Marines cleared in death of corporal from Arundel

Family disputes accounts of `friendly fire' incident

April 14, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Military investigators have exonerated a Marine sniper team that killed a 20-year-old corporal from Pasadena in Iraq last April after mistaking him for an enemy fighter.

A report released by the U.S. Central Command concludes that the sniper and spotter had sufficient reason to believe that Marine Cpl. Jason David Mileo was an irregular Iraqi soldier when they shot him in the back a year ago today as he searched for Iraqi fighters from a Baghdad rooftop.

Investigators said that Mileo helped cause the confusion by taking off his flak jacket and helmet, a violation of protocol, by smoking a cigarette, and by scaling a domed building that looked like a mosque, typically off-limits to U.S. forces.

"The tragic death of Corporal Mileo was the result of several significant breakdowns in discipline, coordination and communication that set the stage for this horrific incident," Maj. Gen. J.N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, wrote in a memo included in the 148 pages of investigative documents released this month by the Central Command.

"Even though no one event or person was the catalyst for Corporal Mileo's death, one break in the chain of events may have spared his life."

The investigators recommended minor disciplinary action against the sergeant who failed to order Mileo to put on his jacket and helmet and a company officer who failed to alert the sniper team to the presence of Mileo's patrol.

Mileo's father, Phillip Hall of Centreville, said last night that the family was deeply disappointed by the investigation, which he contends is rife with inconsistent testimony. He noted, for instance, that the spotter claimed that Mileo's rifle was pointed toward the sniper team, but Marines who found his body said his rifle was about 10 feet away, leaning against the building.

"Our son was shot unarmed, without a weapon in his possession," Hall said in a phone interview, his first public comments since his son's death. "He had his back to the people that shot him. He was not showing hostile intent."

Mileo, who grew up in Pasadena, enlisted in the Marines after graduating from Chesapeake High School in 2000. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

He arrived in Kuwait shortly after Christmas 2002. His battalion took part in heavy fighting in Iraq before watching in a dusty Baghdad square as Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein.

He was the 126th U.S. military casualty in the Iraq war, and the third from Maryland. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.

At least 15 Americans were killed in "friendly fire" incidents during the major phase of the Iraq conflict.

The 10-month probe of the Mileo shooting was ordered by the U.S. Central Command and conducted by the Marines.

Its findings concur with Pentagon statements in the days after Mileo's death that he had been mistaken for an enemy soldier. But they also highlight a series of miscues and communications breakdowns that culminated in the discovery that Marines had killed one of their own.

Mileo was part of a six-man patrol dispatched at dusk April 14 to ambush and capture suspected fedayeen, Iraqi forces loyal to Hussein. The Iraqis were reported to occasionally use a domed building in a Baghdad neighborhood near the Marine battalion's command post.

As it turned out, the report said, the building was empty that night.

For reasons that remain unclear, Mileo removed the flak jacket and helmet that give Marines their "distinctive silhouette," the report said. He climbed to the building's roof ledge and pushed sandbags together for protection as he scanned the streets below for fedayeen.

Mileo's sergeant saw him without his jacket and helmet, but did not yell orders to put them on, he said, for fear of compromising the ambush.

About 140 yards away, a Marine sniper and spotter charged with protecting the battalion command post heard gunfire in the streets and noticed a man -- Mileo -- toting a rifle atop the domed building.

Though the building was a community gathering spot, the sniper and spotter assumed it was a mosque; Marines are generally forbidden from religious sites under the rules of war.

Furthermore, investigators said, neither the Battalion Operations Center nor the sniper team had been made aware of the position of Mileo's six-man patrol.

The sniper and the spotter, sergeants whose names are excised from the report, discussed the man's appearance, actions and weapon and concluded he was an enemy fighter.

"Their observation convinced them that he was an Iraqi irregular standing on a mosque, ready and capable of using his weapon in hostile action against the Marines," the report says. They "had no information that would cause them to question their conclusion."

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