The Army's version of the deaths of Nelson and Suarez

Despite a video that seems to show friendly fire, and the discovery of a tank shell near the impact site, the official investigation attributes their deaths to enemy action.

Published October 14, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

An Army investigation into a possible friendly fire incident involving U.S. Army units in Ramadi, Iraq, was carried out under the auspices of the commander of one of the tank brigades involved, Col. Sean MacFarland. On Dec. 4, 2006, MacFarland was the commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, which was in Ramadi supporting the infantry. Just before 4:30 in the afternoon, one of MacFarland's tanks allegedly fired a shell into a position occupied by troops of 2nd Platoon, D Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry of the U.S. Army. Two American soldiers, Pfc. Albert Nelson and Pfc. Roger Suarez-Gonzalez, died.

On Dec. 5, MacFarland initiated what is called a 15-6 investigation, a relatively informal procedure typically carried out by a single officer investigating soldiers in his own unit who reports his results to the unit commander. Salon obtained a copy of the 15-6 investigation through the Freedom of Information Act. The name of the Army major who conducted the investigation was redacted. He reported his findings to MacFarland.

The unnamed major discovered shrapnel from a 120-millimeter U.S. tank round in “building #2” where Nelson and Suarez were hurt, but determined these fragments likely bounced into the building during shooting nearby the next day, Dec. 5. He also found bullets of the same caliber used in the tank's coaxial machine gun, but said these came from a Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle fired by insurgents.

The documents note that the infantry soldiers in "building #2" reported friendly fire from a U.S. tank. The documents also allude to the existence of a detailed video that a) shows the soldiers in the building under fire and b) records the real-time statements of numerous eyewitnesses that the fire came from an American tank. According to the Army investigation, however, an analysis of shrapnel, uniform scraps, ammunition impact points and audio from the video showed that the soldiers were mistaken. "Soldiers inside building #2 believed that the tank located to the west was firing on their position," MacFarland wrote in a Dec. 20 memo in which he concurred with the report's findings, "when in actuality, it was enemy fire from a mortar position northwest of the Euphrates River."

Below is the Army's 10-page 15-6 investigation, followed by MacFarland's two-page memo in support of the findings. The documents refer to Suarez as a specialist and Nelson as a sergeant, but to Salon's knowledge they both had the rank of private first class at the time of this incident.

Download this 10-page document as a PDF (1.9 MB)

Download this 2-page document as a PDF (412K)

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East