Reports on deaths by 'friendly fire' tardy, U.S. admits


WASHINGTON -- Army officials acknowledged yesterday that their reporting of "friendly fire" deaths during the Persian Gulf war was flawed, but they denied that military officials attempted to cover up the number of such deaths.

In testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee, Lt. Gen. William H. Reno, who directs the Army's notification process, said the names of suspected "friendly fire" victims were withheld during the war until causes of death could be determined with certainty. He also acknowledged that some units had difficulty verifying deaths caused by fellow soldiers.

"I didn't want to piecemeal the information out to the families," General Reno said. "We had a short war, and it was an opportunity to go in and get all the facts. . . .

"I don't know if it's more traumatic [for families] not to know anything or [to] come back after careful examination and say, 'Ma'am, we made a mistake,' " he said.

The Pentagon has confirmed that of the 96 U.S. soldiers who died in the Persian Gulf war, 21 were accidentally killed by U.S. forces.

Families of friendly fire victims had complained that the military did not notify them quickly about the deaths and in some cases that it was not truthful at first about how their relatives had died.

The results of the subcommittee's hearings and recommendations are to be forwarded to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who is to decide whether to order changes in the military's notification process.

General Reno suggested improving the process by using DNA-based identification methods, which would provide a genetic profile of each soldier and speed identification.

He also stressed a need for updated communications equipment and for more training for specialists, who already get psychological instruction on how to help families.

In the future, witness accounts are to be included in casualty reports to help reduce ambiguity, General Reno said.

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