When Peggy and Steve Buryj set out to discover the truth about their son's death in Iraq, they ran into an Army bureaucracy that was determined not to tell them.Peggy Buryj is at home in Canton with the memory of her son, Jesse, who was killed by friendly fire in Iraq in May 2004.
It was late on a May 2004 night on the outskirts of the holy Iraq Shiite city of Karbala. Polish, Iraqi and U.S. forces had set up a security checkpoint at a traffic circle as, nearby, militia members tied to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were on the march; word was out that they might use dump trucks to deliver bombs against coalition forces.
So when a dump truck zoomed through the poorly lit nighttime checkpoint, Polish and U.S. troops opened fire, killing the driver and causing the truck to careen into the traffic circle. There, at the bend of the circle, Spec. Jesse Buryj (pronounced "BOO-dee") stood in his Humvee, firing from his machine-gun turret.
The truck turned out to be hauling nothing but dirt. But as it slammed into the Humvee, Buryj was catapulted to the ground, where he lay still and groaning, the apparent victim of a fall . Unbeknownst to most at the scene, however, weapons fired either by Polish or U.S. troops, or by a combination of both, had peppered the Humvee, burying shrapnel into Buryj's legs while a fatal bullet found the exposed flesh of his back as he fell.
Losing their only son to the war in Iraq was not the worst of Steve and Peggy Buryj's nightmares. Far more troubling was that every few months, the Army seemed to change its story of how the 21-year-old died.
Within hours of Jesse's death on May 5, 2004, Army casualty officers were at their door, telling the Canton couple that Jesse fell from his Humvee and suffered internal injuries. Nothing was said about bullets.
Two months later, the death certificate came in the mail to Jesse's widow, Amber. It said Jesse died of a gunshot wound to the back.
A shocked Peggy, a supporter of the war and of the president, called every congressperson, Army officer and bigwig she could think of, with no results.
"I felt like they were dishonoring my son," says Peggy. "I still feel that."
Her husband, Steve, a lab technician for a plastics company, nightly paced the floor of their whitewashed colonial, imagining what other lies they'd been told, and wondering if they'd buried the wrong boy.
The coffin had arrived home sealed and the family had to order the funeral home to open it, Peggy says.
Jesse's puffed face was almost un recognizable.
At the end of July 2004, however, the family got a break. President Bush was coming through Canton, campaigning for re-election, and his staffers invited the Buryjs and two other sets of Gold Star parents who'd lost children to meet the president.
Peggy Buryj handed President Bush an index card with the details of their attempt to find out what happened to Jesse.
" Sometimes it just takes a phone call from the president,' " she remembers Bush told her.
"Little did I know two years later, over two years later, I'm still going to be going through this crap," Peggy says, rifling through Army documents stacked more than a foot high.
Despite the meeting with President Bush, it took a Freedom of Information Act request to find out, in February 2005, that Jesse died as a result of friendly fire.
The formal Army briefing confirming that finding didn't come until April 2005, almost a year after Jesse's death.
Even then, the Army couldn't tell the Buryjes exactly who fired the fatal shot. Last year, the Army inspector general added a new wrinkle by revealing that some on the ground believed the incident could complicate relations with Polish allies in Iraq. The IG, however, concluded there was no cover-up.
Today, after four Army investigations, the military says it still cannot get to the bottom of who exactly killed the easy-going, musically minded, would-be cop in a hail of "friendly" fire.
But Jesse's mother has become consumed by her need to know. She forces herself to look at the gruesome autopsy pictures. She and daughter Angela ruthlessly compile the minutiae about what the bullet did to Jesse, how he suffered, what his last moments were like, what fellow soldiers said about him.
"This is the damage they do when they don't tell you accurate information," says Peggy, a nursing-home receptionist. "I'm still fighting it. If I knew where to go," her voice trails. "Sometimes I just feel so limited by my own mind, almost. I don't know what to do."
The case is an eerie echo of the Pat Tillman case, in which initial misinformation and seven Army probes failed to satisfy the family that the Army did all it could to find and publish the truth.
In both cases, Army investigations attributed the misinformation and delays to miscommunications, poor procedures and individual mistakes -- some of which are being corrected, or punished.
Yet both families believe political considerations drove the lies.
The Tillman family thinks football star Pat was supposed to remain the poster boy for the war, even after his friendly-fire death. Peggy Buryj feels the mistakes behind Jesse's death were an inconvenient truth at a time when Ohioans' votes were crucial to Bush's re-election.
"I will never get answers for my son," despairs Peggy, as she finds herself running out of options to force more answers from the Army. She says she's relying on Mary Tillman, whose Pat died in Afghanistan just a few weeks earlier than Jesse did in Iraq, to get "justice" for both -- and for other military families that want and deserve the truth about their sons' or daughters' final moments.
Elizabeth Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages. Contact her at Sullivanbsullivan@plaind.com or 216-999-6153.
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