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An Army death, and a family left in the dark

The mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq believes the truth about her son's shooting death has been sullied by partisan politics and international intrigue.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Army Spec. Jesse Buryj was in the gun turret of a Humvee that night, guarding a traffic circle in Karbala, Iraq. The soldiers were on edge -- they had been warned about a car bomb -- so when a dump truck came barreling into the intersection, they opened fire from all sides. But the truck kept coming and crashed into Buryj's armored vehicle, sending the 21-year-old hurtling to the ground.

The next day, May 5, 2004, an Army officer notified Buryj's wife and parents in Canton, Ohio, that he had been killed in a crash early that morning. Several days later, as the family pressed for more information, a casualty assistance officer said that Buryj also had been shot. A death certificate that arrived in July listed a gunshot wound as the cause of death, but provided no information about the circumstances.

Peggy Buryj asked everyone she could to help find out the details of her son's last hours. She even asked President Bush when she and other grieving parents met with him during a campaign stop in hotly contested Ohio. He promised to look into it. Soon afterward, she said, his campaign called and asked her to appear in a commercial for him, but she declined.

Months went by with no clarification. "We had a lot of questions," said Amber Buryj, 22, Jesse Buryj's bride of seven months. "We were left in the dark."

And in the dark they stayed. Family members say they were not told Jesse was killed by "friendly fire," though the Army later said they were. They did not know that Polish soldiers with Jesse's unit may have fired the fatal shot and that his death had the potential to cause a rift with a coalition partner right before the 2004 presidential election. They asked friends in Jesse's platoon what had happened, but the soldiers had been told not to discuss the incident until the investigation was complete.

Even today, 20 months later, Peggy Buryj -- a Bush supporter who believes strongly in the Iraq war -- is left with swirling questions, a shattered faith in the Army, and the unsettling feeling that her son's death has been sullied by partisan politics and international intrigue.

The Tillman parallel
Of the approximately 1,500 Army deaths so far in the Iraq war, 11 have been officially attributed to friendly fire. Even Army officials acknowledge that the number is too low, citing the difficulty of ascertaining the cause of death during intense firefights.

But military experts agree there's another reason friendly-fire cases are often left unexamined: morale. Retired Lt. Col. Charles R. Shrader said these incidents can be so devastating to other troops that it is "not helpful" to investigate most of them. "The only reason for pursuing one of these things is to work out the rules and principles to avoid it in the future," he said.

Friendly fire was responsible for 10 to 14 percent of casualties in the Vietnam War and 12 to 14 percent in World War II, according to Army statistics. Most incidents are the result of misidentified targets and the "fog of war," as was the case with Jesse Buryj (pronounced BOO-dee).

Buryj was killed just days after former professional football player Pat Tillman was mistakenly gunned down by his own men in Afghanistan, and Buryj's family likens his case to the more famous soldier's death.

The Army first reported that Tillman died while charging up a hill at the enemy. He was awarded a medal for bravery, members of his unit were told not to discuss the incident, evidence was destroyed and the nature of his death was hidden from his family until after his nationally televised funeral.

And while Tillman's case had the potential to become a public relations disaster in the United States, Buryj's death had international ramifications. U.S. officials alleged within internal channels that Polish troops killed him with reckless shots. Polish officials said Polish troops could not have killed him. Tests that could have determined the truth were not conducted.

"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?" asked Peggy Buryj, who had supported her son's decision to join the Army after his high school graduation in 2002. "The story changes. You can't believe anything."

Peggy and Amber Buryj believe they were strung along because Jesse's death became a diplomatic embarrassment. Documents obtained by The Washington Post reveal one investigation that was abruptly terminated because of diplomatic concerns, another that was not shared with Polish allies, and delays in the release of official reports about Buryj's death. Those documents were not issued until after Bush was reelected -- with the help of a slim margin in Buryj's home state of Ohio.

"I'm angry, I'm so angry," Peggy Buryj said. "I gave them my son, and he served proudly. He didn't deserve this. His family didn't deserve this. I just want to know the truth."

Night battle
According to Army documents, investigation reports and interviews, a scene of chaos played out the night of May 4, 2004.

Jesse Ryan Buryj was a team gunner with the 4th Platoon, 66th Military Police Company, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. His unit was taking part in Operation Dagger Stab in response to the April uprising of the Mahdi militia, led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. There had been several reports that the militia was converting heavy vehicles into massive car bombs, one of the most deadly insurgent tactics.

At 11:30 p.m., Buryj's unit linked up with Polish troops and the several dozen soldiers convoyed to an intersection in Karbala, where they set up a checkpoint at a traffic circle. It was the first mission in which the unit had operated jointly with Polish troops.

"The Poles were very liberal in their use of force when they perceived a threat," a U.S. officer, who was not named, said in an interview with investigators. (Many names in the documents were redacted for security reasons.) U.S. soldiers reported that Polish troops opened fire on several vehicles that night, sometimes without justification.

Buryj was in the turret of an armored Humvee with a trailer on the east side of the circle, while Polish and U.S. units manned several entrances to the checkpoint.

At 1 a.m. on May 5, a dump truck approached the circle from the south and slowed, as if to stop.

"It just sat there for a few seconds, hesitated, and then it just plowed through," Sgt. Chris DeCloud, a member of Buryj's unit, said in a recent interview. "The engine revved and boom, it was coming through the checkpoint. The Poles were lighting it up from all sides. We lit it up."

The tires blew, and the truck veered to the right but did not slow. Its windshield cracked into a ragged spider web, and the driver slumped, dead. Buryj, seeing the truck coming directly at him, fired several rounds from his M249 machine gun. The truck rammed his vehicle, sending it up on its passenger-side wheels and tossing Buryj to the ground.

"We thought this truck was going to blow up, this is the end. We all did," DeCloud said, adding that he didn't think his unit was taking fire from the Poles. "I thought we were the only ones shooting" when the truck hit the Humvee.

One soldier told investigators he did not remember hearing his own weapon fire or the truck hitting the Humvee. "The atmosphere during the fight for me was one of confusion and like I was looking on from the outside," he said.

The U.S. investigation rules out the possibility that the U.S. soldiers at Buryj's side could have accidentally shot him, although several soldiers reported bullets flying in all directions. Investigators later found holes in Buryj's vehicle that appeared to show that the bullets came from close by -- so close the tracers were still burning when they hit.

At 1:08 a.m., the U.S. platoon leader called for medical support. Buryj was on the ground, complaining that he couldn't feel his legs. Medics who arrived 10 minutes later surmised he had a broken back. They took him to a base camp and then transferred him to a combat hospital in Baghdad.

On the way there, about two hours after he was injured, medics discovered a puncture wound in his lower back. By this time he was unconscious. He died of internal injuries at 4:49 a.m.

Meanwhile, soldiers at the traffic circle in Karbala found that the dump truck was filled with dirt or sand, not explosives. "The driver and passenger were wearing civilian clothing and no weapons were found," an incident report said.

An official U.S. casualty report said that Buryj had died of "a back injury" caused by hostile enemy activity.

'A homicide'
DeCloud, Buryj's roommate and a close friend, said the death devastated his unit.

"He was just awesome. The kid was hilarious," he said. "In the worst circumstances, he could still make you laugh. The whole thing was really hard. I always wondered why it had to be him."

A military police battalion commander wrote a letter to the family on May 7, praising Buryj and crediting him with killing one attacker and wounding another in the incident that killed him.

"Unfortunately, the truck hit Jesse's military vehicle in the fight and Jesse sustained severe injuries that he was unable to overcome," the letter reads.

Buryj was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. A death certificate issued four days later, however, called the incident a "homicide" caused by a "penetrating gunshot wound of the back." Buryj was buried in Canton on May 15, with military honors.

The death certificate was handed over to the family about two months later.

As for the source of the bullet, one investigator reported that "it is impossible that the round came from a U.S. weapon." That officer interviewed Polish troops but wrote that "sworn statements were not taken due to the International sensitivity of this investigation." The investigation was suspended on May 18 "due to the combined nature" of the operation.

A follow-up U.S. investigation by higher-ranking officials that was submitted to commanders on July 27, 2004, classified Buryj's death as a "tragic accident" most likely caused by fire from Polish forces. It recommended that they be "held accountable" for violations of standard rules of engagement but also noted that "tragic errors and inevitable mistakes can be used by international critics to attempt to hinder or derail the democratic cooperation" in Iraq.

The Poles also investigated. Their report -- finished on June 25, 2004, and translated into English -- found exactly the opposite: Polish troops could not have fired the shot because of their locations, but U.S. troops may have.

Piotr Paszkowski, a spokesman for the Polish Ministry of Defense, said he was shocked to learn that the Army was blaming Polish troops. He said a joint U.S.-Polish investigation revealed insufficient evidence to show who shot Buryj.

"Any suggestions that Jesse Buryj was shot by Polish troops on the night of May 4-5, 2004, at a joint American-Polish checkpoint in Karbala, have no basis in fact," Polish defense officials said in a written response to questions, translated from Polish.

The Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Forest Park, Ga., could have cleared up the mystery. It reported that the bullet and fragments recovered from Buryj's body provided "sufficient individual characteristics for comparison purposes" and suggested collecting all suspect weapons for analysis.

But that didn't happen. DeCloud said the unit offered to turn over its weapons for testing but "they never got back to us."

Because the investigation wasn't complete, "we couldn't talk about it for a year, and we were pretty pissed off about it," said DeCloud, who is a friend of Amber's. "Maybe they didn't want to show there were problems within the coalition. It undoubtedly caused some tension between the two forces. No one wants to take the blame for what happened."

A statement from a task force commander in June 2004 expressed the same sentiment: "I am concerned as a commander of the effects of fratricide on the continued operational partnership between the MPs and the Poles."

Presidential meeting
In July 2004, two months after their son died, Steve and Peggy Buryj met Bush after a rally at the Canton Civic Center and passed him a letter asking for the truth. "I asked him to do what he could," Peggy said. "He appeared concerned and was very sincere. He said that sometimes all it takes is a call from the president."

Nothing happened, and Peggy Buryj doesn't know whether he made that call. In early October, she said, she received a call from the Bush campaign in Ohio. She said Darrin Klinger, then executive director of the Bush-Cheney Ohio campaign, asked her if she would be interested in appearing in a campaign commercial as a grieving mother who was sticking by her president. (Klinger, reached at his office in Columbus, Ohio, said he is familiar with the Buryj family but does not recall that conversation.) She said she refused. "I told them that if he finds out what happened to my son, I'll win him an Academy Award," she said. "I voted for Bush, I was a supporter. But I was just getting strung along, and I knew it at that point.

"I think Bush needed Ohio to swing the election, and I think they didn't want the publicity of what really happened to Jesse," she said.

White House officials do not comment on personal conversations Bush has with families of the fallen, said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman.

"He does offer to help, and these are genuine offers and they are followed through," Duffy said, adding that sometimes getting information to families takes time. "It is never fast enough, but there is a deliberate and careful system of checks and balances to make sure the most sensitive information is accurate."

The final casualty report was prepared on Nov. 22, 2004, attributing Buryj's death to "hostile action." The death certificate said he died within "minutes" of sustaining the gunshot wound, but it listed the time of death as hours after the incident. The final autopsy report, dated Nov. 24, 2004, attributed the death to friendly fire, but Peggy Buryj didn't receive it until February. She says it was the first indication she had that her son was killed by friendly fire. One other inconsistency: The Army Safety Center officially lists Buryj as having died from U.S. friendly fire, according to an Army spokeswoman, though U.S. investigations rule out gunshots by Americans.

Peggy Buryj received her official briefing on her son's death in April. An Army officer confirmed that he had been killed by friendly fire and indicated that Polish troops "most likely" fired the deadly shot. On the PowerPoint presentation used in the briefing, this statement appeared: "12 May 2004, 1400 notified next of kin on change of finding from hostile incident to friendly fire incident."

Peggy and Amber Buryj said they were shocked and disputed the claim that they had been told so early: If that was true, why would they have spent the better part of a year trying to find out how Jesse died? Peggy Buryj said the briefers had no response. Asked about the discrepancy for this article, Army spokesmen said they do not discuss individual cases.

Officials at the Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operation Center in Alexandria said they have been working to improve notification efforts, especially in friendly-fire cases. Communication breakdowns between officials on the battlefield and those in the United States have caused delays in passing along information, and the Army has become well aware of the effects of having an incomplete story.

"We understand that a full accounting of the events leading to a loved one's death provides a sense of closure to such a tragic event in their lives," said Col. Mary Torgersen, who runs the center. "The Army is constantly seeking ways to improve how we conduct casualty operations. . . . There is nothing more important to that family than knowing the truth about how their loved one died."

Despite her frustration, Peggy Buryj continues to support her president and the war, believing her son did not die in vain. She even wrote to Bush in April, thanking him "for being my son's Commander in Chief."

But both Peggy and Amber Buryj said they are convinced they will never hear the whole story of how Jesse died. "I still feel like I need answers," Amber said. "You can't just put something like that to rest when you love someone so much. You need to know."