Officers killed side by side despite ban

November 13th, 2006  

Topic: Officers killed side by side despite ban

Army officials can’t say whether two lieutenant colonels killed Nov. 2 knew about a relatively new Baghdad policy that prohibits leaders from riding together on combat patrols.

A roadside bomb that day took the lives of two lieutenant colonels and a staff sergeant who were on patrol in eastern Baghdad. An Army spokesman in Baghdad would not speculate on whether a policy issued in late October by Multi-National Division-Baghdad prohibiting two leaders from riding in the same vehicle on combat patrols had reached the officers before they departed on their mission.

“I don’t know why the decision was made [for them to ride together] and I’m not going to try and second guess it,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, public affairs chief of 4th Infantry Division, the headquarters element for MND-B. “Force protection is a priority and we’re going to take any measure we can to mitigate risks to soldiers on the battlefield. We have tactics, techniques and procedures to mitigate risk and I’m not going to discuss that.”

Lt. Col. Paul J. Finken and Lt. Col. Eric J. Kruger were riding in the same up armored Humvee Nov. 2 as part of their left-seat, right-seat ride — the term used for the two-week period of transition during which incoming soldiers familiarize themselves with an area of operations by watching over the shoulders of those who have been working in that area.

“There is a lot of time in a left-seat, right-seat ride that is not spent in a vehicle. The term just applies to the time they’re together during the transition,” said Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

The officers were killed by a powerful blast that occurred around 2:30 p.m. The gunner, Staff Sgt. Joseph A. Gage, also died, and as many as two other people in the vehicle were injured, the Army said.

It marks the first time since May that senior-ranking officers have been killed in Iraq in combat, and the first time that two have been killed side by side.

A similar incident took place in late October that claimed the life of a 1st Armored Division field-grade officer and seriously injured another. The policy was instituted Oct. 25, shortly after that incident.

“It’s a local policy that says key leaders don’t ride in the same vehicle together,” said Aberle, who could not confirm whether Finken’s team worked under MND-B. “It applies to units assigned to MND-B only.”

Finken had been working as a member of a military transition team whose chain of command may not have fallen directly under orders sent down through MND-B.

Finken, 40, and Gage, 28, were both assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky., and were completing a one-year rotation in Baghdad.

Kruger, 40, was the deputy commanding officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo., and had been in country only a few days.

He joined 2nd BCT in February following a one-year rotation in Afghanistan, according to a Fort Carson press release.

Before the deaths of Finken and Kruger, just one Army colonel and 20 lieutenant colonels — 17 Army, two Marine Corps and one Air Force — had died in theater since the start of Operations Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom, but not all were listed as combat deaths.

Six were listed as non-combat related deaths, five died from improvised explosive devices, three in helicopter crashes, two from rocket propelled grenade attacks, two in vehicle accidents, and three were listed as other types of complex enemy attacks.

Finken, a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was an infantry officer assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Gage was an infantryman assigned to B Company.

Kruger received his master’s degree in liberal arts from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and his bachelor’s degree in political science from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The Finken family issued the following statement through public affairs officials at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“We want to thank the entire Fort Campbell community for their outpouring of love and support in our time of grief. Paul was a devoted husband, loving father and respected leader.

“He loved being a soldier, and respected the soldiers he worked with. He always set the example and would never ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He will be greatly missed by his family and by all who knew him,” the statement read.

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