Last month, Salon published a story reporting that U.S. Army Pfc. Albert Nelson and Pfc. Roger Suarez were killed by U.S. tank fire in Ramadi, Iraq, in late 2006, in an incident partially captured on video, but that an Army investigation instead blamed their deaths on enemy action. Now Salon has learned that documents relating to the two men were shredded hours after the story was published. Three soldiers at Fort Carson, Colo. — including two who were present in Ramadi during the friendly fire incident, one of them just feet from where Nelson and Suarez died — were ordered to shred two boxes full of documents about Nelson and Suarez. One of the soldiers preserved some of the documents as proof that the shredding occurred and provided them to Salon. All three soldiers, with the assistance of a U.S. senator's office, have since been relocated for their safety.
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Oct. 14 was a long and eventful day at Fort Carson. The post had been in an uproar. The night before, Salon had published my article airing claims that two of the base's soldiers, Pfc. Albert Nelson and Pfc. Roger Suarez-Gonzalez, had been killed by friendly fire in Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006, but that the Army covered up the cause of death, attributing it to enemy action.
Based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and on video and audio recorded by a helmet-mounted camera that captured much of the action that day, my report stated that Nelson and Suarez seemed to have been killed by an American tank shell. The shell apparently struck their position on the roof of a two-story ferro-concrete building in Ramadi, Anbar province, Iraq, killing Suarez instantly, mortally wounding Nelson, and injuring several other soldiers. I included both an edited and a full-length version of the video in the article. The video shows soldiers just after the blast claiming to have watched the tank fire on them. Then a sergeant attempts to report over a radio that a U.S. tank killed his men. He seems to be promptly overruled by a superior officer who is not at the scene. An official Army investigation then found that the simultaneous impact of two enemy mortars killed the men.
The article about the alleged friendly fire incident was long overdue for some of the men who fought in Ramadi that day for the Army's Fort Carson-based D Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Many continue to insist privately that a U.S. tank killed their friends.
But for their superior officers, the publication of the article was a problem to be solved. On the morning of Oct. 14, battalion leaders held an emergency meeting in response to the Salon article. The sergeant in charge of 2nd Platoon, Nelson and Suarez's platoon, had a pointed confrontation with at least one of his men in a vain search for the source that leaked the Ramadi video to Salon. Soldiers were told to keep quiet from then on.
"Everybody was trying to figure out who released this video and who talked to a reporter," said Pvt. Charles Kremling, a stout, tough-looking infantryman from the 2nd Platoon, as he recalled the accusatory atmosphere on the base that day. "Pretty much we were made to understand that we are not supposed to be talking about this."
Kremling was in Ramadi the day that Nelson and Suarez died. He had been huddled among the 2nd Platoon soldiers on the second floor of the ferro-concrete structure when the explosion shook the roof above him and threw him to the floor. Above him, on the roof, soldiers say a tank shell screeched in from the west, killing Suarez instantly and blasting his head and torso clear off the building to the east. The shell severed Nelson's left leg, and he suffered nearly a half hour waiting for a botched medical evacuation as his buddies struggled to save him. He died at the gates of a military hospital.
By the evening of Oct. 14, after the battalion leaders' meeting and after both cable and network news had aired segments on the Salon exposé, the harried atmosphere died down at Fort Carson. When Kremling and Pvt. Albert "Doc" Mitchum, a compact, battle-hardened medic, reported for extra duty at battalion headquarters sometime after 6 p.m., they were tired and facing hours of mind-numbingly boring tasks. Being a private working the late shift in battalion headquarters usually meant a night of filing paperwork or straightening up offices.
Staff Sgt. Swinton was in charge that night. He told Kremling, Mitchum and a third soldier who had reported for duty that the evening's labor would include the inglorious task of cleaning out a closet. The first priority, Swinton said, was to shred the thousands of pages of documents in two large copy-paper-size boxes. It would be tedious work, but Swinton was adamant. "He says, 'I need that paper shredded. That has to be done tonight,'" remembered Kremling, who volunteered to get started on the job.
At first, the men tried to avoid the monotony of shredding. "We are talking about two Xerox boxes — filled," Kremling told me later. But eventually Kremling told the other two, "I'll go do it."
Kremling stepped into a quiet office with the boxes of documents and the shredder. Kremling lifted handfuls of paper out of the first box and stuffed the material into the machine. It hummed to life, chopping away.
This went on for about a half hour. "I was shredding for a while. I was halfway through the first box," he recalled. He picked up a stack with an official-looking memorandum on top. "I started feeding it into the shredder and then, Bam! I noticed the names Albert Markee Nelson and Roger Suarez," he remembered. "And I look into my lap and there is paperwork galore with their names on it," he exclaimed. "I was like, 'What the fuck?'"
He froze. He shuffled through the boxes at his feet. Nelson, Suarez and more, page after page. "The first thing I was thinking was Enron," said Kremling. "People go to jail for this kind of shit."
Kremling grabbed an inch-thick stack of documents and went to find his buddy, Mitchum, in another room. "I said, 'Look at this! There are boxes full of documents about Nelson and Suarez!"
Mitchum understood immediately what his friend was thinking. He tried to stay calm. "I wanted to make sure we were not overreacting," Mitchum recalled.
Mitchum walked into the room with the shredder humming away. "I looked through the boxes," he said. He was stunned.
"It was not just those two individuals," Mitchum recalled. On closer inspection of the contents in the boxes, Mitchum noticed a file on a Julio Gonzales. Then he found another Nelson, but not his Nelson. "It was anybody with the name Suarez and anybody who was named Nelson," he stammered.
It was as if somebody had rifled through the unit files and, in a desperate effort to get rid of everything associated with the two dead soldiers, simply marked anything with the name Nelson or Suarez for destruction. Of the two boxes, one contained documents mostly on Suarez, the other, mostly Nelson — one box for each man.
They brought the third soldier into the room and showed him the files. The three men stood there watching the shredder hum away, unsure of what to do next. They paced. They argued. Nobody knew what to do. Should they stop shredding? Spirit away the documents in the trunk of a car? If this was some kind of coverup, were they unwitting accomplices?
Like Kremling, Mitchum had been in Ramadi on the day in question. He had been holed up with members of the 3rd Platoon in a building a few hundred yards to the southwest of where Nelson and Suarez died, and vividly remembered the hours-long battle against Iraqi insurgents that ended with a barrage of U.S. tank fire. Unlike a number of Salon sources who say they saw the tank fire at the building where Nelson and Suarez died on Dec. 4, 2006, Kremling and Mitchum were not eyewitnesses to the tank shot, though Kremling was on the second floor of the building that got hit. But both men believed their buddies who claimed to have seen it, as opposed to the official Army explanation.
After much discussion, the men called the Army Criminal Investigation Command, the army's premier investigative organization, based at Fort Belvoir, Va. But by this time, it was late at night. No answer. They dialed the Army inspector general. "They keep bankers' hours," Kremling complained.
Finally, they called a trusted fellow soldier. His counsel was that although it was difficult to say, they should proceed as if they had received a lawful order, since as far as they knew, they had. He thought they should probably go ahead and shred the stuff.
But after they resumed shredding and were almost finished with the second box, one of the three soldiers snapped. "This is bullshit!" he announced. "I'm pretty sure this is illegal." He reached into the second box, pulled out seven pages, folded the documents twice and shoved them in his pocket. "I finally said, 'Fuck it,'" he told me about his decision to grab some of the documents. "I'm tired of getting bullied around."
The papers he grabbed at the last moment are routine — deployment checklists, immunization records and other forms. But the documents definitely refer to the Albert Nelson from Ramadi, and they are unquestionably official Army documents. The documents have two holes punched on the top of each page, like many Army files. The various documents contain Nelson's full name, his home address in west Philadelphia, the names of some of his family and his correct Social Security number. (Some of the paperwork is reproduced here, but with personal information redacted.)
The seven pages that survived the shredding incident are not dramatic and do not pertain to the friendly fire incident. But they provide proof that on Oct. 14, the day Salon published the article about Nelson and Suarez's deaths, the Army was shredding documents about the two men.
I learned about the destruction of the documents through my sources at Fort Carson. I contacted the soldiers involved and interviewed them in Colorado Springs in mid-October. They wanted the story out but feared repercussions from the Army. They also complained of serious but largely untreated medical problems from combat in Iraq.
I called the office of Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who has a long track record of advocacy on behalf of returning veterans. Bond's staff contacted officials at Fort Carson and raised the issue of the shredding incident and the health problems of some soldiers from the friendly fire unit. The Army agreed to move the soldiers out of their unit and work to address their medical needs. Bond's staff also contacted a representative of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, who agreed to assist them in getting medical care.
The Army has completed an investigation into the shredding incident, called a 15-6 investigation, a relatively informal, internal affair typically conducted by one officer who reports to his commander. In a 15-6, the military unit that may have screwed up is responsible for investigating itself.
Kremling and Mitchum's brigade commander, Col. Randy George, told me in a phone interview that he ordered a captain on his staff to handle this 15-6 investigation. (George was not the commander of the brigade in Ramadi in 2006, and he had not heard of the friendly fire incident until Salon published the initial story.)
George's investigation found that the battalion routinely shreds old, inactive personnel files. The destruction of documents on Oct. 14 was routine. "They shredded some documents," George told me. "Coincidentally it happened on the 14th ... We shred documents all the time."
George acknowledged that files on Nelson and Suarez went into the shredder on Oct. 14 — but none were related to the alleged friendly fire. "I would guarantee you that there was nothing in there that was destroyed that had anything to do with that incident."
George sent me a copy of his investigation, which includes a sworn statement from an Army staff sergeant (name redacted) who works on personnel issues in the battalion headquarters. The sergeant wrote that the shredding on Oct. 14 resulted from an effort that began in early September to clean out old files. That sergeant also wrote that "at no time did anyone give any order to destroy personal records specific to those two soldiers, nor did anyone I work with indicate that the battalion leadership or any company commander direct [sic] any soldiers ... to destroy the records of those two soldiers."
George's investigation also contains sworn statements from the soldiers interviewed by Salon, reflecting essentially what they told me. They describe boxes filled predominantly with files on the two men, including some documents with both men's names on them. They also reiterated what they said in our interviews — they simply don't know for sure exactly what all they put into the shredder on Nelson and Suarez.
"The documents that were shredded were not related to the deaths or the investigation into the deaths" of Nelson and Suarez, according to the copy of George's investigation. "The command was aware of the media interest in the case but had no motivation to destroy the documents; and the command did not order nor did it know about the shredding of the documents."
On Oct. 14, George did discuss the Salon article with his superiors in the 4th Infantry Division, he confirmed. And he did order an effort to comb through files that day, but only to identify who from the unit on the day of Nelson and Suarez's deaths might still be around. "I asked who was in the unit because I was not here when that happened," he told me. "But that had nothing to do with shredding any documents."
This self-exoneration echoes the Army's original investigation into Nelson and Suarez's deaths. Col. Sean MacFarland was the commander of the tank unit in Ramadi that was supporting Nelson and Suarez's infantry company that day in 2006. MacFarland also oversaw the subsequent Army investigation into the deaths, another 15-6, which found that two enemy mortars landing simultaneously killed Nelson and Suarez, not MacFarland's tanks.
MacFarland said in a brief telephone interview on Oct. 14 that the full investigation included 170 photographs, dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of ballistic analysis.
"I think it was the gold standard of investigations," MacFarland said, "particularly in an active combat zone."
He argued that his investigation shows that the eyewitnesses are mistaken. "I think there was a strong consensus among the soldiers at the platoon that yes, a tank fired at their building. But the evidence just did not support that," he said. "One could see how young soldiers in the fog of war could get confused," he continued. "So a soldier could very easily be forgiven for thinking that tank was shooting at his building, but they weren't."
I've known for months about the existence of MacFarland's investigation and I requested all of it, including the photographs, statements and exhibits, back on July 30. So far, the Army has produced only a heavily redacted, 10-page summary of the investigation and a two-page memo from MacFarland concurring with the findings. A letter from Fort Carson officials, dated Oct. 10, says they are still looking for the rest of the material requested by Salon in July.
The men in battalion headquarters on Oct. 14 acknowledge that they don't know what they destroyed under orders, or even whether they shredded investigative documents. Said Mitchum, "Who knows what was in there?"
What Mitchum is sure of is how Nelson and Suarez died. "They were killed by a tank," he said. He complained about officers and senior enlisted leaders going along with the official story that the cause of death was enemy fire. "They fall in line," he told me. "And they don't give a shit what it makes us feels like."