House Criticizes Army in Case of Soldier Killed By Friendly Fire
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Army, through a series of ″bungles, glitches, errors and wrong assumptions,″ mishandled notifying the family of a soldier killed by friendly fire in the Gulf War, says a congressional study released Sunday.
The House Armed Services investigations subcommittee found no evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up in the death of Army Sgt. Douglas Lance Fielder, a 22- year-old from Tennessee killed accidentally by his comrades’ guns.
The family initially was told Fielder was killed by enemy fire.
″In this instance, virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong,″ the panel said in its report.
The subcommittee is conducting a full investigation of the military process for notifying families of casualties and plans a complete report later in the year. Because of the large number of inquiries, the panel issued a nine-page report on the Fielder case.
Fielder was one of 35 American servicemen accidentally killed in the Gulf War by U.S. forces, the Defense Department said in August. In the Army alone, friendly fire was blamed for 21 of the 96 deaths and 65 of the 354 injuries.
The subcommittee report detailed the notification process that occurred after Fielder’s death in the early morning hours of Feb. 27, 1991. His unit, stranded in southern Iraq after its vehicle broke down, awaited assistance.
″There were a total of 11 bungles, glitches, errors and wrong assumptions that cascaded one after another to make the handling of this particular death notification little short of an administrative disaster,″ the report said.
In a statement, the Army, which is conducting its own review, said the panel’s report ″clearly indicates there was no intention on the part of the Army to cover up a friendly fire incident or mislead the family.
″Nevertheless, a number of unfortunate human errors prevented the timely transmission of the details of Sgt. Fielder’s death and this added to the family’s grief,″ said Maj. Barbara Goodno, an Army spokesman.
Included in its criticism, the subcommittee faulted Lt. Gen. William Reno, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, for using bad judgment in notifying families.
Reno told the subcommittee earlier this year that the Army delayed notifying survivors until it had investigated all suspected cases of friendly fire.
″I did not want to piecemeal the information out to the families,″ Reno testified.
After Fielder was killed, the subcommittee found, a lieutenant filled out the documents stating that the soldier died of friendly fire and placed those documents in his pocket with plans to hand-deliver them to the battalion personnel officer.
A second set of documents apparently were blown away by the helicopter sent to remove the dead and wounded; a sergeant believes he gave a third set to one of the helicopter crew, but none recalls receiving them.
The physician handling the body filled in ″Iraq Killed in Action″ on the tag. A reservist saw ″KIA″ and made the assumption, included in his report, that the death was ″enemy inflicted.″
The Army was unable to send the papers on Fielder’s death by computer because its computers lacked modems. It took seven days to forward the documents by hand.
Flooded with corrections and revisions to casualty reports, the Army Central Command’s personnel component stopped sending information and held up corrections to the Fielder data for more than three weeks.
The subcommittee also said the family never received a letter of condolence, although a recent check found a Xerox copy in the division files.
On May 2, Fielder’s parents called the Army casualty assistance officer who had helped them with the funeral and other arrangements, after two soldiers from the unit told Fielder’s father the family had not been told the truth.
The soldiers told their company commander, who called Fielder’s father and told him the details of his son’s death.
The assistance officer contacted the Army’s Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center in Alexandria, Va., where a reservist on temporary duty related all the details on friendly fire - despite the fact that Reno had put a hold on notification.