A Trail of Pain From a Botched Attack in Iraq in 2003
By JAMES DAO
Published: April 15, 2005
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MANASSAS, Va. - On a clear night two years ago during the invasion of Iraq,
Specialist Jeff Coyne was sitting in his Army supply truck when a thunderous
explosion shattered his windshield, throwing him like a rag doll and
dislocating two discs in his back.
"How could we have gotten hit?" Specialist Coyne wondered as he staggered to
safety, baffled that the Iraqis could have such fire power. The cries of
wounded men punctured the desert air. "It came out of nowhere."
What he could not know then, but soon came to suspect, was that the
explosion had not been caused by Iraqi mortars. His artillery unit had been
hit by an American fighter jet and its signature weapon, a laser-guided
500-pound bomb. Three soldiers died and five were wounded, including
Specialist Coyne, in one of the worst cases of "friendly fire" during the
2003 invasion - one that has drawn little public attention.
A reconstruction of that April 3 bombing from interviews and military
documents - including an investigation report obtained by The New York Times
that was released to families of the dead but not to the wounded - shows
that a cascading chain of errors, poor judgment and miscommunication by
American forces stationed in three countries contributed to the botched
Specialist Coyne, now retired from the military, 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
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
It has often been that way when combatants attack their own forces. In
recent years, it has taken a diplomatic crisis, such as when an American
pilot mistakenly bombed and killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in
2002, or a famous casualty, like Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former National
Football League player, who was killed by fellow soldiers in Afghanistan in
2004, for such accidents to receive wide public scrutiny.
The error that led to the 2003 bombing began when an Air Force F-15E crew
mistook the American artillery unit for an Iraqi missile battery largely
because the crew was allowed to believe, incorrectly, that a Navy plane had
been shot down that night in the same area by an Iraqi missile. The error
was compounded by a decision by the artillery unit to shut off infrared
strobe lights that would have identified it to the pilot. And it was sealed
by confusion over who was responsible for checking the location of American
troops. The Army says it has not tried to play down the accident, and is
studying it and similar incidents to prevent mistakes.
Improved training and technology helped reduce such accidents during the
Iraq invasion, officials note. There were about 10 incidents in which
American troops attacked their own side in 2003, resulting in nearly 20
American deaths, according to independent surveys, a drop from the Persian
Gulf war of 1991, when about three dozen Americans died in such accidents.
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.
On the night of the bombing, Battery D, First Battalion, 39th Field
Artillery, made camp about 30 miles southwest of Baghdad. The unit had just
rolled through the Karbala Gap and was firing rockets toward Baghdad Airport
in support of the Third Infantry Division.
The unit had shut off the infrared strobe lights known as fireflies used to
identify it to allied aircraft because of intelligence that Iraqi snipers
could see the lights through night-vision goggles.
But First Lt. John Fernandez, an artillery platoon leader who lost both feet
in the bombing, said in an interview that the unit's vehicles were also
equipped with tape and heat panels that should have made them visible. Some
vehicles also carried homing beacons that marked their positions for
commanders at distant bases. And there were three dozen vehicles in the
encampment - too many to be a plausible gathering of Iraqi forces, he
"There were lots of indicators we were friendly," said Lieutenant Fernandez,
a West Point graduate.
But Battery D's rocket launches had generated alarm among American pilots.
According to the investigation report, a lack of critical information had
caused the confusion. Hours before, a Navy F/A-18 fighter had been shot down
near Karbala. American commanders at air bases in Saudi Arabia and Qatar
suspected that an American Patriot missile had struck it, in part because a
Patriot had mistakenly shot down a British Tornado jet about a week before.
The Patriot's role was later confirmed by the military.
But that night, "information went out from Crows Nest" - a commander's perch
- that no one would discuss the possibility of a Patriot accident, an
officer later told investigators. As helicopters and jets were assigned to
the search and rescue mission, they were allowed to believe that an Iraqi
surface-to-air missile was the culprit.
One of those jets was an Air Force F-15E fighter. Earlier that night, the
pilot and his weapons officer, both instructors with seven years experience
flying missions over Iraq to police the no-flight zone, had seen what looked
like a surface-to-air missile hit the Navy fighter. As they searched for the
pilot, they saw what appeared to be missiles fired from near the crash site
- and were convinced it was an Iraqi battery firing on American aircraft.
It was, in fact, Battery D. But when the pilot and his officer looked for
indicators that it was a friendly unit, they saw none and requested
clearance to attack. Believing the warplane was in danger, and without
checking for friendly ground forces, the crew of an Awacs reconnaissance
plane gave the pilot a green light.
The explosion threw Lieutenant Fernandez out of his cot. Kicking off his
sleeping bag, he realized his feet had been torn apart. He grabbed his
Kevlar vest, helmet and gun, then tried to pull Sergeant Oaks, who had been
sleeping beside him, away from the burning Humvee, which was loaded with
ammunition and was leaking gasoline.
They escaped before the Humvee exploded, but it took more than an hour for
an evacuation helicopter to arrive, according to the report. Though Sergeant
Oaks, 20, was conscious as he was flown away, witnesses said he died within
hours. Two other soldiers, Sgt. Todd J. Robbins, 33, from Pentwater, Mich.,
and Sgt. First Class Randall S. Rehn, 36, of Longmont, Colo., were also
killed, probably instantly.
At daybreak, soldiers discovered pages from a Bible scattered around the
remains of the Humvee. Sergeant Oaks's family believe they came from his
Bible, which he was trying to read cover to cover.
"It was the most devastation I had seen in the war," said William E.
Thompson, an Army reservist who photographed the scene.
Lieutenant Fernandez, who has retired from the military, says he no longer
frets about how the accident might have been avoided. Now 27, he lives on
Long Island with his wife and their infant daughter and is attending
graduate school to become a math teacher.
Still, he occasionally wonders. "I know that the pilot didn't mean to do
it," he said, adding he hopes that the pilot had taken "some preventative
measures" to make sure he was going after the enemy. "If not, then he should
be held responsible."
Jeff Coyne wants to go to college to become a sports journalist. But he
struggles with back pain and says he has found the Veterans Administration
bureaucracy difficult to navigate. He says he still grieves deeply for the
"It always seems in war they take the best ones from you," he said.
And Samuel Oaks's bitterness runs deep. He and his wife, Mary, helped raise
Donald, the quiet, hardworking only son of their only son, after his parents
divorced when he was 5. They tried to discourage him from joining the Army
and worried frantically when he was deployed to Iraq. But he loved the
military and rose rapidly in its ranks, winning promotion to sergeant
Just before the second anniversary of the accident, his father visited
Sergeant Oaks's grave, a simple black stone etched with his likeness a few
miles outside Erie.
"You'd think it gets easier with time," Donald Oaks Sr. said. "But it