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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Soldiers Detail a Mission Gone Wrong

The Army concluded insurgents killed two guardsmen. But papers released later confirmed they died at the hands of their Iraqi trainees.

July 30, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

The sun rose over central Iraq as the soldiers, searching for weapon stashes, trudged past a bombed-out police station and through shoulder-high fields of wheat, lugging M-16s, mine detectors and grenades. Sometimes they fell, stumbling over large clumps of dirt turned up by farmers. Sometimes they talked about dying; they had been sent, in the detached vernacular of the military, to a place that was "not friendly."

Most often, though, they cursed and complained; their mission had begun at 3 a.m., on little sleep, with no breakfast. Before long, it was already 100 degrees. They had been paired with trainees from the Iraqi national guard, who were falling behind. A lieutenant was learning how to say "keep up" in Arabic when the gunfire began.

It has been two years since that morning, since two California Army National Guard soldiers -- Spc. Patrick R. McCaffrey Sr., 34, of Tracy and 1st Lt. Andre D. Tyson, 33, of Riverside -- were killed.

Late last month, military officials gave the families of the soldiers more than 200 pages of documents outlining their investigation of the killings. The documents confirmed what the soldiers' families had long suspected -- that McCaffrey and Tyson were killed not by insurgents, as the military initially had reported, but by their purported allies, the very Iraqis whom they had trained to fight.

Tyson's family has decided not to speak publicly. But McCaffrey's parents have become outspoken critics of the White House and continue to raise questions -- about the killings, and about whether the military attempted to suppress the truth because it could have further soured public opinion about the war. The military has said there was nothing improper about its handling of the case.

On June 22, 2004, McCaffrey and Tyson, who had arrived in Iraq two months earlier, were conducting a patrol near the town of Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The summer had already turned tense and traumatic. According to a witness account written by an American soldier the day of the attack and included in the documents, six rockets had struck the soldiers' base, called Camp Anaconda, a week earlier. One rocket had landed on the PX, the general store common to many military installations, and killed two soldiers.

At 11 p.m. on June 21, commanders announced that soldiers from the base would be participating in a mission to check eight dangerous areas for weapons stashed by insurgents. The mission would begin four hours later.

"No one had gotten much sleep," wrote one soldier, whose identity, like almost all in the documents, was kept private by the military. "The areas we walked through were dense jungle. The ground isn't flat and there are small canals every 25 ft.... We're walking through brush neck high, trying to keep our footing, and hoping our next step doesn't land us ... in a canal. 'It's like being in Vietnam' is the running joke."

By late morning, they were "tired and starving," another soldier wrote. They had marched for more than five hours without food. Their feet were in agony, their nerves raw from fear of snipers and drive-by shootings, the documents say. Medics had given intravenous fluids to at least two soldiers who were experiencing heat exhaustion. In one witness account, one officer said he was careful not to reveal his extreme fatigue "so my group won't lose their motivation to carry on the mission."

Soon, the Americans met up, as planned, with 12 members of the Iraqi national guard whom they had recently trained. (The guard was known at the time as the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or ICDC.)

This was not a welcome addition to the patrol, the documents suggest. It wasn't long, the documents say, before the Iraqi soldiers were complaining too: that the American soldiers were looking for weapons caches in the wrong areas, that the water they had been given to drink was too warm.

"I've heard on the news that they're more than ready to take over after we've left," the first soldier wrote. "But from what I've seen, they couldn't be more wrong. For the last two weeks, our 'off' days have been spent baby-sitting."

The patrol was soon split into two, a decision that mystified some soldiers, who felt it left them dangerously exposed, according to the documents.

"They're not going to stop pushing us until someone gets hurt or killed," McCaffrey told fellow soldiers, according to witness accounts in the documents. "Then maybe they'll let up."

"That was the last thing I remember him saying," a soldier wrote in his account.

It is unclear how many Americans and how many Iraqis were in each group: One investigative document says Tyson and McCaffrey's group included three U.S. soldiers and four or five ICDC soldiers; another account says 12 Iraqi soldiers were present.

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