Sgt. Nathan Wyrick seemed to be as safe as a soldier can be in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. The former South Sound resident was a supply sergeant whose job mostly kept him on base. He sat inside a protected base on the day he died two years ago.
His outpost had taken gunfire twice from a single insurgent that morning. It was a threat, but not the kind likely to put a soldier at risk during his down time in the bunks near his company headquarters.
A soldier got an eye on the shooter, but couldn’t hit him with his rifle or machine gun. Several more troops joined in after the insurgent seemed to slip behind a hiding spot. They began calling in artillery rounds on his suspected position even though they couldn’t see him.
Two mortar rounds in a batch of three appeared to fall near the target.
The last three rounds in a second batch didn’t come anywhere close.
One landed on Wyrick’s tent; two landed near it.
Soldiers rushed to the scene to help the wounded troops. Several had shrapnel injuries. Another appeared to have a severe concussion, according to witness statements.
“Sgt. Wyrick is still in the tent!” one soldier heard.
Wyrick, 34, was found with a serious chest wound. He died soon afterward. Six of his fellow soldiers from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division were injured.
Wyrick’s death on Oct. 10, 2011 went largely unexplained in public by the Army until The News Tribune last week obtained a report through the Freedom of Information Act showing he was killed by friendly fire.
Wyrick grew up in Pierce County and graduated from Franklin Pierce High School. He left behind his wife, Rachel, and four sons he loved so much he tattooed their names on his body.
Now living in DuPont, Rachel misses him as the loving father and husband who joined the Army equally to take care of his family and to fulfill a patriotic duty.
“You don’t find a lot of hands-on dads,” said Rachel, 37. “He was so good with kids, and he was such a good person to me. He’s awesome. He’s my best friend.”
The Army used unusually vague language when it first announced Wyrick’s death, saying only that he died from “combat-related” injuries.
Usually, the Army includes more information about a soldier’s manner of death, such as from small-arms fire or from an improvised explosive device.
The Army did not withhold information from the soldier’s widow. She just wasn’t ready to hear it when hundreds of friends, family members and soldiers packed into her Lakewood church for her husband’s funeral that fall. She waited until August 2012 to request a briefing about how her husband died in combat.
Friendly fire deaths are common in combat, though the Defense Department has not yet released an official accounting of fratricides in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon in 2009 released reports to the Internet magazine Salon that just 0.78 percent of Iraq casualties and 1.24 percent of Afghanistan casualties were caused by friendly fire.
That’s far below Army studies showing that friendly fire likely caused up to 16 percent of fatal casualties in World War II, 7 percent in the Korean War, 14 percent in Vietnam and 24 percent in the Gulf War.
A 2010 study for the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory on Army friendly fire incidents between 2001 and 2008 found 30 Army fatal casualties in that timeframe.
The study suggested they resulted from “the high operational tempo and the reliance on technology during the current war,” and said most of the mistakes happened because of human error.
The Army investigation into Wyrick’s death rules out mistakes in leadership, decision-making and the operation of the mortar tubes that were positioned to protect Combat Outpost Ahmed Khan in Kandahar’s Zharay district.
It found that the soldiers in the mortar team appropriately followed procedures and that the calculations directing the rounds to their intended targets also were correct.
The investigator criticized the outpost’s infantry leaders for calling in artillery fire after they lost direct sight of the insurgent shooter. However, the investigator acknowledged they had reason to believe they knew where the shooter was hiding, and that their decision to call for mortars was not a cause of Wyrick’s death.
The investigator faults the errant round in part because another mortar of the same type fell short of its target on the same day in Kandahar province. The unit that fired that round was part of the same command as Wyrick’s company in the 10th Mountain’s 3rd Brigade.
A FATAL MISTAKE
Witness statements show that the first enemy shots at the base took place some time after 7 a.m. Soldiers could not get eyes on the attacker.
About 9:45 a.m., an insurgent shot at the outpost a second time. A soldier in a guard tower spotted the attacker but missed him while returning fire.
He and other soldiers from his platoon guided the mortar rounds to a known enemy position they called the “well house,” where they suspected the shooter was hiding. It was a small building without a roof.
This type of shootout was fairly routine. Wyrick and others stayed in their headquarters sleeping tent. He was sitting on a bottom bunk with his body armor resting on the bed above him while he talked with another soldier.
The first errant round landed inside the tent, directly over Wyrick’s bed. Two more fell nearby before soldiers recognized what was happening and directed the mortar team to cease fire.
The unit’s radio telephone operator took shrapnel across his chest, stomach and face.
“The first mortar round hit my tent approximately two feet from my bed,” he wrote to the investigator. “A second fell directly behind me and … I saw my abdomen burst.”
Back at the mortar firing position, soldiers remembered that the three rounds that fell short of the target sounded “muffled” to them.
“Right when we were about to drop the fourth round, that’s when we were told to cease fire,” one of the mortar soldiers wrote.
“After we found out what happened we just sat there in shock,” another of the mortar soldiers wrote.
Back home in Pierce County, Rachel Wyrick still has a couple of questions about her husband’s death. For example, the Army investigation she received does not offer a theory about why the mortar round malfunctioned. It does not say if it was manufactured incorrectly, or mishandled somehow on its way to Wyrick’s station.
She planned to raise that question this weekend on a visit to the 10th Mountain Division’s home at Fort Drum, N.Y.
“I’d like to know,” she said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646