Time magazine has outlined a new scenario for the death this month in Iraq of an Army reservist from Kennebunk, adding more confusion as the family awaits the results of an official investigation.
First Sgt. Christopher Coffin, 51, became the fifth soldier with Maine ties to die in Iraq after his vehicle ran into a ditch on July 1. He was a member of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command assisting convoys traveling between Baghdad and Kuwait.
The case raises a very troubling question, which is, are combat deaths being disguised as accidents . . . so it would appear less harm is being caused by the Iraqi resistance than is the case?
The details of Coffin's death have been mired in confusion since the day it was announced by the military.
Initially, a press release from Coffin's unit stated he died after his vehicle swerved to avoid a civilian vehicle.
But a report from the U.S. Central Command issued a day before said a member of Coffin's unit was killed July 1 when his convoy was hit by "an improvised explosive device."
That report did not name Coffin, but he was the only member of his unit to die that day.
Now a new report from Time, citing "Coffin family members and U.S. government officials looking into the case," says Coffin's vehicle was deliberately run off the road, then surrounded by an angry mob. A Humvee following Coffin stopped to help, but was also overwhelmed and then set on fire.
A third team of soldiers, the article says, was brought in and fired rifles in the air to disperse the crowd.
Representatives from Army headquarters and U.S. Central Command had no comment on Time's report.
Members of Maine's congressional delegation said they, too, could neither confirm nor deny the account. But the Coffin case, they agreed, has been disturbing for a variety of reasons.
"The case raises a very troubling question, which is, are combat deaths being disguised as accidents . . . so it would appear less harm is being caused by the Iraqi resistance than is the case?" asked Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine.
Allen said that although he does not dispute that accidents happen, it seems that there are "an awful lot of accidents."
"I believe we don't want to go through what we went through in Vietnam, where the reports of casualties could not be relied on," he said. "I think there should be an investigation not just of this one accident but the remaining deaths, so the American people know the whole story."
According to the Army, there have been 64 Army casualties since May 1, with 32 attributed to hostile activity.
Civil Affairs Specialist Chris Coffin wasn't supposed to be in harm's way in Iraq. He was killed there this month. (Photo/Coffin Family)
A spokeswoman for Sen. Olympia Snowe said Snowe, too, is disturbed by the inconsistencies in the Army's reporting of the Coffin case.
"The family's grief has been compounded by conflicting information, and they deserve to know the truth of the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Coffin's death," Snowe, R-Maine, said in a written statement.
Both Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have worked with the family and announced earlier that the U.S. Army Adjutant General's office had convened an official board of inquiry to investigate the case.
A board of inquiry is a higher level of investigation than the routine inquiry conducted in any fatality.
"I have spoken personally with Mrs. Coffin and pledged to do everything I can to get to the bottom of this appalling lack of information," Collins said in a written statement. "It is unacceptable that the family grieving over the death of their loved one should have to endure the added distress of not knowing with certainty how he died."
In the meantime, members of the Coffin family are awaiting the results of the board of inquiry. It could take months for the board to come to any conclusions.
Candy Barr Heimbach, Coffin's sister-in-law, said the family is simply waiting for the investigation to run its course, and will not comment on the case until that process is complete.
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