Three years ago, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman received a tip about a friendly fire incident during the First Battle of Fallujah in Iraq: Two Marines and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in April 2004 when an 81 mm mortar was mistakenly dropped on a schoolhouse — and the U.S. covered up the incident to protect the son of a prominent politician.

That tip led Bowman and NPR senior producer Graham Smith to dig into the incident, interviewing family members, retired generals and eventually the family of the interpreter in Iraq.

In this episode of Military Matters, co-host Rod Rodriguez speaks with Bowman and Smith about what they learned during the investigation, which was presented in the seven-part NPR podcast “Taking Cover” earlier this year.

“There was an investigation, but the investigation wasn't shared with the guys who were wounded, right?” Smith said. “So guys who have Purple Hearts telling us, NPR reporters, we're the first person to tell them that there was actually an investigation. The families ultimately were told three years later because of follow-up investigations on Capitol Hill into the Pat Tillman case that forced the Marines to kind of finally acknowledge this.”

Tillman, a former NFL player who enlisted in the Army in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is perhaps the most famous soldier to be killed in a friendly fire incident during the War on Terror; his death occurred in Afghanistan, also in April 2004. In 2007, the Pentagon released a report ruling Tillman’s death as accidental. The fallout from that report — and pushing from Tillman’s mother, Dannie Tillman — led to congressional hearings in which the Fallujah incident was finally brought to light.

“But here's the thing, it took two hearings,” Bowman said. “… They made them come back and the second in command for the Marines, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, a general by the name of Bob Magnus, finally admits publicly for the first time we had this friendly fire in Fallujah three years ago that killed Brad Shuder and Rob Zurheide for the first time.”

The original tip — from “a pretty good source,” Bowman said — was that Duncan Hunter Jr., the son of then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter Sr. and a Marine lieutenant at the time, allegedly pointed to the wrong target. Father and son both denied any knowledge of a cover-up, and Hunter Sr. told the NPR reporters when asked about the incident that it was the first he had ever heard of it.

“This guy was not lying, I don't think. And he said he didn't know anything about it,” Bowman said. “I said, your son never mentioned it? He said, no. And then we finally tracked down Duncan Jr. Again, after reaching out to him through intermediaries for months, we caught up to him in San Diego and tried to ask him about this. And he said, oh, the Marine Corps investigated this.”

You can find Military Matters on Twitter @stripesmmpod.

Follow Jack Murphy on Twitter @jackmurphyrgr and Rod Rodriguez @rodpodrod.

A transcript of the episode can be found here.

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Brian McElhiney is a digital editor and occasional reporter for Stars and Stripes. He has worked as a music reporter and editor for publications in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Oregon. One of his earliest journalistic inspirations came from reading Stars and Stripes as a kid growing up in Okinawa, Japan.

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