Soldier of Misfortune
Claims of a cover-up in the killing of a metro Detroit man in Iraq
Published: June 6, 2012
Five years ago, after surviving one tour of duty in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, Cpl. Justin Pope left the Marine Corps to take a lucrative, high-prestige job with a private military contractor providing security at the American embassy in Erbil, Iraq.
From the time he was a kid growing up in Riverview, Pope always knew he would be in a uniform some day, protecting people. The new job would be an extension of that, providing the experience and advanced training that would further his career.
Instead, it brought an end to his life.
On the night of March 4, 2009, the square-jawed 25-year-old was in his room at the embassy compound when a single bullet from a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun fired at point-blank range entered his mouth, passed through his brain and exited the back of his skull.
That much, his family knows with heart-rending certainty, is tragically true.
What they refuse to believe is the official account of that killing, a story of mutual, reckless gunplay detailed in the files of the U.S. District Court in Gulfport, Miss.
That is where Kyle Palmer, a young man who went to war with Pope and claimed to love him like a brother, pleaded guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in federal prison.
In another era, it would have been Marines providing security at that embassy instead of mercenaries. And Palmer would have faced a court-martial, not a federal judge. But the American military has undergone a monumental change in the past two decades, shifting more and more responsibility to private companies such as the one Pope and Palmer worked for, Virginia-based DynCorp International.
The business of war has never been bigger.
But, as Justin Pope's family has learned, the massive outsourcing of duties formerly performed by the nation's armed forces has come at a price, both in terms of the tens of billions of dollars the United States annually pays to companies that supply personnel in hot spots around the world, and in a lack of accountability when negligence leads to the kind of tragedy that cost Justin Pope his life.
Detroit attorney William Goodman, who along with law partner Julie Hurwitz is representing Pope's family in a recently filed lawsuit, offers a big-picture look at what he sees at stake: a system designed to protect private military contractors such as DynCorp, even if they are guilty of "gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the rights of their employees, peoples of foreign lands and American public officials."
"Moreover," he contends, "this system shields private military contractors from any accountability even when an employee is killed while off duty as the direct result of the contractor's own wrongdoing, or is killed by another employee of the contractor. This is simply outrageous. Even more disturbing, it extends the immunity that was once reserved to the government, to private corporations, even further reinforcing the notion that we are ruled not by a democratic government but, rather, by avaricious private interests."
Sickened by the official account of Pope's death — a story that paints him as an irresponsible participant in his own demise — his family went to court once already in an attempt to force the discovery of information they hope will shed new light on what happened that night in Iraq a little more than three years ago. The current civil suit seeks unspecified damages, but the family says they are more interested in truth than money.
That first suit, filed in federal court in Port Huron, was dismissed last September. Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff ruled, in part, that any right to sue for negligence had been waived when Pope signed his contract with DynCorp. Zatkoff also determined that the company was shielded by something known as the Defense Base Act, a 1941 law that creates a "federal compensation scheme for defense contractors and employees when such employee suffers injury or death while working outside of the United States."
Now Pope's survivors — a group that includes his wife, 11-year-old son, mother, stepfather, brothers and sisters — have launched a second lawsuit, in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.
This time, instead of claiming negligence, it is being alleged that the company and more than a dozen of its employees at the time conspired to cover up what actually occurred the night Pope was killed.
As a result of that claimed conspiracy, and the allegedly fabricated accounts of Pope's death in the public record, the family continues to agonize over the tarnished reputation of a man they consider to be a hero.
Not knowing what really happened, they say, torments them all.
"The only thing we know for sure is that Justin isn't here," says Riverview resident Bill Salser, a former police officer who married Justin's mom, Patricia, when the boy was 7 years old.
The company isn't answering questions about the case. When contacted by Metro Times, a DynCorp International spokeswoman responded with this e-mail:
"Given that this matter is currently in litigation, we cannot discuss the claims at this time. This was an extremely tragic accident that occurred several years ago, after working hours, when personnel were allegedly drinking alcohol in violation of Company policy. Although our thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. Pope's family and loved ones, the allegations contained within the suit are without merit. Please be advised that the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan fully dismissed a related lawsuit last year."
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