European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany
Soldiers with burned and bandaged bodies are still wondering why fellow Americans attacked their peaceful part of the desert one night in February and killed two of their comrades.
“Someone was too anxious and trigger happy,” said Pfc. Robert M. Gebhard, 21, one of the survivors of the friendly fire attack.
Gebhard’s quiet war became deadly in a way he never imagined when shortly after midnight on Feb. 17 an Apache helicopter fired a Hellfire missile into the compartment of his M2 Bradley fighting vehicle and a second Hellfire into a nearby M113 armored personnel carrier.
The first missile killed two people in the Bradley —Cpl. Jeffrey T. Middleton, 23, of Oxford, Kan., and Pvt. 2 Robert D. Talley, 18, of Newark, N.J. Both were members of the Germany-based 2nd Armd Div (Fwd).
The Bradley’s other three occupants suffered burns and shrapnel wounds, and all three members of the M113 were burned.
The soldiers in the Bradley were members of the Hq Co, 1st Bn, 41st Inf Regt from Garlstedt, Germany. The soldiers in the M113 were members of Co B, 101st Military Intelligence Bn from Fort Riley, Kan.
At least 10 other U.S. servicememembers, as well as nine British soldiers, may have been killed by friendly fire in the gulf war. But those deaths occurred when U.S. aircraft tried to attack enemy units during close fighting will allied forces.
“Our platoon hadn’t see any Iraqis. We had not fired a single shot,” Spec. Khiem Ta, who was in the Bradley’s gun turret when the Hellfire hit. “We weren’t even moving and hadn’t moved for at least two hours.”
An investigation revealed that Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles, 1st Inf Div Apache battalion commander, fired the missiles. Hayles was relieved of command February 21, not because he fired on Americans, but because the attack violated division guidelines prohibiting commanders from operating weapon systems in combat, a division spokesman said.
The survivors said they never saw or heard the Apache, although the entire M113 crew was outside the vehicle when the first missile hit. That made the soldiers question whether the Apache was close enough for Hayles to identify who he was attacking.
“You know, even before we left Germany they began pounding target identification into our heads,” Ta said in an interview at the Army Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. “I remember thinking earlier that night that they seemed to want us to see the (enemy’s) face before we shot at anyone.”
The platoon of six Bradley’s, spaced 1,500 yards apart, formed a line about 4.5 miles long, the soldiers said. The M113, loaded with radar equipment, was about 50 feet to the left of the doomed Bradley.
The platoon reported its location to battalion headquarters using what Gebhard called “a very precise grid system.”
“There was no doubt in my mind that they knew exactly where we were,” he said. But the Apache crew, “just didn’t know where” we were.
A Pentagon spokesman would not comment on the soldiers’ views but did say that it is something that will come out during the investigation.
U.S. Central Comd reports said the Apache attack occurred after a small American ground force attached to a division task force skirmished with probing Iraqi troops. U.S. ground forces called in air support and Apaches responded.
But the skirmish they were responding to took place miles away from the vehicles Hayles attacked, the soldiers said. Their platoon was part of a screen of Bradley’s covering the right flank of a task force located near the Kuwaiti border. They had moved “well away” from the main task force and set up facing the Iraqi front. Their job was to alert the division to Iraqi activity as it appeared on the M113’s surveillance equipment.
Ta and Talley were the Bradley’s scouts. They normally sat in the compartment in the rear, Ta said. Middleton, the Bradley’s gunner, had come down into the compartment moments before the attack, and Ta replaced him in the gunner’s turret next to the Bradley’s commander, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Miller.
“Then we were hit,” Ta said.
The impact knocked Miller and Ta down in the turret, which immediately filled with fire and smoke, Ta said. The two men jumped from the vehicle, and Ta went to the rear to try to save Talley and Middleton.
“I looked into where the missile had hit,” Ta said. “There was more fire, brighter fire, than anything I could ever imagine. It was like a volcano.”
Ta said he heard a scream but is sure the two soldiers were dead when he reached the compartment.
Gebhard, interviewed by telephone at the Army hospital in Bremerhaven, Germany, managed to get out of the driver’s seat with moderate burns. Just after he hit the ground, however, the second Hellfire crashed into the M113, and he was hit with shrapnel and the concussion knocked him hard against the Bradley.
“I looked up and saw a couple of guys on fire,” Gebhard said, referring to two M113 crew members. “They took off running. There was no stopping them.”
Ta and Gebhard said they realized that the Bradley, loaded with 12 anti-tank missiles, 100 pounds of plastic explosives and hundreds of 25mm rounds, would explode. The three Bradley survivors and an unidentified M113 crew member scattered into the desert several hundred feet from the burning vehicle, and in less than two minutes the Bradley was melted by spectacular explosions. The M113 was also destroyed by the blasts.
Wounded, unarmed and thinking that they had been hit by Iraqis, the soldiers lay in their hiding places until the “shadows” that gathered around the burning Bradley spoke English.
As word of the Apache’s attack spread, soldiers who rely on the Apache for air support began to criticize the helicopter’s performance. Soldiers have told reporters that the Apache performs well during the day, but at night the helicopter has problems finding Iraqi forces that ground troops with night vision equipment can plainly see.
Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, the Desert Storm commander and head of U.S. Central Comd, also criticized the excessive use of firepower by Apache crews that night. Central Comd spokesmen said at least 100 laser-guided Hellfire missiles were fired in what were described as “border skirmishes.”
In an effort to avoid another accident, the spokesman said pilots were being shown night photos of ground units to improve their ability to distinguish between friendly and enemy forces in low light situations, when most mistakes in identification occur. Officials also said allied ground equipment was being marked with “distinctive tape.”
Central Comd reports said the British vehicles attacked Feb. 26 were marked with the special tape.
The military has promised a full report to the families of the dead soldiers, but those who survived in the attack said they’ve been left in the dark.
“We were a pretty close team,” Ta said of his Bradley crew. “I want them to tell me what happened. We deserve to know.”
But it is unlikely that the Apache officer who fired the missiles will disciplined further, a miitary law expert said.
“No matter what else happens, he’s been relieved of command,” an Army attorney in Germany said. “Hayles’ career is in the toilet.”