare. A wonderful husband, son, brother, soldier,and friend to so many! I love you forever and always Jesse.”

But later his mother would write at the same site: “I am Peggy Buryj, the mother of Jesse. My son was promoted to Specialist the day he died. My son died as the result of friendly fire.? The death certificate now called it “homicide.”

Yet even after his mother learned of the shot in the back, the lies continued.

Yesterday, Josh White in the Washington Post reported that U.S. Army officials destroyed critical evidence that could have determined who shot and killed Buryj, ?one of several problems with the friendly-fire inquiry that may permanently shroud Buryj’s death in mystery, according to an Army inspector general’s review.?

The inquiry, which produced a 47-page document recently delivered to the dead man?s parents, ?found that criminal investigators destroyed bullet fragments, agents failed to collect ballistic evidence from weapons at the checkpoint, medical personnel made incorrect notations on Buryj’s records and military officials knew his death was a friendly-fire case months before they officially notified his family,? White writes.

?As a result, Buryj’s family buried him believing he was killed when his vehicle was rammed by a dump truck. They did not learn that he was shot by friendly forces until nine months after his death, and a lack of physical evidence means it is nearly impossible to know what happened that night.?

Investigators ruled that the Poles ?probably? fired the fatal shot, but the Poles strongly deny it. The final report notes that the original investigators were well aware of international sensitivities involving countries among the coalition of the willing. This could explain why they wanted to hide the friendly fire angle at the outset.

Back in January, Peggy Buryj told White: “If they can lie to Pat Tillman’s family, what do you think they’re going to do to Ma and Pop in Middle America here?”

Now she remains angry about the handling of the case, blasting the ?incompetence.? She is resigned to the idea that she may never know what happened to her son, White reports. ?I feel like I gave them my son and they’ve done nothing but dishonor him,” she said.

On Nov. 17, 2006, the NOW program on PBS interviewed Peggy Buryj for a report. Here are excerpts from the transcript.

BURYJ: When your son’s a soldier you know they could get killed. You know, you pray. But you know it?it’s a reality. But what happened after Jesse died, and the journey to find out what happened to him has just?broken my heart worse.

HINOJOSA: Peggy Buryj wants the truth. Her son, private Jesse Buryj was killed in Iraq on may 5, 2004. Peggy was first told her son died when a truck hit his humvee, but she later found out?it wasn’t true.

BURYJ: Some?maybe some mothers could- say well it didn’t matter ?oh, how he died. Well, it does. It’s?it’s important. It’s a part of history. It’s a part of my son’s life, how he died. And they’re not?going take that away from him?..

HINOJOSA: After a funeral procession through his hometown streets, Peggy Buryj had her son Jesse buried with military honors. At the time, she had no reason to doubt the army’s story.

BURYJ: You know, we were basically told that a truck ran a checkpoint, hit Jesse’s Humvee and Jesse was thrown from the Humvee and sustained internal injuries and died. That’s what we were told. That’s what we thought when we buried him.

HINOJOSA: But almost 2 months after Jesse’s funeral, his young widow sent Peggy documents she’d been given by the army.

BURYJ: And on the death certificate, it said, “Cause of death, penetrating gunshot wound to the back.” I said, “He was shot?” I just couldn’t believe that they would leave out that detail that Jesse was shot., I start making phone calls. I’m calling everybody I could possibly call that I could think of. I even called, like, the Red Cross. Could you help me here? Anybody, help me.

HINOJOSA: Peggy says she spent hours on the phone and on the internet trying to get more information. But she didn’t get very far?

BURYJ: If Jesse was killed here at home, I could go to the police station and say, “Could you please give me a copy of this?” The police report. I could go to the coroner and get a copy of the autopsy.

HINOJOSA: Peggy?along with her daughter Angela?found out that getting information from the military is a different story. Peggy was shocked to learn that to get the army reports relating to her son’s death?she needed to file a freedom of information act request.

BURYJ: Everything went through the military. I have a son that’s dead. That was shot. I don’t know who shot him, how he was shot. I know nothing other than the fact that my son’s dead.

HINOJOSA: Eight months after Jesse’s death, her freedom of information request was answered. Peggy was in for an even bigger shock.

BURYJ: I finally get a copy of the autopsy. And the autopsy said: “Specialist Jesse Buryj died as a result of friendly fire.”

HINOJOSA: What’s going on for you when you see “friendly fire”?

BURYJ: It’s like I’m blind sided. It’s like I’m blind ?I felt like ?I literally felt blind sided. You know it too me all this time to even have them tell me that my son was shot.
BURYJ: This was the first formal, any time the military sat us down and tried to explain to us what happened to Jesse?.

HINOJOSA: Army investigators called Jesse’s death a “tragic accident” and was “most likely” a result of friendly fire from “polish forces”. But it pointed out “most likely does not mean proved.” Even so the report concluded that the “investigation of the incident is complete.” But Peggy says… the report was far from complete…

BURYJ: I just, the more I read it, the more holes were in it. The more inconsistencies, the more this isn’t right. In my gut, I knew this isn’t right?.

HINOJOSA: Peggy Buryj is still far from the truth. She had new reasons to question the army’s account of Jesse’s death by friendly fire from polish troops. A soldier from her son’s unit turned up at her doorstep with a new version of events.

BURYJ: He came here and told me that the Polish had absolutely nothing to do with Jessie’s death. He was there when the confession was made. As to who shot Jessie. He was there when statements were coerced, and the reports were falsified. And he said the Polish were a complete scapegoat. They had nothing to do with Jessie’s death.

HINOJOSA: And you’re getting this from another soldier?

BURYJ: Yeah. Sitting here in my living room. Telling me “If this was my parents, I would want them to know.”

HINOJOSA: Peggy says the soldier told her Jesse had been accidentally shot by a member of his own unit. This new revelation sparked a second investigation into Jesse Buryj’s death.

The army would not comment on the specifics of Jesse’s case. After two years, Peggy is angry that it’s taking the army so long to figure out how her son died.

BURYJ: I like to think they think it hurts too bad to tell families that their son was killed by friendly fire. But that’s not the truth. What hurts is not knowing.

HINOJOSA: In an effort to address some of the problems families like Peggy Buryj are experiencing, the army has recently changed its notification procedures for families of soldiers who have been killed.

This past summer, the army also began a review of 810 casualty reports?that’s about 40% of all army deaths. Their conclusion: only seven families had been misinformed about their loved ones deaths. But Peggy believes there are many more.

BURYJ: I find it hard to believe that there was only seven?problems. I know seven people here in Ohio that had problems with their notifications?were told one thing, and?found out?you know, maybe a day later, or maybe even that same day. But there were problems. I don’t believe it.

HINOJOSA: And of those seven families, five had already been reported in the media. Including the families of Pat Tillman, Ken Ballard and Jesse Buryj. Peggy says, it’s no coincidence that they ended up in the army’s report,

BURYJ: The people that have come forward?and made the stink, and?and?made the stink, and?and questioned it, are the people that are getting the attention?.I hope the military’s accountable. I hope?for the truth. For the truth. That’s all I ever wanted was the truth.

NOTE: For Greg Mitchell’s previous columns on this general subject in the past month, see the “Pressing Issues” column listing at the right on this page.

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