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Inaccurate reports on combat deaths hurt US military's credibility

While the Pentagon wants all the fallen to be seen as heroes, families push for the truth.

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The Pentagon noted the passing of the young officer in the kind of brief statement that has become all too typical: "1st Lt. Kenneth Michael Ballard, 26, of Mountain View, Calif., died May 30 in Najaf, Iraq, during a firefight with insurgents."

Lieutenant Ballard's mother, Karen Meredith, was told that her only child had helped to save the lives of 60 men before being shot in the head by a sniper, and for that, he would be nominated for a Bronze Star with a Combat 'V.'

But that wasn't true. It took 15 months before Ms. Meredith, suspicious of the level of the award her dead son would receive, found out what really happened that day in Iraq in 2004.

As Congress looks into the case of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former NFL star who died when at least one member of his platoon shot him accidentally, families of other soldiers who died in combat and didn't receive the truth right away are asking why it's so hard for the military to give them all the answers. The mounting criticism has prompted the Army to change its procedures. But as public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wanes, the US military faces a credibility gap. In light of this week's damaging testimony in Corporal Tillman's case, that gap threatens to widen.

At the heart of the controversy: families' demand for the truth versus a military that instinctively wants all its fallen soldiers to be seen as heroes.

"They have to change the culture and it has to start at the top," says Meredith.

More than a year after her son's death, she learned that he died when a machine gun went off accidentally when the tank he was riding in backed into a tree, hitting him as he jumped out of the vehicle's hatch.

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