Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Insult to injury: Karen Meredith asked for a copy of the incident report about her son's death and was told she'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It was a year before she received the report, and months after that before she learned the Army's official story had been a lie.
At War With the Army
How two South Bay mothers uncovered the truth about their sons' deaths in Iraq
By Michael Shapiro
This story is a follow-up to Michael Shapiro's cover story last week about the Army coverup of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire in combat.—Editor
THE STORY of Pat Tillman, the pro football player who grew up in San Jose and turned down a multimillion–dollar contract to join the Army, made national headlines when Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. Tillman's mother, Mary, has worked tirelessly to try to find out how her son died and who covered up the truth about his death.
But she's not the only mother of a soldier who was deceived about the circumstances of her son's death in combat. In a span of just two months during the spring of 2004, the families of two other South Bay soldiers were lied to after their sons died while serving their country. And they too had to employ dogged persistence to uncover the truth about their sons' final hours.
Nadia McCaffrey's Story
In the spring of 2004, as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal inflamed the Middle East, Sgt. Patrick Ryan McCaffrey, assigned to train Iraqi soldiers allied with American troops, became worried about his safety. A manager of a Palo Alto automotive shop, McCaffrey had told his mother, Nadia McCaffrey of Tracy, that he feared the Iraqi troops would turn on him.
"He had said in an email that because of Abu Ghraib every [U.S.] soldier had a bounty on his head," Nadia McCaffrey said. Patrick was "ashamed" of the reports and images of torture in Iraqi prisons and said the United States had "no business in Iraq," his mother said.
A divorced father of two young children, Patrick grew up in Sunnyvale and attended De Anza College. He had no desire to fight overseas, but wanted to serve his country after the 9/11 attacks.
"He was not a military person," Nadia McCaffrey said of her son. "He earned $100,000 a year—he didn't need anything from anybody."
McCaffrey met with a recruiter who, according to Nadia, told Patrick that if he joined the National Guard he wouldn't be deployed because of his age (over 30). McCaffrey was assigned to the Army National Guard's 579th Engineer Battalion in Petaluma.
In late June, Nadia McCaffrey got the news that every military mom dreads: her son had been killed while on patrol near Balad, Iraq. "They told me my son was shot and killed in an ambush by insurgents," she said. He was 34.
"I lost it—I asked if he had suffered, and how long after he was shot did he die. They said he was shot three times and didn't feel any pain, that he died immediately." McCaffrey kept asking questions and enlisted the help of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D–Calif.) to get the autopsy report.
Though soldiers in McCaffrey's unit knew immediately who killed him, it took his mother two years to get the truth: On June 22, 2004, "Patrick got shot eight times by three people with AK–47s," Nadia McCaffrey said. He was shot in the back, murdered by two Iraqi civil defense force soldiers he was training, according to the military's autopsy report.
After speaking with soldiers who were with Patrick after he was shot, his mother says her son was alive for some time after the shooting.
"He was bleeding and had a pulse," she said in a phone interview with Metro earlier this month. A criminal investigation is ongoing, she said. "The whole mission did not make sense. It was incomprehensible."
McCaffrey said one of the two Iraqi soldiers who killed her son was shot to death by U.S. troops—the other is awaiting trial in Baghdad. "No one wants the trial to take place," she said, suggesting U.S. and Iraqi officials fear the publicity a trial would engender. But McCaffrey wants to see her son's killer brought to justice, adding "I want to be there when it [the trial] happens."
Like Mary Tillman, McCaffrey is outraged by what happened to her son and by the lies the military told her about his death. "I want to know why," she said. "Trust me, I'm on their case for this and I won't let it go."
McCaffrey asked reporters and photographers to be present when Patrick's flag-draped coffin arrived at the Sacramento airport a week after he died. "Patrick was not a private person," she said. "Why should I have hidden him when he came home?"
In August 2005, Nadia joined Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas, when members of the Gold Star Families for Peace asked to meet with President Bush, a request the president ignored while on vacation at his nearby ranch. (Gold Star families are those who have lost a soldier in military service. Some families place "service flags" with gold stars in the front windows of their homes to show their sacrifice. ServiceFlags.com sells these flags, but when I checked they were sold out.)
McCaffrey traveled to Jordan with an aid delegation sponsored by Global Exchange, meeting the mothers of slain Iraqis and distributing $600,000 for Iraqis injured in the war. She's a founder of VeteransVillage.org to aid soldiers, especially those suffering from stress disorders and emotional trauma.
The daughter of a Serbian father and a French mother, McCaffrey was born in France in the final months of World War II, known as "The Good War." In contrast to that conflict, McCaffrey said the occupation of Iraq is "not a good war, not good at all."
Karen Meredith's Story
On April 3, 2004, Karen Meredith's son Ken Ballard was completing his yearlong tour of duty in Iraq. As all soldiers do before returning home, Ballard turned in his weapons—7,500 miles away, in Mountain View, his mother planned Ballard's welcome-home party. The next day "all hell broke loose" in Baghdad, Meredith said. Ballard's tour of duty and the tours of 20,000 other soldiers were extended. Meredith hadn't seen her son since Christmas in 2002 and couldn't wait to see him again. She never would.
Kenneth Michael Ballard was born in Rome, N.Y., on July 21, 1977—7/21/77—weighing a lucky 7 pounds, 7 ounces. The family moved to Mountain View in 1981; Meredith and her then–husband divorced when Ken was a young child.
Meredith said she was proud to see Ken join the Army when he graduated from Mountain View High School in 1995. Ballard later won a Gold to Green ROTC scholarship and graduated in 2002 from Middle Tennessee State University, where he majored in international relations. He returned to the Army, trained as an officer and was deployed to Iraq.
"Ken was given his own platoon, 2nd Platoon, part of the Crusaders of Charlie Company in the summer of 2003," Meredith said. "He felt a tremendous responsibility in keeping his guys safe from harm."
On May 27, 2004, Meredith spoke to her son for about 40 minutes and discussed plans for his month-long vacation to California and Tennessee. She asked him to bring home some prayer beads—he joked that he'd bring her a burka.
Four days later, Karen received another long-distance call, but this time Ken wasn't on the other end. The voice of someone she had never met said her son was killed by small arms fire on May 30 in Najaf. Meredith's only child, the boy she raised almost single-handedly to become an honorable and honored man, was dead. He was 26.
At Ballard's memorial service the following month, an officer said Ballard's heroic efforts saved the lives of some 60 soldiers. Ballard was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. Even during the time of her deepest grief, Meredith sensed there was something amiss, believing that such valor would warrant the Silver Star.
Meredith asked for a copy of the incident report about her son's death and was told she'd have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. She didn't get the report until May of 2005, on the eve of the one–year anniversary of her son's death.
Military officials brought the report to Meredith's home. "The autopsy report was not sealed—I asked the officer why," she said, but she was not given an answer. Without looking at the reports, she stashed them in a safe place and left for Arlington National Cemetery, where her son rests.
"When I got back I'd hid the reports so well that I couldn't find them," she said. After scouring the house "I found [the reports] the third week in July, the week of Ken's birthday." The five-page autopsy report was "very medical, very technical," Meredith said. "But one thing stood out: the report showed that the angle of the bullet's entry could not have come from a rooftop or a sniper."
The daughter of a lieutenant colonel, granddaughter of a colonel, sister of a lieutenant colonel and ex-wife of a former Air Force serviceman, Meredith kept asking questions of military officials. On Aug. 2, 2005, she says she received an email from Lt. Col. John Tien, saying, "Are you telling me you don't know what happened the night Ken was killed?" But Meredith said Tien's email didn't say more about how Ballard died.
Later that month, Meredith got a call from a casualty officer saying "the Army is coming to see you about the incident report." Knowing that meant that the incident report was being changed, Meredith "went to my bed and cried for an hour." She called the office of U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and asked a member of her staff to attend the meeting with military officials.
"I wanted the message to be, 'Don't fuck with this mother—she's got Congress behind her,'" Meredith said. Supported by Eshoo's chief of staff, Meredith met with Lt. Col. John O'Brien, head of the Army's casualty division, at her home. He told her that the story about Ballard providing cover for 60 comrades was untrue.
Here's what happened: an accident occurred as Ballard's tank was backing over a median strip. Under heavy fire, Ballard had instructed his gunner to get down, Meredith says she was told by the casualty officers. As the tank reversed, a tree branch engaged the machine gun just as Ballard poked his head out of the tank to survey the scene and give orders to the driver. The gun discharged and killed Ballard.
"Everyone in his unit knew," Meredith said. "They had taken statements within an hour of him being killed. I don't know if they were given orders to not tell or if it's implicit, just this veiled assumption: if the high-ranking officers are not telling then I better not tell either."
Meredith said the Abrams tank's thermal imaging system was broken and that soldiers were reluctant to use the tank, but a captain ordered them to use it. "If it [the imaging system] had been working, Ken wouldn't have needed to be outside the tank that night," Meredith said.
On Sept. 9, 2005, Meredith says she met in Washington, D.C., with Lt. Col. O'Brien and received a letter of apology. Four days later she met with Col. Bradley May of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I finally got to hear what Ken's last words were: 'Hard left, go straight, take us home.' He was taking care of his guys," Meredith said, her voice cracking with emotion. "It was the last hour of his life. Everyone thinks you're just finding out details but these were his last words; that's what people don't understand."
Meredith, who once worked for FMC, the company that manufactures the Bradley fighting vehicle, said she's not anti-military. But after the Army misled her about her son's death, Meredith vowed to try to prevent other military families from being subjected to similar indignities.
On Sept. 27, 2005, she met with Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey and asked him to promise that soldiers' families would be told the truth about casualties in a timely manner. She asked for pictures of Ballard's body being returned to Dover Air Force Base, but she says that request was denied.
"They knew that I'm antiwar and they didn't want me to have it," she said. "We believe these photos are no longer being taken so that there will be no record of this part of the war forever," she added. "If there are no pictures, they don't have anything to release."
The military has made "some changes based on my comments," Meredith said, including instituting procedures regarding condolence letters and follow–up calls. "But they still won't let us see the pictures from Dover," she said. "We call it the Dover test—if the country would be upset by seeing pictures, then they are not shown. Their goal is to not tell the truth."
"Why does the Army culture allow this?" Meredith asked. "My son is a fourth-generation Army officer. He was raised to believe that the Army takes care of its own. He gave everything and they disrespected him and his family," she said. "To me this is unforgivable."
Meredith remains outraged, not just for the loss of her son, but for the injustice of the war and the disproportionate suffering of soldiers and their families.
"One percent of the country is fighting this war—our country is not at war," she said. "Only military families are carrying the burden of this war."
Meredith, who now works for a networking company in Sunnyvale, says she'll keep telling her story: "People need to be touched by this war. I was opposed to the [Iraq] war before it began but I didn't start speaking publicly until shortly before Ken was killed. I always supported soldiers but never supported the mission—whatever 'the mission' is."
President Bush is treating the military like "little green Army men," Meredith said, citing what she believes to be the president's detachment from the suffering and concerns of soldiers and their families.
Asked if her son supported the Iraq war, Meredith said: "When I asked Ken what he thought about Rumsfeld or Abu Ghraib, he'd say, 'I don't have time to think about that. My mission is to get my buddies home alive.' "
Michael Shapiro's stories, which range from investigative reporting to travel topics, have appeared in the Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler and The Sun. He is the author of 'A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.' For more about Shapiro and his work, see www.michaelshapiro.net.
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