A disturbing report from National Public Radio on Thursday said former Rep. Duncan Duane Hunter, when he fought in Fallujah, was partly to blame for a friendly fire incident that killed two fellow Marines and an Iraqi interpreter.
1st Lt. Duncan Hunter was in the Fire Support Center in that Iraqi town when a mortar attack was called in and sent toward a schoolhouse — and a Marine unit — in April 2004, says the podcast “Taking Cover.”
“[Hunter] pointed to the wrong target on the map, and that cascaded into friendly fire,” NPR reporter Tom Bowman told Times of San Diego. “Still, he was never cited for punishment because he was in training.”
A military investigation of the tragedy was completed three years after the fact. But NPR didn’t see the so-called JAGMAN report until the widow of a Camp Pendleton Marine shared it with NPR at her Tucson home.
Bowman says the report, which the Pentagon once reported as “lost,” hasn’t yet been made public by NPR.
“I can ask [about the report] … And our more detailed look at Junior’s role in the friendly fire will appear next week,” he said via Facebook.
NPR suggests the friendly fire probe was buried to protect interests of the younger Hunter and his father, Rep. Duncan Lee Hunter, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Also President George W. Bush, who faced a tough re-election race.
The father retired from Congress, and in 2008 his Republican son defeated Democrat Mike Lumpkin, a Navy SEAL commander, for the East County seat. In January 2020, the younger Hunter resigned from Congress in the wake of his corruption scandal but was pardoned by President Trump that December before having to serve an 11-month prison sentence.
Had Hunter and a fellow lieutenant been held accountable, they might have been punished and possibly given a dishonorable discharge, NPR reported.
Asked about the Marine investigation, the elder Hunter told Times of San Diego on Thursday: “Both my sons, Duncan and Sam, volunteered for and served in combat operations in Iraq. The Marines have a reputation for being straight-forward and plainspoken and honest. I trust their reports.”
He signed his email “DLH.”
The younger Hunter defended Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher amid a court-martial involving war crimes, telling a Ramona audience: “Eddie did one bad thing that I’m guilty of too — taking a picture of the body and saying something stupid.”
NPR reported that Hunter told the long-hidden military investigation that he had no responsibility for the friendly fire.
“He writes that he was just — and this is the term he used — bird-dogging. In other words, working with another officer to learn the job, although he then describes doing every aspect of the job — plotting the coordinates and marking the target on a map,” NPR said.
But NPR reports that he said he didn’t make the final call.
Bowman then is heard on the 45-minute podcast:
That other officer tells a different story. According to Lt. Ben Deda: “1st Lieutenant Hunter was the fires watch officer. This was 1st Lieutenant Hunter’s first time as acting fires watch officer.” So what Deda is saying is the congressman’s son wasn’t just training. He was actually doing the job of plotting and approving mortar fire.
NPR colleague Graham Smith takes up the account:
Nevertheless, Deda describes a scramble after check fire was called, and the radio crackles, second platoon got hit, and they took a lot of casualties. Deda describes looking at the maps, the cards – was that us? How could this have happened?
In his statement, he writes, if I had paused, taken the time to go through all the steps myself, I would not have cleared that mission, and the mortar would not have caused friendly casualties.
NPR’s transcript of the podcast continues:
BOWMAN: Deda beats himself up. And though the investigation concludes that there was no clear understanding between Deda and Hunter about who is responsible for clearing mortar missions, he cites Deda for failure to follow procedures. And Duncan Hunter, though he was clearly involved, is never singled out for punishment.
The podcast turns to Mick Wagoner, a retired lieutenant colonel who worked for more than two decades as a Marine lawyer who investigated the friendly fire death of Jose Gutierrez, “whose death inspired the first cross on Horno Ridge at Camp Pendleton.”
WAGONER: Technically, I think [the investigation] was proficient, especially for the gun part and the shoot part and the sequencing of the firing. I think that was right.
BOWMAN: But Wagoner wonders why commanders didn’t send a JAG, or at least a higher-ranking officer, to do the investigation. This captain was an artillery officer, not a lawyer.
WAGONER: He’s, like, a subject matter expert, but he’s not an investigations expert. And that’s what the lawyers should have been there to do ’cause the first thing I think of is, oh, shit, this is bad. You better have some answers because it’s going to come downhill quick. Send the lawyer out. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing there in the first place.
G SMITH: That meant the scope of the inquiry was mostly technical. It didn’t delve into root causes like why did the Marines even ask for a mortar?
WAGONER: There’s so much more that you should be asking on those questions of…
G SMITH: Interesting.
WAGONER: I mean, if the enemy’s that close and you just zapped yourself – you know, he says it’s, like, 200 yards away, and they see them building. Why aren’t they shooting them? I don’t know why they’re not engaging guys that are clearly doing a hostile act. You know, there’s hostile intent there.
BOWMAN: It could have been direct fire easily.
G SMITH: But what about the other piece — the congressman’s son?
BOWMAN: If this had come out back in 2004, that the son of the chair of the House Armed Services Committee was involved in a deadly friendly fire accident, that would have been big news. Even if he denied any responsibility, even if the report avoided citing him, it would have been an embarrassment for the Marines and the White House at a time when public support for the war is already waning and the president is running for reelection. So we ask what Wagoner makes of Duncan Hunter’s involvement. Is that why it took congressional hearings to force the Marines to admit to the friendly fire?
WAGONER: The Marine Corps, of course, we like to be the best at everything, right? That’s kind of our shtick. What we’re not good at is bad news. When we’ve got bad news and we know it – I agree with your suspicions. They were protecting Duncan Hunter, protecting the Marine Corps from potential bad blood with his dad at the time. They knew who he was.
BOWMAN: But that’s your gut telling you.
WAGONER: That’s my gut that tells me that. Because they, you know, in essence, as a defense attorney, I mean, they barfed all over themselves and said, hey, we were wrong. We did this. Where the break really happens, where the screw-up happens, is the notification piece on down. I mean, that is one of the ethos of the Marines. Like, we tell the truth no matter how much it hurts. And this is not one of those cases where we’ve done that as well as we should have. But that’s just – we do not lie to our Marines. I mean, that’s one of those – we owe them that as an organization that f’ed them up, that we tell them the truth, and you tell…
BOWMAN: Not only that, it’s in the Marine Corps hymn.
WAGONER: Yeah, it’s in our motto. It’s in our motto, semper fidelis— always faithful. And faithful means, you know, know your troops and look out for their welfare. And their welfare isn’t just when they have the uniforms on. That’s crap.
The next episode of “Taking Cover” will appear Thursday, April 13.