Utahns may never know what happened to Lance Cpl. Dion James Stephenson, the first man from this state to die in combat during the Persian Gulf war.
But his father is certain of one thing: The young man was doing his duty, no matter how he died."My son was a hero in everything he did," said James Stephenson, a resident of Bountiful. "In this case, he was a hero, no matter whichever way things go."
It is an ancient adage that one of the first casualties of war is the truth. In this tragedy, the confusion of first reports about combat has born out the saying.
Two contradictory versions of the death of the 22-year-old man have been published. Today, nearly a week after the battle, according to the Marine Corps nobody in this country knows exactly what happened to him, and the Marines won't tell the public if they find out.
Stephenson was in a light armored vehicle Wednesday when a column of 50 Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers attacked across the border of occupied Kuwait, according to the latest reports. As Saddam Hussein's tanks struck allied positions in Saudi Arabia, Stephenson and 10 other Marines were killed.
Immediately after the engagement, sources - including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - said Iraqi armored units had pretended they were giving up by turning their tank turrets backwards. But then, according to sources, when the defenders advanced to accept the supposed surrender, the Iraqis treacherously turn their turrets around and fired.
Based on Hatch's statement, the Deseret News led its Thursday Persian Gulf war story with that information. Later, however, military officers in the Middle East began investigating the possibility that some of the Marines were killed by "friendly fire" - a mistaken attack by an American jet. Then on Sunday, officers in Saudi Arabia confirmed that seven of the 11 Marines died that way.
Reports from the Middle East say the two sides were engaged in extremely close combat - so close that American air strikes called in to support the Marines might have had trouble distinguishing between friend and foe.
On Monday, USA Today, the national newspaper, ran a photograph of James Stephenson on its front page. He was holding a picture of his son, and the caption identified Dion as "a Marine who the military said Sunday was killed by an errant U.S. missile during combat."
Contacted by the Deseret News, Marine Corps officials said they did not release any statement that Dion was one of the seven killed by the American jet's attack.
"We will not release that sort of information," said Major Doreen Burger, a public affairs official at the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. "It's possible that if the family presses a query, they may be told. I do not know that."
She said the Marine Corps won't make the information public, "and I think you can understand why."
Two of the Marines' light armored vehicles were hit during the battle, she said. One LAV was struck by tank fire, apparently from Iraqis, and the other probably was hit by a rocket fired by a U.S. plane, officials believe.
They say two were injured and four died in the LAV shot by the Iraqis; seven died in the LAV hit by what seems to have been a Maverick anti-tank missile.
Burger added, "We (officials in Washington) do not know which Marines were on which vehicle." Investigators in Saudi Arabia had not forwarded the details about who was where to officials in the Pentagon.
Contacted by the Deseret News to determine the source of the caption information, a staff reporter for USA Today said he thought the caption was "an editing error."
The fact that nobody knows exactly what happened to Dion is "what I've been conveying to people I've been talking to . . . I don't know," said James Stephenson.
"I haven't had any facts from the Marine Corps from that. When the Marine Corps does tell me, I will be glad to tell people. But I go by what the Marine Corps says, not what some editor says."
A Marine veteran himself of the Vietnam War, he said he understands that deaths from friendly fire occur during war.
"If that is possibly the case, I just want to let it be known to the pilots and everybody that are supporting those troops that that does happen, and that they should not be held at all responsible. They know that anyway," Stephenson said.
As far as the family is concerned, no matter what happened that night in Saudi Arabia, nothing can change the most important fact: Cpl. Dion James Stephenson died a hero.
"That's the way I'd like him to have him remembered," his father said, "as an American hero."