A U.S. Marine sergeant was shot in February by a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, first reported by Task & Purpose, and the Pentagon has been attempting for days to spin the truth of the first known instance of an insider attack there.
Sgt. Cameron Halkovich was shot twice at night while checking on security positions at a remote outpost. Multiple sources told Task & Purpose the SDF soldier hid in the shadows and ambushed Halkovich, then stood over him with a rifle before Cpl. Kane Downey fired two shots and subdued the threat to his wounded Marine.
However, U.S. Central Command claimed the investigation into the incident was "inconclusive," while a top general with Operation Inherent Resolve said Tuesday it was likely "a tragic misunderstanding" or a negligent discharge.
Downey received the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his actions, which said he “acted decisively to eliminate the threat to his comrade by firing several controlled shots at the person who shot his Sergeant of the Guard, and immediately removing the shooter’s weapon.”
In April, Halkovich received the Purple Heart for his wounds. (The Navy and Marine Corps awards manual states that in order to receive a Purple Heart, wounds must come as a “direct or indirect result of enemy action.”)
Despite two awards that conflict with the narrative — you can only receive a Purple Heart if the wounds came from someone deemed an enemy, and a Marine shooting and killing an SDF partner who had accidentally discharged his AK-47 would likely result in a court-martial for the Marine, not an award — British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney attempted to deflect questions during a press briefing.
Here's the relevant exchange:
Q: This is Thomas Gibbons-Neff with the New York Times, asking a question about a report last week from Task &Purpose.; Now, I understand this has to do with U.S. forces in Syria but it can speak for the coalition forces as well: Reports of a green-on-blue attack where an American Marine was shot by a Syrian Democratic Force member. Just wondering if there are any other incidents like that that have happened to the coalition where a partner force wounded or fired upon a coalition force member.
A: No, and thank you for your question. I understand you. I can think of no other incident such as that in this AOR, certainly while I’ve been the deputy commander.
This tragic incident was an anomaly and is not representative of the excellent relationship we have with partner forces both in Iraq and Syria.
Q: Thanks for that, and have you changed the vetting process at all for anyone who joins the SDF after that incident or not?
A: No, I don’t think we needed to. We have a very effective vetting force. And I don’t think we fully understand the motives behind what happened, and I think most likely it was a tragic misunderstanding that led to the use of lethal force.
Q: Thank you general. Jeff Schogol with Task & Purpose again. I wanted to follow up on my colleague from the New York Times’ question: You called the February incident in which a Marine was shot by an SDF fighter a ‘tragic misunderstanding.’ Can you elaborate? Was the SDF fighter confused? Did he believe that the Marine was an enemy?
A: Well the truth is we can’t be sure. So we know the mechanics of what happened but we don’t know the motives of what happened. It is entirely likely that the incident was sparked by a negligent discharge at a point where there was high tension anyway.
We in the military on combat operations are always high tension and there’s a friction that professional forces learn to deal with. In this case, it seems like there may have been some form of tragic misunderstanding which led to the actions and the loss of life.
Q: If I could follow up – my last question – the Marine who shot this SDF fighter, his award citation lists several times that he removed the threat, that he acted appropriately, that this was a shooter. Why – that seems to contradict what you just said. Can you clarify the situation?
A: No, not at all. So, the Marine in question responded very quickly to what he considered was a threat. He did that in an exceptional way, for which he was rewarded.
Task & Purpose Pentagon correspondent Jeff Schogol contributed reporting.