More than a year later, Army admits GI died in accident
DARMSTADT, Germany — More than a year after his death in Iraq, Army officials have notified the family of a 1st Armored Division officer that the cause was an accidental discharge from a U.S. tank, not enemy fire as first reported.
Army 1st Lt. Kenneth Ballard, of the Friedburg-based 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, was killed May 30, 2004, in the midst of fierce fighting for the town of Najaf. At the time, U.S. officials told his family that he was killed by insurgent fire.
But late Friday, 1st AD officials said investigation results given to the family on Friday show Ballard “died of wounds from an accidental discharge from his tank’s machine gun.”
Stunned family members say they have been misled about the circumstances of the death for more than a year. According to 1st AD officials, the family was first notified one day after the death, when “initial field reports said Ballard died of wounds from enemy fire,” a 1st AD release reads.
But Ballard’s mother, Karen Meredith of Mountain View, Calif., said she only learned the truth when a hand-delivered letter reached her Friday afternoon.
“It’s the second worst day of my life. I’m heartbroken. I’m stunned. I’m angry,” she told the San Jose Mercury News. “I just feel so betrayed by the Army that Ken loved so much.”
According to The Associated Press, Pentagon officials said the mistaken information and delay in correctly notifying the family were the results of an oversight. Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman in Washington, said investigations by the unit commander and by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division concluded “days” after the death that it was an accident, The Associated Press reported Saturday.
As the unit was returning from a battle with insurgents, Ballard’s tank hit a tree and a branch triggered an unmanned M-240 machine gun, Curtin told the AP. Ballard, 26, was struck at close range.
“Everybody in the Army knew about it. The four people who were in the tank with him knew. The unit knew. Why did it take 15 months for them to tell me the truth? The truth was all I’ve ever asked for,” Meredith told the Mercury News.
Even before the latest revelations about her son’s death, Meredith was a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. She had recently joined part of an anti-war bus tour with Cindy Sheehan, who staged a monthlong protest outside President Bush’s ranch in Texas and gained national attention. Sheehan’s son was also killed in Iraq.
Meredith said she has repeatedly asked the Army for an updated incident report. According to the Mercury News, an Army official delivered the documents to her Friday afternoon. The documents also included a three-paragraph letter of apology from Army Secretary Francis Harvey, she said.
In the 1st AD release dated Sept. 9, the division’s commanding officer said the “new findings” should “in no way diminish Lt. Ballard’s heroism, leadership or sacrifice to the nation and the people of Iraq.”
“We honor his service and offer our condolences to his family,” wrote Maj. Gen. Doug Robinson. “He is an example of honor and heroism for all soldiers to emulate.”
Ballard’s death has parallels to that of Pat Tillman, who was killed by so-called friendly fire. Tillman, who famously gave up a multimillion dollar professional football contract to enlist in the Army after Sept. 11, 2001, was killed in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon told his family, and a nation riveted by his heroic story, that he was killed in combat with Taliban members in April 2004. But six weeks later, after a nationally televised memorial service, Army officials acknowledged that Tillman was accidentally shot by other members of his Ranger unit and that the truth had been known shortly after his death.