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Mom looking for answers in Iraq rollover death

Jul. 20, 2008 - 05:23PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 20, 2008 - 05:23PM  |  
Sgt. Joseph A. Ford, 23, was killed in Iraq when the Armored Security Vehicle he was a gunner in rolled over.
Sgt. Joseph A. Ford, 23, was killed in Iraq when the Armored Security Vehicle he was a gunner in rolled over. (Indianapolis Star)
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Dalarie Ford, a wife and mother from the Northern Indiana town of Knox, had never been one to rock the boat. She voted, but not passionately. Never had she felt wronged.

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Dalarie Ford, a wife and mother from the Northern Indiana town of Knox, had never been one to rock the boat. She voted, but not passionately. Never had she felt wronged.

But now she senses injustice. She's on a mission to find out precisely what happened in Iraq's Anbar province on May 10, the day her son died.

Sgt. Joseph A. Ford was 23, a soldier with the Indiana National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He was a gunner in an Armored Security Vehicle, a sort of tank-on-wheels that's commonly used to guard convoys that haul food and supplies for U.S. troops.

The vehicle rolled over. Ford was killed. That's the extent of the military's public explanation.

Ford's mother says soldiers privately provided her with additional details.

"They said the turret came loose and he was thrown out of the vehicle and the vehicle rolled over on him and it impacted his chest and face," she said.

In her impatience to learn more — she was told the Army's formal death investigation would take six to eight months — Dalarie Ford began her own fact-finding mission. She asked a daughter-in-law to photograph her son's body (the funeral was closed-casket). Upon viewing the photos, she judged her son did not appear to have been landed on by a 30,000-pound vehicle.

"I know what people look like when they get run over," said Ford, who works in a hospital as a phlebotomist.

She called the governor's office. She talked to her congressman. She stopped gardening and began spending her free time on the Internet to learn more about Armored Security Vehicles. She discovered that they're vulnerable to rollovers and that the incident involving her son wasn't the first time an ASV's gun turret had broken away.

Thousands of U.S. troops, including many of the more than 3,000 Indiana National Guard soldiers in Iraq, ride in ASVs every day, and Dalarie Ford worries that what happened to her son could happen to them.

"Something's not right," she said.

A violation of trust

Ford is not alone in her unrest. A Harris Poll earlier this year found 51 percent of Americans had "a great deal of confidence" in the military, down from 71 percent six years ago.

Early in the war on terror, relations between the military and service members' families soured with the botched reporting of Cpl. Pat Tillman's death.

Tillman was a professional football player who after Sept. 11 enlisted in the Army and later was killed in Afghanistan. His family — and the nation — initially were given false information about the circumstances. Weeks later, when the truth came out that Tillman had died not at the hands of the enemy but from friendly fire, the Tillmans were outraged.

Another soldier, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was similarly critical of the military for its exaggeration of the drama of her April 2003 capture by Iraqi soldiers and subsequent rescue.

"The misinformation in both their cases is an unconscionable distraction from their actual service and heroism," concluded a report released Thursday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The government "has an inviolate obligation to share truthful information with a soldier's family and the American people should injury or death occur."

Against this backdrop of distrust, Dalarie Ford suspects that her personal anguish may have broader ramifications.

"If I'm not getting the straight story," she said, "how many other families aren't getting the straight story?" Every service member's death is investigated by the relevant branch of the military. National Guard deaths are handled by the Army. The depth of the inquests varies. Some involve a dozen investigators, some just two. Some — obvious deaths, such as those caused by roadside bombs — are finished in a week; others, such as suicides, may take a year.

"It's very important to the Army as well as to the family to get the truth as fast as possible," said Maj. Nathan Banks, a spokesman for the Department of the Army. "But to be accurate we must also be thorough. That takes time."

Soldier loved Army life

Ford joined the Indiana National Guard shortly after graduating from Knox High School in 2003. It wasn't easy. He had to shed 70 pounds in order to pass the Guard's physical.

His friends and teachers describe him as intellectual, curious. He often had a book under his arm. He attended the University of Southern Indiana, where he majored in history. Ancient Rome fascinated him. He practiced the religion of Roman paganism. At his funeral, a banner hung on the lectern. "SPQR," it said — shorthand for the Latin "Senatus Populusque Romanus," or the Senate and the people of Rome.

Ford met Karen Grimm in college. The two married in June 2007. He was to come home on leave for his first anniversary.

As a soldier, Ford immersed himself in modern weaponry. He read trade journals published by Jane's Information Group, renowned weapons experts. He was a crack shot, too, one of eight soldiers of the more than 3,000 in his brigade to fire a perfect score in tests on the .50-caliber and M240 Bravo machine guns.

"Joey loved the Army so," his mother said. "He just loved it."

With his fellow soldiers of Bravo Troop, 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment, Ford was sent to Al Asad, a U.S. military base in western Iraq. He was part of a three-man team in the ASV, a heavily armored armadillo of a vehicle that has twice the firepower of the more familiar Humvee.

ASVs, introduced in 2000, are built by Textron at a plant in New Orleans. The government pays $700,000 apiece for them and, after starting the war with about 50, has more than 1,000 ASVs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the gunner, Ford rode in a pivoting gun turret behind the driver.

With its thicker armor and higher profile, an ASV can take a blast from a roadside bomb better than a Humvee can. Unlike a Humvee's, an ASV's gun turret is enclosed, its occupant protected from small-arms fire.

Among the ASV's "disadvantages," according to an Army fact sheet: "rollovers."

The combination of heavy armor and poor roads poses a danger for troops. When roads run above fields or canals, for example, the shoulders are prone to crumble.

Even the Army's much-praised Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle, another armored truck used by Guard troops and designed to thwart roadside bombs, has proved tippy. According to a recent report, from Nov. 7 to June 8, there were 38 MRAP accidents; 34 involved rollovers. Three Green Berets drowned last month when their MRAP rolled over into an Afghan river.

Adding reinforcements

Ford had been in Iraq less than two months when he was killed. At the midway point in the 76th's 12-month deployment, he remains the brigade's only fatality.

The ASV has been largely problem-free, said Textron general manager Tom Walmsley, "but we had a turret fall off about a year and a half ago" after a rollover. The gunner was not killed in that instance, Walmsley said.

An ASV gunner died after a rollover in 2005, according to a report by the U.S. Combat Readiness Center. But the report does not state whether the gun turret broke away.

In August 2006, Textron made improvements in how the ASV's gun turret is fitted to the body of the vehicle, doubling the number of bolts around the turret ring to 16. In January, the company began retrofitting the older trucks. The retrofitting is expected to be complete by year's end.

It's unclear whether Ford's rig was built with the new, improved turret ring arrangement or had been retrofitted — or even whether such a retrofit would have saved him.

Dalarie Ford expects to learn the answers to these and other questions after the release of the final report on her son's death. She thinks the report will provide at least some closure.

"Knowing what happened to Joey is not going to change anything," she said, "but it would make it easier for me to go forward.

"Right now my life is at a standstill. It's hard to comb my hair and brush my teeth in the morning."

More than closure, though, she wants to be sure the problem with ASV gun turrets has been resolved.

"I just don't want this to happen to anyone else."

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