April 15, 2012

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan 
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

Framed CJ SECOND KNOCK coverA couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of being able to view a new documentary called A SECOND KNOCK AT THE DOOR. It covers an issue that is taboo within military families and is underreported by the media, like most things related to war.

The term “friendly fire” evokes memories of Patrick Tillman, the American football star who left the NFL to join the United States Army after 9/11 and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan. The controversy behind Tillman’s death included the Army’s cover-up of friendly fire, which unleashed a media maelstrom as was told in the documentary The Tillman Story. For Christopher E. Grimes, then a graduate student planning his Master’s thesis in Public Policy at Northwestern University, the case provoked a question: how many other cases like Pat Tillman’s are there? The result of Grimes’ thesis research is the award-winning documentary feature A Second Knock at the Door, which shares the heart-breaking stories of four families who have lost loved ones due to friendly fire.

When I was first asked if I wanted to review the film, I was hesitant. I tend to see most documentaries coming from the film industry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as slanted against reality and in a manner that casts a negative light on our troops. So, admittedly, I went into this with skepticism and a desire to at least warn my readers about the film. What I found was quite different.

A Second Knock at the Door is a very unbiased and objective view of what families go through in finding out that their loved one was killed by friendly fire -– or even just the suspicion that that is what happened.

The military as a whole, and the Army specifically, has learned a great deal about how to handle suspected incidents of friendly fire since the Tillman case. The military has recognized that hiding or minimizing the truth is not beneficial and only makes matters worse.

The film rightly highlights that fratricide, the actual term for “friendly fire,” is a given in war. There has never been a war and will probably never be one in which a troop is not accidentally killed by a friendly force.

When I was in Iraq, we suffered a close call near the town of Al Mishikhab, south of An Najaf. Our Cav Squadron broke off by troops to envelop the town. Mishikhab is located in a fertile area along a river I can’t remember the name of (didn’t write it in my journal for some reason). C Troop (Crazyhorse), 3-7 Cav crossed the river to the east and then began pushing north. A Troop (Apache), continued along the main MSR on Route 28. At this point, a major sandstorm was blowing through but nothing to the level of one that came a few days later. At a point along the route where our two troops’ movement began to come closer together and parallel each other, our troop was mistaken for enemy movement. We had been fighting the Republican Guard and had them in a pincer movement. Unfortunately, FBCB2 was not as widespread in early 2003, and Apache thought we were enemy tanks through the haze. A Bradley opened up on us with its .50 Cal machine gun. Immediately, the nets filled with frantic calls for cease fire as leaders recognized friendly fire. Thankfully, no one was injured in that brief encounter as only a few bursts were shot out.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for some families.

The Army’s policy on informing the families of fallen soldiers is to “give them the truth, they best they know it and as fast as they can.” This was not the experience of the four families featured in the film, that had to wade through red tape and wait between six months to a year to have the deaths confirmed as friendly fire only after repeated inquiries. The families of Sgt. Lee Todacheene (Farmington, NM, Navajo Nation), PFC Jesse Buryj (Canton, OH), PFC David Sharrett II (Oakton, VA) and SPC Wesley Wells (Libertyville, IL) open their homes and their hearts to share their stories of loss, betrayal and frustration.

Oftentimes, it’s just as confusing for military officials as it is for families to find the truth. The “fog of war” affects us all, and the truth doesn’t usually come out until autopsies are done and questions arise. Because our troops are so highly trained to prevent, if not miminize, fratricide it’s easy to immediately conclude in most cases that this isn’t an option.

Grimes does a commendable job of undertaking intense research and sharing both sides of the issues -- the families’ and the military’s. His research shows that following the Gulf War I, where the number of deaths resulting from friendly fire accounted for 17% of US combat deaths, the Department of Defense completely revised casualty reporting procedures associated with friendly fire, requiring that the Army provide casualty information to the next of kin in an “accurate and timely manner” after a “reasonable suspicion of fratricide” is established.

A Second Knock at the Door is a gripping documentary that has earned Best Documentary nods at both the East Lansing Film Festival and the Sycamore Film Festival. The DVD version was officially released on March 13, 2012 and is available for purchase at the documentary’s website at www.asecondknockatthedoor.com.


Great story! I will definitely watch the movie!

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