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Ethan McCord had just returned from dropping his children at school earlier this month, when he turned on the TV news to see grainy black-and-white video footage of a soldier running from a bombed-out van with a child in his arms. It was a scene that had played repeatedly in his mind the last three years, and he knew exactly who the soldier was.
In July 2007, McCord, a 33-year-old Army specialist, was engaged in a firefight with insurgents in an Iraqi suburb when his platoon, part of Bravo Company, 2-16 Infantry, got orders to investigate a nearby street. When they arrived, they found a scene of fresh carnage – the scattered remains of a group of men, believed to be armed, who had just been gunned down by Apache attack helicopters. They also found 10-year-old Sajad Mutashar and his five-year-old sister Doaha covered in blood in a van. Their 43-year-old father, Saleh, had been driving them to a class when he spotted one of the wounded men moving in the street and drove over to help him, only to become a victim of the Apache guns.
McCord was captured in a video shot from one helicopter as he ran frantically to a military vehicle with Sajad in his arms seeking medical care. That classified video created its own firestorm when the whistleblower site Wikileaks posted it April 5 on a website titled “Collateral Murder” and asserted that the attack was unprovoked. More than a dozen people were killed in three attacks captured in the video, including two Reuters journalists, one carrying a camera that was apparently mistaken for a weapon.
McCord, who served seven years in the military before leaving in the summer of 2009 due to injuries, recently posted an apologetic letter online with fellow soldier Josh Steiber supporting the release of the video and asking the family’s forgiveness. McCord is the father of three children.
Wired’s Kim Zetter reached McCord at his home in Kansas. This is his account of what he saw.
Wired.com: At the time you arrived on the scene, you didn’t know what had happened, is that right?
Ethan McCord: Right. We were engaged in our own conflict roughly about three or four blocks away. We heard the gunships open up. [Then] we were just told … to move to this [other] location. It was pretty much a shock when we got there to see what had happened, the carnage and everything else.
Wired.com: But you had been in combat before. It shouldn’t have surprised you what you saw.
McCord: I have never seen anybody being shot by a 30-millimeter round before. It didn’t seem real, in the sense that it didn’t look like human beings. They were destroyed.
Wired.com: Was anyone moving when you got there other than the two children?
McCord: There were approximately two to three other people who were moving who were still somewhat alive, and the medics were attending to them.
Wired.com: The first thing you saw was the little girl in the van. She had a stomach wound?
McCord: She had a stomach wound and she had glass in her eyes and in her hair. She was crying. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I went to the van immediately, because I could hear her crying. It wasn’t like a cry of pain really. It was more of a child who was frightened out of her mind. And the next thing I saw was the boy…. He was kind of sitting on the floorboard of the van, but with his head laying on the bench seat in the front. And then the father, who I’m assuming was the father, in the driver’s seat slumped over on his side. Just from looking into the van, and the amount of blood that was on the boy and the father, I immediately figured they were dead.
So, the first thing I did was grab the girl. I grabbed the medic and we went into the back. There’s houses behind where the van was. We took her in there and we’re checking to see if there were any other wounds. You can hear the medic saying on the video, “There’s nothing I can do here, she needs to be evac’d.” He runs the girl to the Bradley. I went back outside to the van, and that’s when the boy took, like, a labored, breath. That’s when I started screaming, “The boy’s alive! The boy’s alive!” And I picked him up and started running with him over to the Bradley. He opened his eyes when I was carrying him. I just kept telling him, “Don’t die; don’t die.” He looked at me, then his eyes rolled back into this head.
Then I got yelled at by my platoon leader that I needed to stop trying to save these mf’n kids and go pull security…. I was told to go pull security on a rooftop. When we were on that roof, we were still taking fire. There were some people taking pot shots, sniper shots, at us on the rooftop. We were probably there on the roof for another four to five hours.
Wired.com: How much sniper fire were you getting?
McCord: It was random sporadic spurts. I did see a guy … moving from a rooftop from one position to another with an AK-47, who was firing at us. He was shot and killed.
After the incident, we went back to the FOB [forward operating base] and that’s when I was in my room. I had blood all down the front of me from the children. I was trying to wash it off in my room. I was pretty distraught over the whole situation with the children. So I went to a sergeant and asked to see [the mental health person], because I was having a hard time dealing with it. I was called a pussy and that I needed to suck it up and a lot of other horrible things. I was also told that there would be repercussions if I was to go to mental health.
Wired.com: What did you understand that to mean?
McCord: I would be smoked. Smoked is basically like you’re doing pushups a lot, you’re doing sit-ups … crunches and flutter kicks. They’re smoking you, they’re making you tired. I was told that I needed to get the sand out of my vagina…. So I just sucked it up and tried to move on with everything.
I’ve lived with seeing the children that way since the incident happened. I’ve had nightmares. I was diagnosed with chronic, severe PTSD. [But] I was actually starting to get kind of better. … I wasn’t thinking about it as much. [Then I] took my children to school one day and I came home and sat down on the couch and turned on the TV with my coffee, and on the news I’m running across the screen with a child. The flood of emotions came back. I know the scene by heart; it’s burned into my head. I know the van, I know the faces of everybody that was there that day.
Wired.com: Did you try to get information about the two children after the shooting?
McCord: My platoon sergeant knew that I was having a hard time with it and that same night … he came into the room and he told me, hey, just so you know, both of the children survived, so you can suck it up now. I didn’t know if he was telling me that just to get me to shut up and to do my job or if he really found something out. I always questioned it in the back of my mind.
I did see a video on YouTube after the Wikileaks [video] came out, of the children being interviewed. … When I saw their faces, I was relieved, but I was just heartbroken. I have a huge place in my heart for children, having some of my own. Knowing that I was part of the system that took their father away from them and made them lose their house … it’s heartbreaking. And that in turn is what helped me and Josh write the letter, hoping that it would find its way to them to let them know that we’re sorry. We’re sorry for the system that we were involved in that took their father’s life and injured them. If there’s anything I can to do help, I would be more than happy to.
U.S. Soldiers From Wikileaks ‘Collateral Murder’ Video Apologize
April 18, 2010 Two former soldiers from the Army unit responsible for the Wikileaks "Collateral Murder" incident have written an open-letter of "Reconciliation and Responsibility" to those injured in the July 2007 attack, in which U.S. forces wounded two children and killed over a dozen people, including the father of those children and two Reuters employees.