Christopher Heredia / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-09-11 23:37:00
MOUNTAIN VIEW (September 11, 2005) — A distraught Mountain View mother on Saturday demanded answers as to why Army officials told her a year ago that her son was killed by enemy fire in Iraq when in truth he died when a machine gun on his own tank misfired.
The Army delivered the updated news about Lt. Kenneth Ballard to Karen Meredith at her home on Friday.
“I sincerely apologize to you for the unfortunate series of events that resulted in your not being informed of the investigations regarding the death of your son,” Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey wrote in his Sept. 8 letter to Meredith, who is still grieving the May 2004 death of her only child.
The Army secretary wrote that the initial casualty report submitted by Ballard’s unit erroneously stated that Ballard was killed during a firefight with insurgents. The Army’s subsequent investigation determined the cause was the “accidental discharge” of the machine gun on Ballard’s tank.
Ballard, 26, was buried Oct. 22 at Arlington National Cemetery.
Meredith, who has been an outspoken critic of the war and President Bush — joining Vacaville mother Cindy Sheehan in her protest last month outside the president’s vacation residence in Crawford, Texas — said Saturday she believed incompetence was to blame for the Army misinformation.
“This is stunning, an absolute betrayal,” Meredith said, choking back tears. “I’m reliving everything bad about Kenneth’s death. It’s heartbreaking — I hadn’t realized how much I’d healed. This brought it all back to day one.”
The circumstances of Ballard’s death echoed those of soldier and former pro football player Pat Tillman, whose family was told in April 2004 that Tillman had been killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan. The Pentagon later said Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
Tillman’s family’s outrage about being misled as to the true cause of his death prompted congressional leaders to pressure the Department of Defense to reopen its investigation into the death. In August, the Pentagon announced that it had assigned its Inspector General’s Office to open a fresh review.
On Saturday, a Department of Defense spokesman deferred comment about Ballard’s death to the Army. An Army representative could not be reached for comment.
Meredith, who in December requested the Army incident report about her son’s death, said she doesn’t understand why it took so long for the truth to come out in both her son’s death and Tillman’s.
Meredith said that on Tuesday she will meet again with Army officials, who have promised they will go over in detail what went wrong with Ballard’s tank rifle.
“I want to know who didn’t do their job,” Meredith said. “This is such a betrayal of the families who depend on the Army to tell us the truth. It’s not only Pat Tillman and Kenneth Ballard. The Army needs to fix the problems with its shoddy reporting.
“They kept the truth hidden for all this time. How many other families are going to have to go through what I am going through? Why did it take 15 months for them to tell me the truth? It’s outrageous to know people in the Army don’t care enough to do their job.”
Of Harvey’s personal apology to her, Meredith said, “It’s important that this incident has his eye and ear. Hopefully, they will fix any process that is broken.”
Harvey promised Meredith a full investigation into what went wrong “to ensure that delayed notifications do not recur in the future,” according to his letter.
Meredith said she plans to rejoin Sheehan — whose son Casey, 24, was an Army specialist killed in April 2004 in Baghdad — and other families opposed to the war in their national bus tour ending at an anti-war protest at the Capitol the weekend of Sept. 24.
Ballard’s father, Tom Ballard, who is divorced from Meredith, was saddened by the news of how his son died but said Saturday he didn’t fault the Army.
“It’s a harsh way to go,” said Ballard said, a retired Air Force officer. “The information we, the family, received initially was preliminary. We were told he died by small arms fire. As they did more research, they learned that it was an accident.”
Ballard said perhaps his son’s death wasn’t in vain, that it could lead to improved safeguards on military equipment.
“I am looking at the positive,” Ballard said. “My son was a very good soldier, respected among his fellow enlisted officers as well as his ranking officers.”
E-mail Christopher Heredia at firstname.lastname@example.org
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