What happened to Sgt. Donald Walters of Salem?
Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of what's probably Oregon's most famous Iraq war death. And it has been an agonizing 10 years of unknowns for his parents.
Was he was accidentally left behind during an ambush in the city of Nasiriyah? Or did he choose to stay behind while his convoy of vehicles from the 507th Maintenance Company escaped?
For a decade, KATU “On Your Side” Investigator Dan Tilkin has been trying to answer questions about how Walters died and separate fact from fiction.
The U.S. Army originally gave credit for Walters' heroic deeds to Jessica Lynch, who became a household name. Only later did the public learn that Lynch never fired a shot in the battle.
Earlier this month, KATU’s decade-old request under the Freedom of Information Act finally prompted a response from the Pentagon – in the form of a tattered cardboard box.
For ten years, we have been fighting with the Army to get these documents and recently they suddenly arrived. A similar battered package arrived at the home of Walters’s parents, who still feel that their son never really received the recognition he deserves.
“It’s still kind of pushed under the rug,” said Norman Walters, Donald’s father.
The hundreds of documents we received, many marked "secret,” are mostly an Army investigator's interviews with the soldiers in Sgt. Walters' unit who survived the ambush.
They detail how Sgt. Walter's convoy was "driving lost" in Nasiriyah because their maps were bad. One soldier described how "all of a sudden a shot went through my windshield, which was basically the start of the ambush."
They couldn't call for help because their radios "couldn't transmit" to any troops outside their immediate area.
Read the military investigative documents - Click on the red bubbles below to read the original Army documents:
The interviews painfully chronicle how their rifles jammed with sand. Their most powerful weapon, a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on one of the vehicles also didn't work, according to the interviews. The other .50 caliber gun they were supposed to have was never delivered.
One soldier described how it “started raining steel" – another was "screaming we were going to die."
Nine soldiers were killed in the Nasiriyah ambush. Five others were wounded in action; six were made prisoners of war.
At least 15 of the 18 American transport vehicles in the convoy, ranging from Humvees to Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks (HEMTTs), were destroyed by small-arms fire, RPGs, mortar rounds, and tank fire.
The documents detail several occasions when the investigators asked about the fate of Sgt. Walters and how he came to be separated from his unit.
Arlene Walters said her family has only been given a few clues about their son’s last stand, from other soldiers’ accounts.
“When they left, Don was just there firing away at the enemy,” she said.
The documents show how investigators more frequently investigators asked the soldiers, "do you know where Lynch was?"
Remember, at the time these interviews were done, Lynch was a national hero and the subject of a celebrated rescue – a made-for-TV movie was already in the works.
“The story of a female Rambo, that’s what got everybody’s attention,” remembered Norman Walters.
The story, reported in the Washington Post, originally appeared on the front page April 3rd: "Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her".
The Post quoted an unnamed official who said, "She was fighting to the death [...] She did not want to be taken alive."
Lynch, it was reported, suffered a bullet wound to the leg and was stabbed twice. But those injuries were consistent with Walters’ autopsy report. (Lynch’s injuries occurred when the vehicle she was riding in crashed during the attack).
It took more than a year for the true details to be made public. Walters, originally listed as killed in action, had actually been captured then executed. Furthermore, shell casings found at the scene of the ambush indicated he fired 201 shots from the total 210 bullets that were issued for his M-16 rifle.
These documents the Walters’ waited so long for, unfortunately, don't reveal how Sgt. Walters got separated from the rest of his unit.
Other documents the Walters received in recent years give the best clue about his fate, including statements from an Iraqi ambulance driver who was supposed to take Sgt. Walters from six Fedayeen soldiers who held him as a prisoner.
“He said he was on his knees with his hands behind his back and it looked like he was in pain," Arlene recounted. “They said, 'No. Saddam told us we were to shoot all POWs.’”
It was four years later when the military and Lynch acknowledged before Congress that Sgt. Walters should have been the focus of all the attention.
"I am still confused over how they chose to lie and try to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were legendary,” said Lynch. "Sergeant Donald Walters… actually did fight 'til the very end.”
Ten years later, the Walters now think the Iraq War was a waste and their son’s life wasted.
Said Norman: “It turned out to be a total tragedy, the whole works, the whole thing."