For five years now, I have been chronicling the disturbing number of "noncombat" deaths in Iraq, often suicides, which usually come to light only due to the diligence of local newspapers. As part of that effort, last August I briefly described yet another case, involving a 20-year-old Texas woman named Kamisha Block, who apparently was much loved in her Vidor hometown. It was said to be death by "friendly fire," which officially is fairly rare in Iraq, so I kept an eye on it for days, in case of an update.
Many more nonhostile deaths arrived, and so I forgot about Kamisha. Now a horrible truth has emerged: Forget friendly fire. It turns out that Spc. Block was actually murdered, and the killer, another soldier, Staff Sgt. Brandon Norris, then turned the gun on himself.
And more: Her parents were misled at the start, and only after the mother noticed a suspicious head wound at the funeral (it turns out she was shot five times) and asked why, were they informed about the murder angle.
In fact, their local newspaper, the Beaumont Enterprise, too, was lied to by the Pentagon. Last August 21, the paper reported: "The U.S. Defense Department has confirmed two fatalities on Aug. 12 by friendly fire, but has not officially released names or the cause of death."
That same article quoted her aunt, Kathy Byerly: "She was shot in the chest by friendly fire. They haven't told us anything else - the rest is under investigation. We just want to know the truth about it." Norris, too, was listed simply as a "noncombat" death.
The Enterprise in an editorial yesterday charged: "There is no excuse for the U.S. Army's shabby treatment of Kamisha Block's parents and others who cared for her. Her commanders knew right away that she had been killed by a fellow soldier in Iraq, who had been harassing her. It was a standard murder-suicide. Incredibly, the Army first told her parents that it was an accidental death due to friendly fire."
Even after the family was informed about the murder -- the two soldiers had some sort of "relationship" in the past -- no other details were released, and it took six months, and the help of a local congressman, for the family to finally get the 1200-page military report. It revealed that their daughter had been abused by the killer several times shortly before she died, and the Army seemingly did not do enough to protect her. The Blocks say that a military official told them that the chain of command should have taken the abuse more seriously and done more.
Now they are asking why it took so long for the truth to emerge, and why no one has been punished for the failure to save their daughter. "It's been hard to move on, because we feel justice has not been done. They failed her, and they certainly haven't treated us fairly," Jane Block told the Enterprise reporter, Kyle Paveto. She said she wanted to publicize the high stress soldiers are under in Iraq.
Block told another reporter she doesn't think Army officials made a mistake when they provided the Block family with the wrong information. "I feel like they knew what had happened," Block said. "They told me she'd been shot in the chest one time when in fact she had been shot several times."
Paveto's article closes: "For now, they remember Kamisha Block as a hero who gave her life in a foreign land. And the family thinks of her as the Waffle House waitress who bought food for the downtrodden from her tip money...
"Jerry Block said he thought telling his daughter's story would help others to understand the stress soldiers are under, and he hoped it could help others in abusive situations. After a second round of grieving, he and Jane Block began telling the story just this week. 'I feel like we needed to try and get the truth out,' she said. 'We need to try to get on with the rest of our lives, but we know we never will.'"
The Enterprise in its editorial on Friday concluded: "The facts of her death do not diminish Kamisha's Block's heroism. She risked death many times in Iraq on roads that could be rigged with the deadly IEDs - improvised explosive devices - that have claimed so many lives in Iraq. But she told her parents that she believed in the mission and was willing to take the risk.
"Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates did something unprecedented to the Air Force. He fired the top civilian and military commanders, the secretary of the Air Force and a four-star general, for two mistakes involving nuclear weapons. If someone in the Army were fired or demoted for trying to lie to Kamisha Block's parents, blunders like this might not happen."
Greg Mitchell's new book includes several chapters on soldier/vet suicides. It is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.