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Missing report slowed word on soldier's fate


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FAMILY LEARNED TRUTH 15 MONTHS LATER

By Katherine Corcoran
Mercury News

Army 1st Lt. Kenneth Ballard's family didn't know for more than a year how he died in Iraq because the report concluding that his death was accidental -- not by enemy fire -- never made it to Washington, D.C., an Army spokeswoman said Monday.

Army Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said a ``procedural failure'' occurred in the confusion of war, leaving the Mountain View man's family with misinformation about his death for 15 months.

``They didn't send the report to Casualty Operations in Washington, D.C.,'' Hart said of his unit, part of the 1st Armored Division based in Wiesbaden, Germany. ``People are in war. People were leaving the theater. The unit was about to redeploy. All of those factors go into the time delay.''

Ballard's mother, Karen Meredith of Mountain View, said Army officials have promised to answer all of her questions at a meeting today.

While the Army has launched an inquiry to make sure such a delay never recurs, Meredith said information so critical to a family should never fall through the cracks -- even in war.

``If there's a movement of the unit, it's possible that could happen, but it's not acceptable,'' she said. ``There needs to be more checks and balances. If they don't have all the documents from the unit, there should be a check and balance to say, `We don't have this document.' ''

Ballard, 26, a fourth-generation military officer and graduate of Mountain View High School, was killed May 30, 2004, in what Army officials initially called a gunfight with insurgents in An-Najaf. On Friday, Meredith learned that he died from an accidental discharge of a military tank machine gun.

As soon as June 1, 2004, the unit commander concluded that Ballard died accidentally, Hart said. A second investigation reached the same conclusion on July 19, 2004, she added.

But Hart said the proper authorities in Washington weren't notified until Aug. 30 of this year. Calls to the 1st Armored Division in Germany were not returned Monday.

Meredith received a message Aug. 31 that the Army had some documents and updates for her regarding her son's death. Because she had been dealing with them regularly on various matters, it didn't sound pressing. Meredith, an ardent peace activist, was on an anti-war bus tour with Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville mother of another fallen soldier who held a 26-day vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Texas.

On Friday, after her return, an Army official called to deliver some documents, and Meredith said she knew the news would be bad.

``The secretary of the Army himself has personally gotten involved and talked to the family and assured them that we will delve into the procedures on accident reporting,'' Hart said. ``That's the strongest statement anyone can make.''

The Ballard case is the second in which a Bay Area family has only belatedly learned the true circumstances of their son's death. Ranger Pat Tillman of San Jose was killed in April 2004 in Afghanistan. Military officials told Tillman's parents and the public that he had died in combat, then weeks later admitted he had been killed by gunfire from U.S. soldiers.

Meredith said she believes the Army is doing everything it can to correct the mistake.

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