WASHINGTON – After Roger Suarez's eldest son died in Iraq two years ago, the grieving father buried him in his homeland of Nicaragua and tried to move on.
In recent weeks, Suarez's emotional wounds have been ripped open. A video was posted online of a chaotic fire fight that involved his 21-year-old son, Pfc. Roger Suarez-Gonzalez. Taken from a camera mounted on a soldier's helmet, it raised the possibility that his son and another soldier died not by enemy fire as their families were told, but by U.S. tank rounds in a "friendly fire" incident.
"I don't feel satisfied," Suarez said in Spanish in a telephone interview from Carson City, Nev., where he and his wife own a tiny restaurant, Lady Tamales.
"I would like a second opinion," Suarez said. "I have the opinion of the Army but I'd like someone to give me another opinion."
Suarez is not the only one questioning the Army's conclusion.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has instructed his staff to work with the Army and the Suarez family to review the incident and see whether anything more should be done. Two House members are asking the Pentagon for a new investigation into the deaths of Suarez-Gonzalez and Pfc. Albert Nelson, 31, of Philadelphia.
The two died Dec. 4, 2006, while fighting in Ramadi, Iraq, with the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division from Fort Carson, Colo.
"It is imperative that factual information, no matter how painful, is provided to the victim's families," wrote Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa. The second request was from Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
In October, Salon.com posted an edited, 12-minute version of helmet-camera video showing U.S. soldiers in an intermittent fire fight admiring a U.S. tank from the window of a building. A giant blast suddenly explodes the window, and they recoil.
"Dude, that was the tank," one says.
"Is he shooting at us?" asks another.
"I think so," replies the first.
Later, soldiers describe enemy mortars coming at them.
Both Suarez and Nelson's mother, Jean Nelson-Feggins, say they were never told by the military that such a video existed. Nelson-Feggins, a former Philadelphia police officer, said initially she was told by a casualty officer that her son might have died from friendly fire, but that was the only time she had heard from the military that that was a possibility.
"If it was friendly fire, I mean everybody understands that," Nelson-Feggins said. "Why all the lies if it was just a friendly fire incident?"
The Army denies that the families were not shown the video by the military. Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the families were shown an abbreviated version of it.
An investigation done by the soldiers' unit and approved by its higher headquarters determined the soldiers were killed by enemy mortar rounds, Boyce said. He said the investigation included a detailed ballistics analysis and a review of gun-camera footage from a Marine Harrier aircraft flying nearby that showed the presence of at least one enemy mortar team.
"The investigation that was done at the time by the investigating officer was extremely thorough," Boyce said.
When a soldier dies from a hostile act in a war zone, it is standard procedure for it to be investigated by the soldier's unit. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command does a separate investigation in circumstances such as when the death is from an unknown origin.
CID did not do an investigation after the deaths of Suarez-Gonzalez and Nelson because it was determined early on after the video was reviewed and soldiers were interviewed that the soldiers died because of enemy action, not fratricide, Boyce said.
"There was not a question of friendly fire beyond the initial confusion," Boyce said.
Despite the questions now being raised by family members and lawmakers, Boyce said the Army would not conduct a new investigation. He said the Army reserved the right to do so if new evidence surfaces. To the Army, though, the video that has now surfaced publicly is not new evidence.
About a month after the video was posted online, Suarez met in Carson City with Army officers who sought to convince him that his son died as the Army has described.
Suarez, who moved from Nicaragua in 1991, said he sat silently during the briefing and did not dispute what the officers were telling him.
But Suarez said in an interview he still has concerns and does not understand why he was not shown a copy of the video earlier by the military.
"It has me upset because if this video hadn't come out, I would have stayed without knowing, with my son dead," Suarez said.
Meanwhile, a picture of Suarez's son hangs in his family's restaurant. Suarez said that every time he looks at it, "it's like he's asking me something."