Battle fatalities are way down in Iraq, thank goodness (though not in Afghanistan), but many U.S. troops are still passing away in "noncombat" ways, via accidents, friendly fire, suicides and so on. And in those cases, parents or spouses, and the media, are still often misled or lied to for days or weeks or months before the truth of how they died comes out -- in the local press, as I have chronicled for over five years now.
Here is today's horror story, involving Sgt. Mason Lewis of Virginia. A year ago, the military told his mom he had died in a fall. By implication: his fault. This week, a local TV outlet reported that the official probe has belatedly revealed:
"Army investigators discovered a poorly maintained bucket loader with no brakes and sluggish hydraulics, operated by an inexperienced crew, led to Mason's death."
Flash back to one year ago tomorrow, on November 19, 2007, and a Washington Post article beginning:
"Lisa Lewis had a bad feeling when her son Mason was getting ready to ship out to Iraq for his second tour last May. She prayed and she prayed, but she couldn't shake it. And then the news that she had been dreading finally came. Sgt. Mason L. Lewis was dead.
"Lewis, 26, of Gloucester, Va., died Friday in Baghdad as a result of a noncombat training mission, the Defense Department said yesterday. His mother said she was told that Lewis and nine other U.S. soldiers had been moved to a remote location to train Iraqi soldiers. 'He was up on a roof; I don't know how high,' she said. 'All I know was that he fell.'"
The next day, her local paper, the Daily Press, reported: "On Friday, his mother said the Army told her, Mason was on the roof of a building preparing to train the Iraqi troops when he lost his footing and fell to the ground."
Soon, other press reports were relating that red-haired Mason was a fun-loving guy, much beloved by friends and families -- and kids in Iraq, who knew him by the nickname "Crazy Monkey" for his habit of tossing them toys when he could. This inspired friends to start a project in his honor that would ship toys from the U.S. to Iraq. "He loved the kids. He was all about the kids and he wanted to have kids one day," said Christa Arnest, Mason's close friend.
Months passed. His mom felt it odd that his cause of death would be slipping off a building -- not like him at all.
Cut to this past Monday and a report by WAVY-TV and its Web site, which serves the Tidewater region of Virginia. It opened with Lisa Lewis recalling the weeks after she learned of the original explanation for her son's death:
"Mason was trying to get on top of a one-story building to simulate a sniper when he fell. 'I know someone can have an accident, but Mason was so sure-footed and so careful,' Lisa Lewis said.
"His mother spent hour after hour agonizing his last few minutes. Two weeks later, the image changed. 'I had come to grips with it. This is what happened and I needed to stop seeing it in my mind and just try to accept it.'
"But now 'they came with the real story and here we go all over again.'"
An investigation after Mason's death revealed what really happened,
"Starting with two Iraqi brothers who were helping Lewis. 'Both eventually confessed freely to the fact that SPC Lewis was accidentally crushed by a bucket loader,' read Lisa Lewis from the report.
"Army investigators discovered a poorly maintained bucket loader with no brakes and sluggish hydraulics, operated by an inexperienced crew, led to Mason's death.
"In a home that has become a picture book of Mason's life, his mother wants the end of his story set straight for his sake."
Set straight now -- but as I have attempted to chronicle , very often loved ones, and the press, are lied to about the circumstances of a noncombat death. Yes, full investigations must be carried out, but usually the essence of the full truth could have been communicated early on. When delayed, it can seem like -- or actually is -- a "cover-up" of an accident or shooting that should have been prevented.
Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book, on Iraq and the media, includes several chapters on noncombat deaths and suicides. It is titled So Wrong for So Long.
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