By: Greg Mitchell
Two soldiers killed in Iraq in February may have died as a result of friendly fire, Army officials said Wednesday, not from enemy fire, as the press reported.
The military suspected friendly fire later in February but did not inform the dead soldiers’ families of these new doubts.
One of the soldiers died just hours after arriving in Iraq — and was one of those troops rushed to the country in the “surge” who did not receive full training.
The Army said it is investigating the deaths of Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, 18, of Glendive, Mont., and Spc. Alan E. McPeek, 20, of Tucson, Ariz., who were killed in Ramadi, in western Iraq on Feb. 2. The families of the soldiers at first were told they were killed by enemy fire.
According to Col. Daniel Baggio, unit commanders in Iraq did not initially suspect they were killed by U.S. forces, but an investigation by the unit found they may have been.
A supplemental report filed Feb. 28 suggested that the initial report might be wrong and an investigation was under way. It took another month before the families of the two soldiers were told, on March 31, that friendly fire was suspected.
On February 9, the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News reported: “At least 143 soldiers joined Fort Stewart’s 1st Brigade too late to participate in a final combat exercise before their units deployed to Iraq. Last week, one of those soldiers – Pvt. Matthew T. Zeimer, 18 – was the first from the brigade to be killed when he was hit by enemy fire in Ramadi, the stronghold of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency.
“Zeimer arrived at Fort Stewart on Dec. 18 after basic training and deployed to Iraq just a few weeks later. He missed the brigade’s intensive four-week mission rehearsal in October when more than 1,300 trainers and Iraqi role-players came to the post as part of the most realistic training program the Army offers for Iraq operations.
“The fact some of the brigade’s 4,000 soldiers missed that training raises questions about how well the Army is preparing troops for war in the face of accelerated and repeat deployments.”
Two days before that, the same newspaper reported that “some Iraq veterans in the 1st Brigade have expressed concerns about their younger counterparts missing the mission rehearsal. ‘The training was good but some guys came in after that. They’re basically going straight from basic training into Iraq,’ said Staff Sgt. Jason Massey last month, before saying goodbye to his family for a third combat tour.”
At a late-February press briefing, White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked about reports that two Army brigades were being sent to Iraq without any desert training. His reply was widely quoted at the time: “Well, but, they can get desert training elsewhere, like in Iraq.”
The official Defense Department site that announces fatalities tonight carries the original report on the pair’s death along with today’s update. The initial report read: “They died Feb. 2 in Ramadi, Iraq, of injuries sustained when they came in contact with enemy forces using small arms fire.” The update: “On April 4, 2007 the Army announced an ongoing unit-level investigation into the circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths and that friendly fire is suspected.”
An article for the San Francisco Chronicle on March 25 observed that McPeek died “when an insurgent’s shell killed him on the last day of his 14-month deployment.” It said he was killed “the day before he was due to finally leave for home,” and on its Web site it posted a haunting photo he had taken of himself just before he died.
That article explored a high school in Tucson, Ariz. attended by at least five dead troops in Iraq — including McPeek. That puts the school at the top of this grim list. McPeek had enlisted at age 17: “He was pissed about 9/11,” his father explained. “He said he wanted to make a difference. There was no talking Alan out of it.”
A March 17 article in the Navy Times described the fatal incident this way:
“McPeek had been finishing his last mission when the building he and other troops were using as an outpost came under attack. When the shooting started, McPeek and one of the new soldiers ? Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, 18, of Glendive, Mont. ? took up positions behind a 3-foot wall on the roof. Other soldiers later told how they could hear McPeek calmly instruct the younger GI to stay low and return fire.
“Then, an explosive slammed into the wall, killing both of them.”
An Associated Press report observed that after the controversy surrounding the friendly fire of Pat Tillman — and an alleged military coverup surrounding it, “the Army instituted a number of changes in its notification process and ordered that unit commanders now must investigate every hostile death, in part to ensure that families receive accurate information about how their loved one died.”
For E&P Editor Greg Mitchell’s latest column on the fallout from Sen. John McCain’s much-ridiculed trip to a Baghdad market last weekend,