WASHINGTON Two U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq in February were killed by friendly fire, according to a military investigation that said poor training and planning were to blame.
Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, 18, of Glendive, Mont., and Spc. Alan E. McPeek, 20, of Tucson, Ariz., were killed at an Army outpost in Ramadi, in western Iraq, on Feb. 2. The families of the two soldiers were initially told they were killed by enemy fire.
In response to a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press, the military released its subsequent investigation into the two deaths. Families of the two soldiers were told in March that the deaths may have been caused by friendly fire.
The investigation found that the two men were killed by tank fire from a second U.S. Army outpost after insurgents engaged both outposts from numerous locations. The tank gunner and commander thought they were engaging the enemy position, the investigation concluded.
The deaths were not a result of negligence, the investigators said. Instead, "a series of decisions and actions by both the tank crews and their command, taken collectively, fell short of the high expectations we have of our soldiers and their leaders," the investigators said.
It was not immediately clear whether the tank crews and their command were reprimanded by the Army. The report said their decisions and actions "directly created the conditions which caused this accident, including deficiencies in training, manning, mission preparation, target validation procedures, and tactical level friendly force marking that, if addressed and corrected, can limit fratricide such as this in the future."
According to Army officials in April, unit commanders in Iraq did not at first suspect the two men were killed by U.S. forces, but an investigation by the unit concluded that may be the case.
The Army came under heavy criticism over its handling of the death of former football player Pat Tillman, who was killed in an April 2004 friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.
Though dozens of soldiers knew quickly that Tillman had been killed by his fellow troops, the Army said initially that he was killed by enemy gunfire when he led his team to help another group of ambushed soldiers. It was five weeks before his family was told the truth, a delay the Army has blamed on procedural mistakes.
As a result of those problems, the Army instituted a number of changes in its notification process and ordered that unit commanders now must investigate every hostile death, in part to ensure that families receive accurate information about how their loved one died.
A Marine Corps commander who confirmed initial reports that Zeimer and McPeek's deaths may have been from friendly fire said in a memo that the two men died because of "the inevitable fog of war."
"A well-organized and numerous enemy engaged coalition forces from multiple directions in a crowded neighborhood on a dark, smoke and dust obscured battlefield," the commander wrote. "The soldiers involved in this incident were combat experienced and familiar with the area and friendly positions. Nevertheless, they became disoriented relative to their own position and the targets they were engaging."
McPeek was a member of the 16th Engineer Battalion based in Germany, and Zeimer was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
In an April interview, Zeimer's father, Tom Epperson, said his son had wanted to go into the military since he was young, and enlisted just before he graduated from high school in 2006. Zeimer was deployed from Fort Stewart in January and was at his post for about two hours before he was killed, his father said.
"It was a couple of days before he left that I talked to him last," Epperson said. "I'll never fully recover from it."