"Pull the f***ing trigger, Lucey!" someone had shouted. His gun was shaking, but he did look into the eyes of one of the guys. He said it was a young guy like him. The kid was scared. Jeff was wondering if this was somebody's son, somebody's brother, somebody's father, somebody's friend.
The order to shoot came again. Jeff obeyed.
He was about five feet away. The blood splattered all over. And then he shot the second one. One was in the eye, and one was in the throat.
Jeff told his family he watched the men die. Then he removed their dog tags and later brought them back home with him.
For Jeff's family, there seemed no question that the young man, angry and anguished, was telling the truth. And if they did have any lingering doubts about the ordeal Jeff went through in Iraq, they disappeared on June 22, 2004, when, nearly a year after coming home from the war, Jeff Lucey hanged himself with a garden hose in his family's basement in Belchertown, Mass.
· · ·
Jeff Lucey was a lance corporal in the 1st Truck Platoon of the 6th Motor Transport Battalion, a small, tightly knit Marine Reserve unit based in New Haven, Conn. The 6th Motors, as they call themselves, drove truck convoys for three months in Iraq at the start of the war. The unit returned home in July 2003 intact -- no deaths, no serious injuries. To many of them, Jeff's suicide was the first casualty. They were saddened and angry. But they didn't want to talk about it with anyone outside the Marine Corps.
When a few Massachusetts newspapers and the foreign policy blog This Is Rumor Control began speculating about events in Iraq that might have led Jeff Lucey to take his own life, the Marine Corps Reserve Public Affairs Office dismissed the stories. "There was nothing we found to substantiate any of the claims," Capt. Patrick B. Kerr told the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
The denial came just four days into the Marine Corps' own investigation. Maj. Jon Woodcock, who was assigned to head the inquiry, had spoken to only a handful of people and was scheduled to continue work for another two months. Already, however, contradictions were emerging.
Capt. Kerr had told This Is Rumor Control that Lucey had had "no interaction with enemy prisoners of war." But Jeff's parents found film in his camera with a photograph showing an enemy prisoner, hands bound, shirt pulled over his head, sitting in the dirt next to a military convoy truck.
And then there were the dog tags.
Jeff had taken to wearing the tags of the two Iraqi POWs around his neck some six months after he came home, around the time he began revealing to family members details of his Iraq experiences. His father asked him if he thought wearing the tags was a healthy thing to do. Jeff replied the tags were not trophies but tokens of honor for the two men he had killed, who did not have to die. "I regarded them as a millstone around his neck," says Kevin Lucey. "He regarded them as so much more."
Maj. Woodcock admitted in an interview that he hadn't bothered to look at the dog tags during his investigation. What could be a valuable piece of evidence naming the men Jeff said he killed remained locked up in the evidence vault of the Massachusetts State Police barracks in Northampton, Mass., part of the material police had gathered while probing Jeff's suicide.
When Maj. Woodcock completed his investigation in early October 2004, he reached the same conclusion offered by Capt. Kerr in August: "Allegations of war crimes alleged by Lance Cpl. Lucey to his father concerning shooting two unarmed Iraqi Enemy Prisoners of War cannot be substantiated."
Reading the heavily redacted version of the Marine investigation, Kevin Lucey was skeptical of its conclusions. So were we.
· · ·
In October 2004, I was brought into the FRONTLINE documentary production of "The Soldier's Heart" to try to find out how much truth there was in the stories that Jeff Lucey had told his family. Jeff was one of the young men FRONTLINE was considering chronicling in its documentary about the psychological impact of war on soldiers.
From the start, the key to uncovering what did or didn't happen was getting access to the Marines in Lucey's Reserve unit. Finding the schoolteachers, security guards, UPS drivers and college students who served with Jeff was not that difficult. Getting them to agree to speak, even off the record, whenever the subject of Lucey's suicide came up was next to impossible. Those who were still in the unit had been urged by a superior officer to ignore any calls or e-mails from FRONTLINE.
Were they hiding something? Or were they silenced by mixed emotions -- loyalty for a fallen brother as well as bitter disappointment he could sully the unit's reputation with lies about stories of war crimes that never happened?
The gag order hadn't reached Lance Cpl. Mike Wetherbee by the time I found him near Worcester, Mass. Mike said he had been with Jeff in Iraq "pretty much the whole time." He had since left the unit and was adjusting to life as a father of a 12-day-old baby when I sat down with him to talk. Two hours later, I left with my first taste of "ground truth," some of which was at odds with the official line:
Contrary to Capt. Kerr's claim that the 6th Motors rarely, if ever, saw combat, Wetherbee said convoys would be fired on "once, maybe twice per trip." Although this might not have been officially considered "combat," it certainly felt like war to Mike Wetherbee.
Although the Marines' standard operating policy is that every truck has two drivers -- a policy used to explain how Lucey could not have acted alone, without his co-driver's knowledge -- Wetherbee said their unit was stretched so thin that rarely, if ever, did he have someone else in his cab. Jeff, he said, would also have been alone in his truck most of the time.
Wetherbee said he didn't recall being asked any questions by Maj. Woodcock about interactions he or Jeff had with POWs. This seemed one of the most obvious questions to ask when investigating an alleged killing of prisoners. In fact, said Wetherbee, he and Jeff were on two missions that transported prisoners. Moving POWs was, at times, disturbing. MPs would load them on trucks, hands bound behind their backs, sometimes with bags over their heads, often without any food or water. The drivers of the 6th Motors would occasionally share their provisions with the 15 or so prisoners confined to each truck. The few who could speak English would tell their Marine drivers about being forced to join the Iraqi army; if they refused, family members would be shot, one at a time, until they changed their minds.
But what about the story Jeff told his parents about being ordered to kill prisoners at point-blank range?
"I think that's very untrue," said Wetherbee, without hesitation. "There's no way anyone would have done that. No one would have given that order, especially in the convoys we were in. And I don't think Jeff could have done that, either. That's out of character for him."
Wetherbee, however, did leave the door open a crack. There was a detachment of Marine truck drivers from 6th Motors who accompanied the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) into the town of Nasiriyah. Wetherbee was supposed to go, but was reassigned at the last minute. The 18 who did go saw more "real" action than the rest of Light Company combined. When they finally returned after 23 days, the base camp had been abuzz with war stories about "the MEU mission."
They talked about truck drivers who took up rifles and joined the "grunts," going house to house looking for Iraqi forces, providing cover for the grunts, fighting back -- and taking prisoners. Wetherbee was pretty sure Jeff had been a part of that mission. And Jeff had written to his girlfriend, Julie, that he had been to Nasiriyah with the 24th MEU. "We did a lot of risky missions that would take me a whole notebook to write about," he said, promising details when he returned home.
When he came back, one of the Nasiriyah stories he told Julie and his parents was about finding a young boy lying dead in the road in the middle of a firefight. Kevin Lucey remembers his son telling them:
The boy was shot in the head and the chest. He was clutching a little American flag. Jeff told me he didn't understand why, but he just ran out there, scooped up the boy [and] brought him into the safety of an alleyway.
Jeff's mother, Joyce, continues the story:
Jeff said: "I took the flag from him. The flag had blood on it. I tried to wash it off later, but I couldn't get the blood off." He sent that flag home to his girlfriend with a note saying, "When I get home, I'll explain the story about the flag."
Again, Jeff's father:
When he came back, he reclaimed the flag, had it in his room. When Jeff died, because the flag meant so much to him, we decided to bury the flag on his chest with him. So he's with that little boy.
Was this story any more or less true than the other story he told of killing Iraqi POWs?
The doors to other Marines in Jeff's unit remained firmly shut to me until Gunnery Sgt. Brian Fitzsimmons -- Gunny Fitz to his men -- agreed to meet me at the Twin Pines Diner in East Haven, Conn. As the top NCO of the Marine reservists in New Haven, Gunny Fitz is a big brother and father figure to many of the sergeants, corporals and lance corporals beneath him. "I'd follow Gunny Fitzsimmons into hell, not because he's Gunny, but because he's Brian Fitzsimmons," one of them said.
Fitzsimmons brought with him Sgt. Jonathan Braca, who had been one of the leaders of the MEU mission to Nasiriyah. Both men recently left the active Reserves -- Fitzsimmons put in 20 years as a Marine; Braca, 10 years -- but everything from their haircuts to their e-mail addresses said they were still, at their core, Marines.
Braca was absolutely sure: Contrary to what Jeff may have written to his girlfriend, "Lance Cpl. Lucey was not a part of the MEU mission." Braca could name all 18 men on it. The experience forged a tight bond among them, and although Jeff may have heard some of the stories when they returned, although he may have been envious of those who "saw action," he participated in none of it.
Fitzsimmons said his reason for talking with me was to set the record straight. Until Jeff's wake the night before his funeral, as far as those in command of the New Haven unit knew, there was no record of war crimes to set straight. Lucey had shown no signs of depression during the deployment. In fact, the opposite was true: He would volunteer willingly for assignments; even doing the worst task, he would be upbeat and cheerful.
Once back in the U.S., and up until the last month, Fitzsimmons said Jeff Lucey never missed a weekend Reserve drill; there was no sign that anything was troubling him. So when his sister, Debbie, stood up at the wake and said, "My brother didn't die on Tuesday. He died January 14, 2003, when the Marine Corps activated him to go to Iraq," Fitzsimmons was confused. As Debbie and others went on to tell about the execution of the two Iraqi prisoners, about the little boy with the flag, about beheading a young girl, burying dead bodies, the 35 Marines at Jeff's wake grew silent, bewildered and uncomfortable. "We were kind of shocked," Fitzsimmons said. "I asked the funeral director that night if she was sure the family wanted Marines at the funeral the next day, because we're getting dirty looks."
Assured that Jeff would have wanted a military burial, nearly the entire unit from New Haven arrived the next day in their dress blue uniforms for the funeral. The flag-covered casket was carried by Marine pallbearers; "Taps" was played.
At a bar afterward, the Marines had a few beers and talked freely among themselves. Not only did Jeff's suicide not make any sense to them, neither did any of the stories they heard at the funeral. Marines like to tell stories of their time in combat. Gunny Fitz acknowledges that's one of the best parts of being a Marine. And, like exaggerating the size of a fish you caught, the stories that are traded back and forth tend to grow with each retelling. But none of Jeff's fellow Marines would describe him as a "bull***t artist" or someone who would pathologically embellish stories just to get more attention. No one at the bar that night had ever heard anything coming close to what Jeff's family was now making public. They were upset and confused.
By the time we parted at the diner, Fitzsimmons agreed to reverse his earlier de facto order of silence. He said he would encourage his former subordinates to talk with me. "Lucey's suicide has been an eye-opener for me," he told them in a widely circulated e-mail a few days later. "He is the first Marine that I have 'lost' and feel responsible for. The stories that have been told since his death in my opinion are inaccurate and it is up to us to clarify them."
· · ·
Over the next two months, I spoke with more than 30 Marines who knew Jeff or had served in Iraq with him. I hung out with them in the locker room of the Reserve Center, I rode in their trucks during a drill weekend, went to their bars and restaurants. Every time the subject of Lucey's stories came up, the Marines who knew him best shook their heads in disbelief and followed up with rational explanations of why none of the stories Jeff told his parents could be true.
Although they may not enjoy talking with strangers, Marines tell each other everything -- from their latest sexual conquests to how many beers they put away the night before to the most harrowing and the funniest parts of their tour of duty in Iraq. Nothing escapes a one-on-one confidence or a communal conversation. If Jeff Lucey had done the things he told his parents, someone in his unit would have known about it, and his fellow Marines would still be talking about it, particularly after his suicide, as they tried to piece together a shattered life.
Secondly, every Marine I spoke with explained to me how the opportunity to surreptitiously execute POWs simply did not exist. Alex Markey is a serious-minded lance corporal who, before he returned to Iraq in early 2005, worked with runaway youth in Atlantic City, N.J. He finds the POW story flawed for many reasons.
"If someone would have pulled the trigger, first of all, we all would have jumped up thinking we were getting attacked. Everyone would have pulled out their weapons, and it would have been a huge mess. That's just not the kind of thing you can do around a bunch of edgy Marines with rifles. Even if it is friendly fire, even if it's an M-16, people are going to ask, 'What's going on?' He would have had to arrange with this other guy to take the prisoners out to a remote, remote desert" -- not something a driver in a long truck convoy is going to be able to do without being noticed. No one I spoke with ever remembers Jeff being missing from the unit.
What about the dog tags?
While in Iraq, some Marines remember seeing Jeff with what he said were Iraqi military dog tags. Lance Cpl. David Samen said Jeff told him that he had traded a magazine for one; he found the other in the sand, probably discarded by a fleeing Iraqi soldier.
Sgt. Tim Foley said most Iraqi prisoners he dealt with had little or no identification; none had conventional American-style dog tags. However, said Foley, fake Iraqi dog tags were often sold along the roadside by small kids who would run out whenever a convoy would slow down. "They sold Pepsis, Iraqi flags; they sold bayonets -- pretty much anything."
It was time to look at the dog tags Jeff Lucey brought back from Iraq. Although reluctant to allow a reporter to view them, the Massachusetts State Police agreed to let the Lucey family have a look. Mohammed Jiyad, an Iraqi immigrant and lecturer in Arabic at Mount Holyoke College, joined them. He read and translated the dog tags. They were, he said, very unofficial, almost crude in appearance, and each one contained only two names, whereas most Iraqis use four names for identification. Sgt. Foley's wartime-souvenir explanation sounded much more plausible.
Jeff's story of getting out of his truck to drag the corpse of a little boy to safety is even more implausible to anyone in the 6th Motors specially trained to drive military convoys.
"The first rule is you don't stop the convoy for anything," Lance Cpl. Samen told me. "If you stop, you become a target." Gunny Fitz asks: "Would he have left his truck idling in a city where it would have disappeared in a heartbeat? Not only that, but risking the lives of everybody behind him? Jeff was too good of a Marine to have done something like that."
Nor do any Marines I spoke with think it is possible for Lucey to have come upon this boy on his own, unaccompanied by any other Marines. Although many admit the first weeks of the war were chaotic, and convoys were coming and going from base camp at all hours, sometimes being diverted en route to a different assignment, sometimes being gone for weeks at a time, Brian Fitzsimmons is adamant in his conviction that "we knew where every vehicle was. I was in Operations, and when the colonel came in in the morning, he wanted to know where his trucks were, because we had missions to run."
If Jeff Lucey had wandered off -- to execute prisoners, to pull bodies out of the road, or to join a Special Forces unit, as he once told his father -- people would have noticed; people would have said something. "I can't pinpoint where Jeff was every day of the war, but I would almost guarantee you, 99.99 percent, that somebody else from New Haven was with him every day," concludes Fitzsimmons.
· · ·
"I have done so much immoral s**t during the last month that life is never going to seem the same, and all I want is to erase the past month, pretend it didn't happen."
That is what Jeff wrote to his girlfriend, Julie, on April 18, 2003, as the most intense month of convoy driving was coming to an end. If, as now seems to be the case, there is no evidence to suggest he committed war crimes and plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing in the opposite direction, what was he writing home about?
That's a question that puzzled every Marine I interviewed. Some simply shook their heads and said, "I don't have a clue." The more introspective ones, the ones who might have been closer to Jeff, felt that just being a part of the war machine may have felt immoral to him, even though he was, by all accounts, a gung-ho Marine.
Jeff Lucey didn't enlist in the Marine Reserves ever expecting to fight in a war. Pablo Chaverri, a friend he'd known since second grade, joined up with Jeff more than two years before Sept. 11, 2001. "We both liked to do physical activities; we like challenges, and we could get GI benefits. That was all," said Chaverri in a phone call from Iraq, where he had returned for a second tour of duty.
Being in a war zone -- even as a truck driver supplying ammunition, food, supplies and water to the front lines -- is a sobering experience that changes people. You don't have to kill someone to know what it feels like to be in the position where you could take another life. When I asked Tim Foley, Jeff's platoon sergeant for a time, if he could explain the "immoral s**t" reference in Jeff's letter, he paused for nearly 20 seconds before telling the following story:
"The only thing I can relate that to -- in a small way -- is the first time I pointed my rifle at another man, took it off 'safe,' and had my finger on the trigger, I had a very sick feeling. And I don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face. In that instant, I was in supreme control about whether he was going to live or die. I wasn't thinking about that in that split second, but afterwards I was thinking, I didn't know if he had a family -- wife, kids. I didn't know anything about him. I'd never met him before. But I almost killed him. ..."
We don't know if Jeff faced a similar situation. But, particularly going through the turbulent town of Safwan, just north of the Kuwait border, there were times when he could have. Convoys were stoned; trucks were surrounded by angry Iraqis. The level of fear was always high as the drivers of the seven-ton trucks steered their way through the dusty streets of Safwan.
Before each convoy left camp, the convoy commander would go over the rules of the road. Every time Jeff climbed up into his cab, he knew what to do if someone -- an adult or a child -- tried to stop a convoy by stepping in front of his truck: Run them over as if, he told his father, they were merely "bumps in the road." There was no ambiguity about that, Sgt. Foley said. The convoy commanders were explicit: "Hit 'em. Crush 'em." "Would I have crushed a small child?" asked Foley, who now teaches fourth-graders. "No.There's no way in hell. I would have swerved." One driver in the unit did hit a man who got too close. No one knows if he survived. "You don't look back," a fellow Marine explained.
The treatment of prisoners may have been another disturbing part of the war experience that bothered Jeff more than he let on to his fellow Marines. Alex Markey was with Jeff when Jeff took the photograph of the prisoner sitting on the ground next to the truck. A corporal had pulled Lucey aside and told him to come and look at this prisoner who had been giving the MPs a hard time. "They had him hog-tied and blindfolded, and the corporal just wanted to show him that -- I guess to take a picture of it, and to say: 'Hey, look at this. Isn't this cool?'" According to Markey, Lucey didn't think it was cool and didn't understand the need to do the "show-and-tell" with him.
When asked about the treatment of prisoners, one of the Marines in Lucey's unit told me, "You do what you have to do." A more revealing picture comes from Sgt. Foley, who says: "I never saw any prisoners get beat, but they weren't treated the best. Did I shove people and scream at people for absolutely no reason? Yeah. Did I really, really hurt anybody? No. But I didn't really care about them. I didn't care whether they lived or died. I didn't think of them as human anymore. They were more like cattle. I didn't hurt them because I knew I wasn't supposed to." A crack on the head with a rifle butt to move faster, a slap on the face if someone started to mouth off, a shove off the back of a truck bed, dropping six feet, hands tied behind their backs were all commonplace ways to herd uncooperative prisoners.
"Did I feel like a good, moral person when I was over there?" Foley asks during our interview. No. Was I ashamed of myself at times? Sure. I can't really pinpoint why," he says, and then falls silent. Sgt. Foley remembers his senior drill instructor telling him that every Marine needs to have what he called a "human switch." When you go to war, you have to be able to turn it off. "If you're in a situation where you have to kill, then you kill everything -- women, children, plants, dogs -- everything, everything. And if you don't do that, you're going to get killed." Although he's thankful he never had to kill anyone, he knows that while he was in Iraq, "that switch was off."
Jeff's switch may have been off, too. And once back home, trying to turn "the human switch" on again might have illuminated a tangle of bad memories -- visions of bloated corpses and body parts; smells of diesel fuel mixed with gunpowder and burning flesh; scenes of begging, wounded children -- and a host of guilty feelings he would have liked to forget.
There may have been some awful parts of the war, but Marines are quick to point out that they draw a bright line between what is proper battlefield behavior and what, like the Abu Ghraib scandal, is not tolerated. In explaining why Jeff could not have shot two prisoners at point-blank range, his friend and fellow lance corporal, David Samen, says: "That would never happen. Marines have much more discipline [than the Army]. I'm not trying to bash the Army, but have you heard anything like [Abu Ghraib] happening with the Marines over there? You never will."
That promise was broken less than a month later, when news came out of at least 10 substantiated cases of prisoner abuse at the hands of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last three years. In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Marines released documents which itemized a variety of detainee abuses. Many have resulted in court-martial convictions. They included holding a 9 mm pistol to the back of a detainee's head while another Marine took his picture; pouring a glass of water on a detainee's head; ordering four juvenile looters to kneel beside two shallow fighting holes and discharging a pistol in a mock execution; and shocking a detainee with an electric transformer until he "danced."
But, as with Jeff Lucey's story, there have also been a number of other situations where Marines -- none of them near Jeff's 6th Motor Transport Battalion -- have fabricated or embellished stories. One corporal in a combat services support company told others in his unit he'd been ordered to execute three POWs south of Baghdad and bury them in an eight-foot-deep hole. Another veteran returned to Las Vegas, Nev., and spun a tale to the local newspaper about tracking down and single-handedly killing two Iraqi soldiers who had fired on his unit. Still another told a battalion doctor he'd broken his hand "punching an EPW [enemy prisoner of war] in the face." Later, all three recanted their stories, saying they made them up -- sometimes while intoxicated -- for a variety of reasons, including wanting to appear heroic or wanting to "one-up" others who were telling their own war stories.
· · ·
Alcohol was central to Jeff's problems -- as a fuel that powered delusional stories, and as a vehicle that transported him into a fog of amnesia. Sgt. Braca points out alcohol consumption can fall into two types: "recreational drinking" and "medicinal drinking." Long before Iraq, Jeff had a reputation in his unit as a strong recreational drinker. In the Middle East, when Jeff could get his hands on what the Marines call haji whiskey -- bootlegged alcohol sold along the highways, particularly in northern Iraq -- he would drink to excess, and often to his regret afterwards.
Alex Markey remembers a night in Kuwait, during the weeks of boredom while they were waiting to come home. "He drank a good amount one night -- and this is really the first time I saw the dark side of Jeff. He was a completelydifferent person. He was extremely belligerent with everyone, even with his friends. He was trying to fight everybody, mouthing off to NCOs, threatening them."
Sgt. Foley also saw this side of Jeff. "We all loved Jeff, and we would just grab him and say to him: 'Sleep it off. No one's going to fight you, so just sleep it off.' And he'd be fine the next day."
But back in Massachusetts, when he should have been going to classes, when he might have been spending time with his girlfriend, it seems Jeff's drinking had turned "medicinal." By 10:00 in the morning, he would have downed a six-pack of EKU 28 -- a German beer, one of the strongest in the world, with more than twice the alcohol content of a Budweiser. Markey noticed when Jeff showed up for a drill session on Saturday morning, he'd often seem a bit hungover, smelling of tequila. If Markey said anything, Jeff would laugh it off and manage to make it through the weekend without raising any alarms.
By late May, his family finally managed to get a very drunk Jeff Lucey into the Veterans Administration hospital in Northampton for treatment in the psychiatric ward. Even though he showed suicidal signs then, and the doctors saw clear evidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and knew what Jeff said he'd done in Iraq, after four days he'd dried out enough to be discharged. The nurse who was handling his case told Jeff's mother that he would "not be accepted into any PTSD unit until he agreed to get his substance abuse problem under control." He left the hospital with a cocktail of antipsychotic drugs: Klonopin, Ativan and Haldol. Each came with a warning that it should not be taken with alcohol.
That didn't stop the EKU 28 from burning the back of his throat as he downed bottle after bottle, until Julie said she would leave him if he kept drinking. Only after she kept good on that promise -- a week before he took his life -- did Jeff give up alcohol.
By then, Tim Foley, his old platoon sergeant, thinks Jeff may have dug himself into a hole that was too deep to climb out of. "Maybe he was ashamed. Maybe he had created something in his mind that made him ashamed. Maybe he internalized everything that happened to all of us. I don't know. I just wish he would have come to us and asked for help."
For Jeff and others who have returned from Iraq with demons that can't be easily explained by a specific, horrific incident, Alex Markey may come close to a rational explanation for an irrational need to invent war crimes: It may have been a way for Jeff to give justification to the post-traumatic stress he experienced simply from going to war.
"If he were to say he was feeling distressed just from being ripped away from home, from being in this foreign, hostile land where he could be killed at any moment, seeing starving kids by the side of the road, I think maybe people back home wouldn't have understood that, or wouldn't have seen that as a problem, or taken it seriously."
So, perhaps, the only way to justify his level of anguish over what he experienced was to magnify it, exaggerate it and confabulate it until it became a lie that he could live with -- and die with.