Friday, April 15, 2005

CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICANS like to say that people should take responsibility for their own lives, and their own mistakes. If a teenage girl becomes pregnant, she made a mistake and she should accept the consequences by having the baby. If a man smokes for 30 years and gets lung cancer, he should accept that it's his fault for smoking, not the tobacco companies' fault for selling and advertising the cigarettes. If a person has to work two or three or four jobs just to make ends meet, and ends up with no savings to retire on, that's his or her fault for not getting the right education, not being smart about foreseeing the job trends, not putting money away or spending the money that was put away.

So I would like to know: If an American fighter jet drops a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on one of its own artillery units, causing the deaths of 3 members of that unit and the wounding of 5 others, should the U.S. military order the affected soldiers to keep their mouths shut about what happened? Should the Army give the men who were maimed for life, and the families of the men who died, an official explanation for what occurred, and why? Should an investigation take place, and should those individuals deemed responsible be charged, tried, and punished? Should anyone in the upper echelons of the U.S. military apologize to men like First Lt. John Fernandez, who lost both his feet because of the serious errors and miscommunications that led to a bomb weighing a quarter of a ton being dropped on him by his own military?

One would think all of the above should happen, but none of it did, in what the New York Times described as one of the worst incidents of friendly fire in the war against Iraq.

[Specialist Jeff Coyne, one of the injured soldiers]... 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."
The incident was investigated, but the investigation was done behind closed doors, while the military did not even publically acknowledge that the mistaken attack had occurred. And when the investigation was done, the official report concluded that no one was to blame.

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.

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