By Peter Sleeth, Special to ProPublica: WELLSVILLE, Kan. — The day after Jim Butler learned his son had died in Iraq in 2003, a U.S. Army casualty officer showed up at the family’s small ranch to explain what happened.
Your son was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the city of As Samawah, the officer said. But he had no other details to offer, nothing about how the fighting came about or what Sgt. Jacob Butler was doing when he was killed. For the grieving father, it wasn’t enough. The question of how Jake died gripped him in the days after, in part because he’d made an unusual promise before his son left: If you are killed, I will go and stand where you fell.
So Butler made a simple request to the Army — for Jake’s casualty report. Rules require one when soldiers are killed in a war zone. Unit commanders are supposed to create and maintain them, along with numerous other field records.
“They said, ‘We’ll have to see,'” Butler recalled, “because one should have been made.”
Nine years later, Butler is still waiting for a report he may never get. As an investigation by ProPublica and The Seattle Times revealed, the Army has lost or failed to keep that document and many other field records from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 1st Armored Division — Jacob Butler’s unit — is among those lacking many of its records. Documents and interviews show that dozens of units are in similar shape, and that U.S. Central Command in Iraq also lost records related to joint-service operations in the theater.
History is cheated when front-line records are lost. And without them, veterans can face delays securing benefits for combat-related disabilities.
But missing records can have another after effect — creating uncertainty and confusion as survivors struggle with the heartbreak of loss.
Family members of soldiers who die in war are entitled to casualty reports if they request them. That fact did not help Jim Butler. He pressed the Army repeatedly in the months after Jake’s death for his casualty report, but got a series of conflicting and perplexing responses instead.
“I felt hurt because I felt they should be truthful,” Butler said of the Army. “Is that too much to ask?
“If it turned out Jake was killed by friendly fire, it would hurt, but I could handle it,” he said. “If he died by suicide, it would hurt, but I could handle it.”
The truth turned out to be far different, but Butler had to dig out the story himself. And he never saw the most complete official account of Jake’s death until a reporter provided it.
Ambushed From Three Sides
In photographs, Sgt. Jacob Butler was, like his father, slight in build. The 24-year-old infantry scout had the look of a determined, sincere and perhaps slightly unnerved soldier new to war. At his heaviest, his father said, he couldn’t tip the scales at 130 pounds.
Jake was the middle of five sons the Butlers raised, an outgoing, aggressive boy who had a kind streak, his father said.
“He’d basically give you the shirt off his back. He’d help everybody, but if you screwed him around, your better watch out. He thought everybody should be fair to each other,” Jim Butler said.
Shortly after high school, Jake told his father he wanted to join the Army “to make a difference in the world. And he wanted to travel and see what life outside a small town was like.”
The world Butler found himself in the morning of April 1, 2003, couldn’t have been further from his Kansas home. The sky broke clear after the sand storms of recent days abated. The only green came from palms along the Euphrates River, a break from the mud brown houses and roads coated by sand that drifted like talcum powder in the slightest breeze.
About 11 a.m., Butler and eight members of his unit, known as the 1/41, stared warily through the groves as they drove three unarmored Humvees west on a road parallel to the river. Sgt. Butler commanded one Humvee, sitting shotgun. A gunner sat suspended in a webbed sling, his torso above the roof.
Their goal, according to the squad’s leader, was to check on a series of bridges in the heart of the enemy-held city of As Samawah. Commanders needed to know if the bridges were strong enough to support tanks, supply trucks and Bradley fighting vehicles for a pending assault on the city.
As the squad approached the city center on the river’s south side, empty shell casings crunched beneath their tires. Sgt. Alex Velasco, in command, expected no trouble despite the fact that a ferocious, four-hour firefight had occurred on the same spot only the day before.
That encounter ended with the U.S. soldiers pulling back, carrying eight wounded. The bridges were left to the Iraqis, who had suffered some 40 casualties.
“Our plan of action was to sneak in and sneak out and not get into an altercation,” Velasco recalled in an interview for this account.
The Humvees pulled up to the first bridge in a standard “T” formation — two parked forward and the third to the rear in the middle. Velasco’s vehicle had pulled past the bridge while Butler’s formed the cross at the bridgehead and the third Humvee sat behind. All was quiet as the soldiers prepared to get out.
In an instant, a rocket-propelled grenade raced across the river from the north bank, exploding on the front of Velasco’s Humvee and blasting the driver into the open road. Shrapnel hit Velasco in the face as the boom deafened him.
Rifle fire spurted from both sides of the river while Iraqis poured out of a trench behind the Humvees and others fired from a nearby rooftop on the same side of the Euphrates. Butler’s roof gunner took at least two bullets in his legs, and the radio crackled with reports to the others: “I’m hit, I’m hit, I’m hit!”
Velasco’s Humvee burst into flames. Because it was loaded with claymore mines and several pounds of plastic explosives, Velasco, his wounded driver and roof gunner fled.
In the following confused minutes, Butler commanded the remaining soldiers. He told his driver to back around and give cover to the wounded men about 50 yards upstream, all the while firing his M4 carbine out the passenger window. The roof gunners shot at as many as 30 enemy combatants¸ Velasco said.
Two of the wounded soldiers were thrown on the hoods and top of the Humvees, while Velasco squeezed into a back seat. They raced back the way they came, through the palm trees up the river road.
The ambush had come from three sides. A Kiowa helicopter from the 82nd Airborne Division soon appeared above, launched a missile into Velasco’s burning Humvee to destroy it, then flew off to the south.
Butler was slumped against the passenger door, Velasco said. According to his fellow soldiers, Jim Butler said, the last sentence Jake spoke was that of an infantryman in combat: “Get them and get the (expletive) out of here.”
‘To See What He Had Seen’
Just before 11 on the night of a new moon, Jim Butler heard car doors shut and steps on the porch. His wife Cindy was sound asleep. Butler rose from the couch as two U.S. Army officers knocked on the sliding glass door.
“I said, ‘Is he hurt real bad? Or is he dead?'” Butler recalled. “They just held their heads down.”
When his son had come to him with news of his enlistment, they had a talk, Butler said. He had missed Vietnam — he was too young — but he remembered how hard it had been on the returning soldiers.
“I told him I believe in freedom, honor and peace, and not just for us, but for everybody in the world,” Butler said. “And I told him, ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope it doesn’t come out like Vietnam.'”
Born in Shawnee, Kan., Jim Butler was a jack-of-all-trades who worked as a carpenter, mechanic and most any job he could find to supplement income from raising a few beef cattle. Wiry, with salt-and-pepper hair combed straight back, he often punctuated points in conversation by stabbing his hand through the air, a cigarette between his fingers.
Butler made his promise one day when Jake stood in the gravel driveway, along with one of his brothers. He did it because he felt helpless, he said. This was the last thing he could do for his boy, now leaving on a man’s journey.
“I went there to see what he had seen, smell the air that he had smelled, say a prayer for him and kind of get a peace of mind in my heart to what he had gone through that day,” Butler said.
“I made the promise. I’d hoped I would never have to do it, but if I did I would do it at any cost.”
Butler said he continued asking for a casualty report in the days after Jake died. At various times, he said, he was told the Army did not have to file one in time of war or that the search for a report was continuing.
A similar pattern played out when Butler asked if he could see his son’s body: He was told at one time it was not viewable, because of wounds, and at another time that it was partially viewable. When Jake’s body did arrive, he insisted.
“I told them, ‘You going to open this casket?’ ‘No, no, sir, we can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Bull.’ I said, ‘When he was alive he had a contract with you. He’s dead, he belongs to me. So open the casket.’
“And we did. So, it was just Cindy and I, but Cindy was able to grab his hand one last time, you know, and it meant a lot to her.”
Still, frustration set in, and it focused Butler’s grief.
That May, he visited Fort Riley, Kan., where his son’s unit was based. This time, Butler said, he was told he would never see a casualty report because the Army was “having problems.”
As summer arrived, the family heard nothing more about any record of Jake’s death. But in August, the 1/41 came home from Iraq. Twenty-eight members of Jake’s platoon traveled to the farm to pay respects to the Butlers.
“Each one I talked to individually,” Jim Butler said. On the porch of the farmhouse, they drank beer, told Butler about the ambush and his son’s heroism and, finally, about a different cause of death: Jake had been shot twice, in the stomach and head; he had not been killed by a grenade.
Butler then demanded to see an autopsy report. In September it arrived. The pictures of Jake’s body were hard to look at, and the report was technical. But it listed yet another cause of death: A single gunshot to the head.
The differing explanations only spurred him to find out more. “Maybe I’m sick, or maybe I’m crazy,” Butler recalled thinking.
A month later, Butler decided he would make good on his promise.
At age 47, he had never before been on a commercial jet. But Butler flew economy class to Kuwait City in October 2003, unannounced and uninvited, straight into a war zone. After some initial wrangling with the Army, and with the help of a sympathetic colonel, a squad of volunteers flew him by helicopter to As Samawah.
Butler walked to the spot where Jake was shot, aided by pictures taken by Velasco and other members of the 1/41. As Iraqis stood around them in clumps, he produced a compact-disc player and cued Jake’s favorite tune, “Imagine” by John Lennon.
When the piano notes finally faded in the afternoon heat, Butler ejected the disc, flung it into the Euphrates and left for home.
A Posthumous Medal
Jake Butler was the first soldier from Kansas to die in the war.
To verify this account of his death from Velasco and others, ProPublica sought Army records. Despite multiple oral requests and four Freedom of Information Act filings, neither the Army nor Central Command in Iraq produced field records or a casualty report from the time his unit was in Iraq.
It now appears that no records from Butler’s battalion, or even his division, exist for the invasion, based on a search for field records by Army history detachments. And according to a spokeswoman for Fort Riley, the 1st Armored Division turned in no records from Iraq before being moved in 2008 to Fort Bliss, Texas.
In September 2003, the Butlers were told that Jake had been posthumously awarded a Silver Star, the third-highest award for valor in combat. The family received it from an Army colonel during Wellsville Days in their hometown, where Jim and Cindy had been named grand marshals by the town.
The citation that accompanied the award contains the most detailed official information available about how Jake died. Yet, Jim Butler said the Army never provided it, and that he hadn’t seen it until ProPublica obtained a copy this year and showed it to him.
“Due to his actions, the scout mission was successful and resulted in a successful assault two days later across the very bridge that he died to gather information on,” the citation reads. “Sgt. Butler gave the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life for his country, but far greater than that, he died showing the greatest love a soldier can show, by laying his life down for his friends.”
Velasco said he believes Butler died instantly. No one realized it at the time, but a bullet had hit him in front of his right ear as the Humvees fled.
Nine years later, Jim Butler has taken on a new task — writing a book to tell his son’s story. He drives his son’s pickup, emblazoned with Jake’s photo in the rear window in front of a U.S. flag. Every year on April 1, he and his wife visit the grave at the Wellsville town cemetery.
He is satisfied with what he knows about Jake’s last minutes. Butler just wants to move on.
“I got a pretty good picture now,” he said. “No thanks to the Army.”
Steve Hebert contributed to this story.
Are you a veteran who can’t obtain your military field records? Tell us your story.
Peter Sleeth is a veteran investigative reporter who covered the Iraq war for The Oregonian and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for breaking news. Now freelancing, his most recent piece for the Oregon Historical Quarterly is a profile of progressive-era activist Tom Burns.