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Iraq Vet Seeks Atonement For Early War Tragedy

A scene from the early days of the fighting in Iraq in the spring of 2003. In one incident, three members of an Iraqi family were killed. A U.S. Marine involved in the shooting recently tracked down the family to ask for forgiveness.
Laurent Rebours
A scene from the early days of the fighting in Iraq in the spring of 2003. In one incident, three members of an Iraqi family were killed. A U.S. Marine involved in the shooting recently tracked down the family to ask for forgiveness.

On April 8, 2003, in the early days of the Iraq War, the Kachadoorian family found themselves in the middle of a firefight at a major intersection in Baghdad.

They had approached the intersection in three cars and didn't respond to Marines' warnings to stop and turn around; so the Marines opened fire, killing three men and shooting a young woman in the shoulder, not realizing that the people in the car were civilians.

Lu Lobello was one of those Marines. He doesn't know if his bullets were responsible for the Kachadoorians' deaths and injuries, and he maintains that the Marines did exactly what they were trained to do in that situation.

But years later, still haunted by the experience and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lobello started researching the incident, looking for everything he could find about that day. That's when he stumbled across Dexter Filkins' 2003 account of the tragedy in The New York Times. Lobello says the article helped answer his questions about why the family drove toward the gunfight.

"My reasoning was they were driving toward us, of course they're an enemy. Why would anyone drive towards the sound of a battle?" Lobello tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And when I read from their point of view, [which] Dexter talked about in his article, it just shook me because it all seemed so plausible."

Filkins tells Gross that, in the early years of the Iraq War, Iraqis driving into American checkpoints led to many casualties. In this instance, the Kachadoorians were trying to get home, which was just around the corner from the firefight.

According to Filkins, the family was confused and too frightened to turn around, because the house they had been staying at had just been bombed. So they decided to try to make it through, with tragic consequences.

"And then if you flip that around, you're like a 20-year-old American soldier; you're scared to death; you don't know what is coming at you," Filkins says.

Dexter Filkins earned a George Polk award in 2004 for his coverage of Fallujah. His book, <em>The Forever War, </em>is about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
James Hill / Courtesy of The New Yorker
Courtesy of The New Yorker
Dexter Filkins earned a George Polk award in 2004 for his coverage of Fallujah. His book, The Forever War, is about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lobello used Filkins' article to track down Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, two surviving family members who were there that day, and send them a video apology.

"It wasn't all just about my guilt from this one day," Lobello says. "It was about feeling as though there was somebody out there who was greatly affected by our actions as a unit, and that we had a duty to them, to reach out to them, to find out how they were doing, and if I could do that I knew I'd feel better."

Lobello also reached out to Filkins, and together they went to Glendale, Calif., to meet the Kachadoorians — with the help of Filkins' New York Times article, the family had come to the U.S. as refugees.

Filkins says that at first, the meeting was unbearably tense and filled with long pauses. "Lu kind of lost it right away, and they didn't; and at one point Margaret said to Lu, 'You're crying, but I don't have any tears left.' "

The tension broke only after Lu and Nora's husband, Asaad Salim, went outside for a cigarette.

"I think it was akin to two guys sharing a drink — it was just something that was universal, international," Lobello says. "I think that having a couple minutes alone with him, and the family, seeing that me and him were able to talk and be comfortable with each other, it kind of set the tone for the rest."

For Lobello, there wasn't a clear moment when Margaret and Nora said they forgave him and he suddenly felt better. "The whole process of going up there, the whole journey to find the Kachadoorians and the whole experience was all part of it. Just letting me into their home and feeding me and meeting with me — the whole thing was [as] if they were saying, 'We forgive you, and we understand.' "

Since then, Lobello has maintained a relationship with the Kachadoorians through Facebook, phone calls and even a visit to help the family with a legal matter.

As for Filkins, he says American forces did learn something from that 2003 tragedy and others like it. At the beginning of the war, he says, "Iraqis got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, often in cars driving towards checkpoints and getting killed." Eventually, Americans made changes in their procedures at checkpoints and started yelling or having signs in Arabic, and shooting at engine blocks rather than drivers to stop cars. "It's just good to know that there was a learning curve dealing with this stuff, because it probably spared a lot of lives. Obviously, you just wish that we'd known all of this ahead of time."

Filkins writes about Lobello's meeting with the Kachadoorians in the Oct. 29 issue of The New Yorker.

Interview Highlights

On finding the Kachadoorians' story

Filkins: "It was a week after Saddam [Hussein] fell, his government fell, and Baghdad was just total chaos. There was looting everywhere. There were people being killed in the streets. There were buildings on fire — it was just total anarchy.

"So I was just driving around trying to figure things out, and I saw this crazy scene in front of a hospital, and this was happening at all the hospitals: There was a giant crowd of people trying to get inside so they could just tear everything apart and basically carry away anything of value ... And I watched a doctor come out, you know, a guy in a white lab coat with an automatic rifle, and shoot it over the heads of the crowd to kind of scare them back. And what a scene. So I just pulled over, and I went inside the hospital to see what I could see, not knowing what I would find.

"And it was a scene inside the hospital, which was very much like the outside — total pandemonium. Most of the hospital had been looted. There was no electricity. The water was gone. There were people walking around carrying, holding their bleeding limbs. It was extraordinary. And a doctor walked up to me, an Iraqi doctor. I had been there for a while looking around, and he just pulled me aside and said, 'There's something I want to show you.' And I said, 'OK.'

"And I followed him into this ward in the back of the hospital, and there was this woman who turned out to be Nora Kachadoorian, a young woman probably 21 years old at the time. Her mother and her aunt were standing over her in a hospital bed, and her shoulder had been really, really badly wounded.

"So I just kind of sat down and talked to them about what had happened, and she — Nora and her mom, Margaret — they kind of reconstructed this event, what had happened, and how it came that she had been shot in the shoulder, and Nora's two brothers and her father had been killed just a couple days before. And so it was quite a story.

"So this was one really sad, traumatic event in this gigantic scene that was happening, this gigantic historical event. So I focused on that for a while, and I somehow managed to find the Marines camped out in the field a couple miles away. And I can't remember how I managed to get lucky like that, but I found them, and they were all very upset, and they told me what happened from their perspective.

"And so I was able to piece together what had happened at this terrible moment at this intersection ... And that was April 2003, and I wrote that story, and it stayed with me because the Kachadoorians — they were very sweet people, and what had happened to them was terribly sad. And years went by. I spent almost four years in Baghdad, and I used to ask about them, and I used to look around for them every now and then. I saw a lot of death, but I never found them again and never heard from them again until a couple of months ago, and got a Facebook message from Lu."

On the video apology Lobello sent to the Kachadoorians

Lobello: "By sending a video, I felt that I could encapsulate more of the emotions I was feeling. I tried to write out something to send to them. I probably made 25 drafts and deleted them all. It just seemed so odd to put on paper. I just didn't know what to say really, and every time I would read what I just wrote, I thought that it sounded like something I would hate to read if I was them. So eventually I tried to video myself in hopes that it would better show them what I was feeling ...

"I introduced myself. I told them of the night that we met, and I told them I was sorry and that I had to speak to them if I could. I told them that they lived so close to me that I had to reach out. It was just too odd to me not to say hello and not to find out how they were doing, to see if I could help them really. I wanted to know if there was something I could do to make their life easier."

On the Kachadoorians forgiving Lobello

Filkins: "When Lu was outside with Asaad [Salim] smoking a cigarette and I was inside with the two Kachadoorian women, Nora, who's now about 30 — she'd been sitting quietly, for the most part, the whole time — didn't really say anything, just a couple of words here and there. And finally when Lu was outside, she spoke and she said, 'We want to help them.' And it was very nice.

"One of the oddities of the story — and there are so many, and I'm not sure what it means — but they're Christian, for one thing, which makes them a minority in Iraq, some 2 percent of the population ... And they're Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're very religious, certainly as anyone would be after something like this.

"So every time I asked them about forgiving Lu, or what had happened, or how did they feel about it, or why are they not bitter, because they're not, they would just default immediately to the Bible, or they would start talking about religion, of God and forgiveness. And it was amazing. You could just see the power of religion at a really micro level. They believed deeply in their religion, and she said — and they said, over and over again, 'We have to forgive them. This is what God commands us: He's forgiven us; we must [as well]. And there was no doubt in their mind about it. And the conviction with which they did it was very moving."

On the importance of telling these kinds of stories

Lobello: "A lot of the times, these stories don't get told. What gets told is the other side and the heroism. And what you miss out on is that this is a part of any war. No matter the training, no matter the terrain, you will always have innocent civilians killed. And if more stories are told about these innocent civilians, maybe we will start to think twice the next time we decide to go somewhere and have these battles, or maybe at least we'll come up with some programs to take better care of these people that are caught in the crossfire."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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