WASHINGTON - The Army said Saturday it knew for more than a year after 1st Lt. Kenneth Ballard's death in Iraq in May 2004 that he was not killed in action, as it initially reported. The family was not told the truth until Friday.
Ballard's mother, Karen Meredith, of Mountain View, Calif., said in a telephone interview that she is angry and will press for a full explanation. She is a public critic of the war and has attended anti-war protests in Crawford, Texas, outside President Bush's ranch, with grieving mother and peace activist Cindy Sheehan.
Meredith said she blames the Army's error on official incompetence, not an intent to cover up the truth.
"This news is stunning to me," she said. "People in the Army knew this news for 15 months, and why they couldn't be bothered to tell me the truth when this first happened and to have me go through this pain 15 months later is unconscionable on the part of the Army. It's a betrayal to my son's service," she said.
A letter from Army Secretary Francis Harvey was hand-delivered to her Friday in Mountain View. She said Harvey wrote, "I sincerely apologize to you for the unfortunate series of events that resulted in your not being informed."
Army officials said the failure to notify the family of the true cause of Ballard's death was an oversight. The military sometimes incorrectly categorizes the cause of war deaths. What is so unusual about the Ballard case is that the error was recognized early but not reported to the family for more than a year.
On Memorial Day in 2004, the day after Kenneth Ballard died, the Army informed his family that he had been killed by enemy fire while on a combat mission in the south-central Iraqi city of Najaf. In a casualty announcement from June 1, the Pentagon said Ballard died "during a firefight with insurgents."
The Army disclosed on Saturday that Ballard, 26, actually died of wounds from the accidental discharge of a M240 machine gun on his tank after his platoon had returned from battling insurgents in Najaf.
He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery last Oct. 22.
An Army spokesman, Col. Joseph Curtin, said in an interview that separate investigations by the local commander and by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division concluded days after Ballard's death that it was an accident.
The tank accidentally backed into a tree and a branch hit the mounted, unmanned machine gun, causing it to fire, Curtin said. Ballard was struck at close range and died of his wounds, he added.
For reasons that are not clear, the Army did not correct the public record and inform the family until Friday.
Last spring, it was disclosed that the Army had delayed in telling the family of ex-pro football player Pat Tillman that his death in Afghanistan in April 2004 was caused by gunfire from his fellow Rangers and not enemy forces, as the Army initially reported. The Tillman case is being reviewed by the Pentagon inspector general's office.
Curtin said the Ballard matter was a regrettable mistake and that Harvey, the Army secretary, has ordered a review of procedures in reporting accidental deaths.
"Furthermore, the Army regrets that the initial casualty report from the field was in error as well as the time that it has taken to correct the report and to inform his family," Curtin said in a statement issued Friday night.
Ballard was a platoon leader in 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division. During the Najaf fighting he was attached to a unit of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
On May 22, approaching the one-year anniversary of her son's death, Meredith wrote in a Web posting, "One year ago you were killed by a snipers bullet. They said you were killed instantly. There is not a minute that goes by that I do not remember answering the phone and hearing I regret to inform you."
The 1st Armored Division, which also investigated the death, said in a written statement from its post in Wiesbaden, Germany, on Friday night that investigations had "revealed additional information of the cause" of Ballard's death. It did not mention that the investigations were conducted more than a year ago.