Iraq Vet Seeks Atonement For Early War Tragedy
On April 8, 2003, in the early days of the Iraq War, the Kachadoorian family found themselves in the middle of a firefight at a major intersection in Baghdad.
They had approached the intersection in three cars and didn't respond to Marines' warnings to stop and turn around; so the Marines opened fire, killing three men and shooting a young woman in the shoulder, not realizing that the people in the car were civilians.
Lu Lobello was one of those Marines. He doesn't know if his bullets were responsible for the Kachadoorians' deaths and injuries, and he maintains that the Marines did exactly what they were trained to do in that situation.
But years later, still haunted by the experience and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lobello started researching the incident, looking for everything he could find about that day. That's when he stumbled across Dexter Filkins' 2003 account of the tragedy in The New York Times. Lobello says the article helped answer his questions about why the family drove toward the gunfight.
"My reasoning was they were driving toward us, of course they're an enemy. Why would anyone drive towards the sound of a battle?" Lobello tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And when I read from their point of view, [which] Dexter talked about in his article, it just shook me because it all seemed so plausible."
Filkins tells Gross that, in the early years of the Iraq War, Iraqis driving into American checkpoints led to many casualties. In this instance, the Kachadoorians were trying to get home, which was just around the corner from the firefight.
According to Filkins, the family was confused and too frightened to turn around, because the house they had been staying at had just been bombed. So they decided to try to make it through, with tragic consequences.
"And then if you flip that around, you're like a 20-year-old American soldier; you're scared to death; you don't know what is coming at you," Filkins says.
Lobello used Filkins' article to track down Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, two surviving family members who were there that day, and send them a video apology.
"It wasn't all just about my guilt from this one day," Lobello says. "It was about feeling as though there was somebody out there who was greatly affected by our actions as a unit, and that we had a duty to them, to reach out to them, to find out how they were doing, and if I could do that I knew I'd feel better."
Lobello also reached out to Filkins, and together they went to Glendale, Calif., to meet the Kachadoorians — with the help of Filkins' New York Times article, the family had come to the U.S. as refugees.
Filkins says that at first, the meeting was unbearably tense and filled with long pauses. "Lu kind of lost it right away, and they didn't; and at one point Margaret said to Lu, 'You're crying, but I don't have any tears left.' "
The tension broke only after Lu and Nora's husband, Asaad Salim, went outside for a cigarette.
"I think it was akin to two guys sharing a drink — it was just something that was universal, international," Lobello says. "I think that having a couple minutes alone with him, and the family, seeing that me and him were able to talk and be comfortable with each other, it kind of set the tone for the rest."
For Lobello, there wasn't a clear moment when Margaret and Nora said they forgave him and he suddenly felt better. "The whole process of going up there, the whole journey to find the Kachadoorians and the whole experience was all part of it. Just letting me into their home and feeding me and meeting with me — the whole thing was [as] if they were saying, 'We forgive you, and we understand.' "
Since then, Lobello has maintained a relationship with the Kachadoorians through Facebook, phone calls and even a visit to help the family with a legal matter.
As for Filkins, he says American forces did learn something from that 2003 tragedy and others like it. At the beginning of the war, he says, "Iraqis got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, often in cars driving towards checkpoints and getting killed." Eventually, Americans made changes in their procedures at checkpoints and started yelling or having signs in Arabic, and shooting at engine blocks rather than drivers to stop cars. "It's just good to know that there was a learning curve dealing with this stuff, because it probably spared a lot of lives. Obviously, you just wish that we'd known all of this ahead of time."
Filkins writes about Lobello's meeting with the Kachadoorians in the Oct. 29 issue of The New Yorker.
On finding the Kachadoorians' story
Filkins: "It was a week after Saddam [Hussein] fell, his government fell, and Baghdad was just total chaos. There was looting everywhere. There were people being killed in the streets. There were buildings on fire — it was just total anarchy.
"So I was just driving around trying to figure things out, and I saw this crazy scene in front of a hospital, and this was happening at all the hospitals: There was a giant crowd of people trying to get inside so they could just tear everything apart and basically carry away anything of value ... And I watched a doctor come out, you know, a guy in a white lab coat with an automatic rifle, and shoot it over the heads of the crowd to kind of scare them back. And what a scene. So I just pulled over, and I went inside the hospital to see what I could see, not knowing what I would find.
"And it was a scene inside the hospital, which was very much like the outside — total pandemonium. Most of the hospital had been looted. There was no electricity. The water was gone. There were people walking around carrying, holding their bleeding limbs. It was extraordinary. And a doctor walked up to me, an Iraqi doctor. I had been there for a while looking around, and he just pulled me aside and said, 'There's something I want to show you.' And I said, 'OK.'
"And I followed him into this ward in the back of the hospital, and there was this woman who turned out to be Nora Kachadoorian, a young woman probably 21 years old at the time. Her mother and her aunt were standing over her in a hospital bed, and her shoulder had been really, really badly wounded.
"So I just kind of sat down and talked to them about what had happened, and she — Nora and her mom, Margaret — they kind of reconstructed this event, what had happened, and how it came that she had been shot in the shoulder, and Nora's two brothers and her father had been killed just a couple days before. And so it was quite a story.
"So this was one really sad, traumatic event in this gigantic scene that was happening, this gigantic historical event. So I focused on that for a while, and I somehow managed to find the Marines camped out in the field a couple miles away. And I can't remember how I managed to get lucky like that, but I found them, and they were all very upset, and they told me what happened from their perspective.
"And so I was able to piece together what had happened at this terrible moment at this intersection ... And that was April 2003, and I wrote that story, and it stayed with me because the Kachadoorians — they were very sweet people, and what had happened to them was terribly sad. And years went by. I spent almost four years in Baghdad, and I used to ask about them, and I used to look around for them every now and then. I saw a lot of death, but I never found them again and never heard from them again until a couple of months ago, and got a Facebook message from Lu."
On the video apology Lobello sent to the Kachadoorians
Lobello: "By sending a video, I felt that I could encapsulate more of the emotions I was feeling. I tried to write out something to send to them. I probably made 25 drafts and deleted them all. It just seemed so odd to put on paper. I just didn't know what to say really, and every time I would read what I just wrote, I thought that it sounded like something I would hate to read if I was them. So eventually I tried to video myself in hopes that it would better show them what I was feeling ...
"I introduced myself. I told them of the night that we met, and I told them I was sorry and that I had to speak to them if I could. I told them that they lived so close to me that I had to reach out. It was just too odd to me not to say hello and not to find out how they were doing, to see if I could help them really. I wanted to know if there was something I could do to make their life easier."
On the Kachadoorians forgiving Lobello
Filkins: "When Lu was outside with Asaad [Salim] smoking a cigarette and I was inside with the two Kachadoorian women, Nora, who's now about 30 — she'd been sitting quietly, for the most part, the whole time — didn't really say anything, just a couple of words here and there. And finally when Lu was outside, she spoke and she said, 'We want to help them.' And it was very nice.
"One of the oddities of the story — and there are so many, and I'm not sure what it means — but they're Christian, for one thing, which makes them a minority in Iraq, some 2 percent of the population ... And they're Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're very religious, certainly as anyone would be after something like this.
"So every time I asked them about forgiving Lu, or what had happened, or how did they feel about it, or why are they not bitter, because they're not, they would just default immediately to the Bible, or they would start talking about religion, of God and forgiveness. And it was amazing. You could just see the power of religion at a really micro level. They believed deeply in their religion, and she said — and they said, over and over again, 'We have to forgive them. This is what God commands us: He's forgiven us; we must [as well]. And there was no doubt in their mind about it. And the conviction with which they did it was very moving."
On the importance of telling these kinds of stories
Lobello: "A lot of the times, these stories don't get told. What gets told is the other side and the heroism. And what you miss out on is that this is a part of any war. No matter the training, no matter the terrain, you will always have innocent civilians killed. And if more stories are told about these innocent civilians, maybe we will start to think twice the next time we decide to go somewhere and have these battles, or maybe at least we'll come up with some programs to take better care of these people that are caught in the crossfire."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, former Marine Lu Lobello, doesn't know if it was any of his bullets that killed three members of one family in Baghdad on an April day in 2003, at the start of the Iraq war. It was in the middle of a firefight in a major intersection. An extended family in three cars approaching the intersection didn't respond to the Marines' warnings to stop or turn around.
So the Marines opened fire, not realizing the people in the car were civilians. In addition to the deaths of three men, a young woman was shot in the shoulder. Years later, haunted by the memory of that day and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lobello wanted to know what happened to the survivors.
On the Internet, he found a New York Times story reporting on that incident by Dexter Filkins, who is also my guest. Lobello contacted Filkins. They located two survivors now living in California, and went to meet them. It's an incredible story, which Filkins writes about in his article "Atonement," published in the current edition of the New Yorker.
Before becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker, Filkins covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the New York Times.
Lu Lobello, Dexter Filkins, welcome to FRESH AIR. Dexter, I'm going to start with you. I want you to describe what you reported happened at that intersection in April of 2003.
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I should say that, you know, it's war, so it's almost - you know, the facts are always inherently not clear. And so not - I think nobody really remembers exactly what happened, but as far as I can tell, you know, talking at length with Lu and with the Iraqi families and some of the other Marines there, it looks like what happened that day was, you know, the Marines were coming towards Baghdad. I mean, this was the day before Saddam Hussein fell. So you had literally 165,000 American troops, most of whom were converging on Baghdad.
So they were just outside of Baghdad, entering the city. They got into a big firefight with kind of the remnants of the Iraqi Army, and - you know, the ones who hadn't cut and run yet, and they got into a big firefight with them.
And separating them was an intersection, I think a place where five roads came together. An Iraqi family - several Iraqi families, but one in particular, the one that I wrote about, the one that Lu knows best, they got caught in the middle of it and didn't really know what was happening, jumped in their car, were trying to make it home.
Home was right around the corner, and they drove right into the middle of this big firefight. And, you know, again, very confusing scene, lots of - lots and lots of bullets, lots of gunfire, a lot of people getting wounded. As the Iraqi family drove into this, the Marines opened fire. Not knowing who they were, they killed three members of their family, the Kachadoorian family. They killed the three men in the family, Margaret Kachadoorian's husband and her two sons.
And then there were a bunch of survivors, and that was the day. I mean, that was April 8th, 2003. That's what happened. So kind of everything around this story kind of revolves around that moment.
GROSS: Lu Lobello, I want to hear what happened from your perspective as a Marine at that intersection on that day. There was a firefight. Several Marines had gotten wounded in that fight. So just set the scene for us and tell us what you thought was happening when the three cars with the Kachadoorian family tried to drive through this intersection.
LU LOBELLO: As Dexter explained, it was chaotic. It was confusing. At that point, when the Kachadoorians drove to our position, the Marines did exactly what we were trained to do. We did exactly what any Marine Corps unit would have done in that situation. We opened up fire. We were already being engaged. As you said, we had already a lot of wounded, and we tried to make sure that we were protecting the Marines to our left and to our right.
GROSS: You said you did what any Marine would do: You opened fire. From my understanding of the story, Marines had called on these three cars to stop, turn around or be shot. What are the odds that anyone could have heard that over the firefight?
LOBELLO: Probably not too well.
GROSS: So how did you realize that these three cars that you were shooting at were actually three cars carrying members of one extended family?
LOBELLO: At that time, the reason that we found out that they were civilians is because the mom jumped out and waved a white flag. At that point, we ran out under fire to go rescue them. I don't think I found out that they were all members of the same family until about, you know, six years after, maybe five years after, when I read Dexter's story that originally appeared in the New York Times.
GROSS: So let's back up. Apparently the white flag that the woman was raising was a baby's T-shirt, the baby was in the car. And so when she was holding up the white flag and you realized it was civilians, it sounds like the Marines ran into the intersection to try to save the people in the car from the gun battle that was going on around them.
You were one of the Marines who fired. Did you know if it was your bullet that killed anyone or wounded anyone? Could you tell if it was yours or not?
LOBELLO: No, no. I don't think that any Marines could say that it was only them. I think that's the shared experiences, that everyone is firing at the same targets, for the most part.
GROSS: So you don't know for sure whether you killed somebody or not.
LOBELLO: I don't think that there's a separation, Terry. It's not whether or not I killed someone or whether or not my buddy actually shot that person, and that's why they died. It's a collective action.
GROSS: So what was your reaction, then? Was it as upsetting in the moment as it was in retrospect?
LOBELLO: Well, at the moment, you don't have time to reflect and to think about the long-term consequences or the reality of what's going on. So at the time, it was just another day on the job. That's what Marines do: They engage the enemy, and they end up shooting innocent people. They end up shooting the enemy. They end up shooting anything that gets in their way. So, at that time, it didn't affect me like it did years later.
GROSS: And your fear was when these three cars went through the intersection, that they would be part of the fight, that they might be suicide attackers, because there had been a suicide car attack shortly before this incident.
LOBELLO: Well, we definitely thought that they were enemy. Before they actually drove down, another vehicle slammed into a wall directly next to a machine gun position. So, at that point, like I said, we weren't taking chances. We thought that anyone who was driving into a firefight had to be the enemy, because why would you continue to drive forward into the sound of gunfire?
GROSS: Dexter Filkins, let me get back to you. Back in 2003, right after this incident, you knew more of what had happened than Lu Lobello did. In other words, you knew more about what happened afterwards because you found out about this story when you were covering a hospital in Baghdad, where you met one of the survivors from these three cars, a woman named Nora.
And so just kind of set the scene for us about how you first found out about this story, and then went back and wrote about it.
FILKINS: Well, you know, it was an insane, crazy time, I mean, as anybody who was, like, watching television at the time would remember. You know, it was a week after Saddam fell and his government fell, and Baghdad was just total chaos. You know, there was looting everywhere. There was people being killed in the street. There were buildings on fire. It was just total anarchy.
And, you know, I was one of several - I was one of, you know, hundreds of reporters who were there. But I was trying to make sense of whatever I could, and it was really hard because there were just so many different things going on. And so I was just driving around, you know, driving around, trying to figure things out.
And I saw this crazy scene in front of a hospital, where a crowd - and this was happening at all the hospitals, you know. There was a crowd of people trying to get inside so they could just tear everything apart and basically carry away anything of value.
And I watched a doctor come out - you know, like, a guy in a white lab coat - with an automatic rifle, and shoot it over the heads of the crowd to kind of scare them back. And, you know, what a scene. So I just pulled over, and I went inside the hospital just to kind of see what I could see.
And it was a scene inside the hospital, which was, you know, very much like the outside: total pandemonium. Most of the hospital had been looted. There was no electricity. The water was gone. There were people walking around carrying, you know, they're holding their bleeding limbs. It was extraordinary.
And a doctor walked up to me, an Iraqi doctor - I'd been there for a while looking around, and he just pulled me aside and said: There's something I want to show you. And I said, OK, you know. And I followed him into the back, into this ward in the back of the hospital. And there was this woman who turned out to be Nora Kachadoorian, a young woman, probably, I don't know, 21 years old at the time.
Her mother and her aunt were standing over her in a hospital bed, and her shoulder had been, you know, really, really badly wounded. And so I just kind of sat down and talked to them about what had happened. And she, Nora, and her mom Margaret, they kind of reconstructed this kind of event, you know, what had happened, you know, and how it came that she'd been shot in the shoulder, and, you know, Nora's two brothers and her father had been killed just a couple days before.
And so it was quite a story. I mean, it was, you know, it was a tiny story, but that's often all you get as a journalist, you just kind of break off these little pieces. And so this was one really sad, traumatic event, you know, in this gigantic scene that was happening, you know, this gigantic kind of historical event. So I just kind of focused on that for a while.
And then I somehow managed to find the Marines, you know, camped out in a field a couple of miles away. And I can't remember how I managed to get lucky like that, but I found them. And so - and they were all very upset, and they kind of told me what happened from their perspective. And so I was kind of able to kind of piece together what had happened, this kind of terrible moment at this intersection.
So I just wrote a story about it. I mean, that was - you know, which is what I do. And, you know, that was April 2003. And I wrote that story, and it kind of stayed with me because the Kachadoorians were - they were very sweet people, and they were - you know, what had happened to them was terribly sad.
And, you know, years went by. I spent almost four years in Baghdad, and I used to ask about them. I used to look around for them every now and then. And I saw a lot of death when I was there, but I never found them again, and I never heard from them again. And - until, you know, a couple months ago I got a Facebook message from Lu, out of the blue.
GROSS: My guests are New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins and former Marine Lu Lobello. Filkins' article "Atonement" is published in the current edition of The New Yorker. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest, Lu Lobello, was one of the Marines who, in the middle of a firefight in the early part of the Iraq war, shot at three cars they thought were carrying the enemy, but the people inside were civilians, members of the Kachadoorian family. Three of them were killed.
Lobello was haunted by that incident. Years later, he found a 2003 New York Times article about it by Dexter Filkins, who is also my guest. Filkins has a new article about Lobello and the Kachadoorians in the current edition of the New Yorker.
Lu Lobello, I want to get back to what this whole experience was like for you. You came home from Iraq, I think, not long after this incident, and it sounds from Dexter's article like it just started haunting you. And you had post-traumatic stress disorder, and it sounds as if this incident figured prominently into that.
What were the things that you wanted to know? What were the things that went through your mind about what happened in that intersection when three people in a family were killed by the Marines, who thought they were firing on enemy combatants?
LOBELLO: Well, after April 8th, about two or three months later, I was home. And for the first three years that I was back home, I was still in the Marine Corps Reserves. So I was still training once a month. I was still meeting up with the Marines once a month. I didn't really start to suffer too many symptoms until I was eventually out of the Marines in 2007.
During that time, I just, for some reason, started looking up anything I could of that day, just trying to find answers because it was the one day of our tour in Iraq that stuck out in every Marine's mind. At that point, I was already experiencing problems myself, and I was hearing stories of some of the Marines I served with getting in trouble with the law, getting divorces. One Marine killed his wife in Utah.
And I couldn't help but think that, not just for myself, but for everyone, that we were carrying a lot from that day. And that's when I stumbled across Dexter's article.
GROSS: So why did you get in touch with Dexter Filkins?
LOBELLO: Because Dexter was the first person who was able to answer any type of questions regarding why they were driving towards our gunfight. That was the crux of my logic and my reasoning, was they were driving towards us. Of course they're an enemy. Why would anyone drive towards the sound of a battle?
And when I read from their point of view that Dexter talked about in his article, it just shook me, because it all seemed so plausible. It didn't seem like they were not smart. It didn't seem like they were bad people. It just seemed like they literally took a wrong turn.
GROSS: Dexter, what is the explanation for why this family drove into an intersection in the middle of a firefight?
FILKINS: Oh, it's just very sad. I've thought about it so many times, but every time I do, it makes me sad. But, you know, I should say, I should just back up and say this very thing, Iraqis driving into gunfights or driving into American checkpoints, this was responsible for so many casualties in Iraq in the years that we were there.
And it was all for, you know, very, very understandable reasons. Let's say you're an Iraqi family. You're driving down the street. You see an American checkpoint, you know, you see a bunch of guys with guns, but you don't really know what the deal is. It's, you know, it's your neighborhood. It's your country. You're just driving down the road.
And then, you know, if you flip that around, you're like a 20-year-old American soldier. You're scared to death. You don't know what is coming at you. You know, as the war went on, these checkpoints were attacked, bombed, hit by suicide bombers, everything. Everybody's just totally freaked out.
And so bang, you know, the worst thing happens. And that's kind of what happened here. I mean, if you - I mean, I talked at length with the Kachadoorian family, and basically, it's just a sad, you know, split second. They had been at their home, and they had decided to leave there because they were close to a target the Americans were bombing before they launched the invasion, the ground invasion.
And so they thought, well, we'll go to our relatives' house, you know, a mile away, and that'll be safer. And so they went there, and then their house literally got bombed. It got hit by a bomb, like one sort of branch of the house got just disintegrated.
And then they thought oh, my God, you know, we've got to get out of here. We're going to get hit again. Well, let's just go home. Home was like a mile away. It was a couple of streets away. They jumped in their cars. They jumped in, you know, the three cars, nine members of the family with their dog and, you know, all their money and everything they owned.
And they drove, and they made a run for it. And they almost made it. They were right around the corner, one turn. Like, they were, you know, 100 yards away from their house, and they kind of turned into the intersection right at the moment that the - you know, that this terrible firefight was going on.
And so if you ask the Kachadoorians about it, they just say, well, we didn't know what to do. You know, the house that we were in got bombed. We were going to the one safe place that we thought we could. We were too frightened to turn around. We could hear the firing in front of us. Let's just try to make it. And then bang, you know, everything bad - all the bad stuff happened.
GROSS: So, Lu Lobello, getting back to you, you were one of the Marines in that intersection. You wanted to know the story of this - what happened to this family. Why did you want to know so badly?
LOBELLO: Well, you know, this was taking place over a, you know, five-year, seven-year period. It's almost been a decade. By that point, I got more education, and I really just wanted to know the full implications of war. And I realized that on this day, that this family gave up every male member of their family. It was such a sacrifice.
And I think that a lot of the times, these stories don't get told. What gets told is the other side and the heroism. And what you miss out on is that this is a part of any war. No matter the training, no matter the terrain, you will always have innocent civilians killed. And if more stories are told about these innocent civilians, maybe we'll start to think twice the next time we decide to go somewhere and have these battles, or maybe at least we'll come up with some programs to take better care of these people that are caught in the crossfire.
GROSS: But my impression, too, is that you were suffering, and part of that suffering was knowing that you participated in this gunfight that killed three members of a family who were just trying to go home. So how were you hoping that making contact with this family would affect the suffering that you were going through?
LOBELLO: I think the suffering was in part because I wasn't fighting for anything anymore. And so finding the Kachadoorians became my mission, and I knew that as long as I was doing something that I believed in, something that I thought was bigger than myself, that I would start to feel better because that's what I was missing from the Marines.
It wasn't all just about my guilt from this one day. It was about feeling as though there was somebody out there who was greatly affected by our actions as a unit and that we had a duty to them, to reach out to them, to find out how they were doing. And if I could do that, I knew that I would feel better. I knew that I would sleep better at night.
GROSS: Did you want to apologize to them, or did you think that that wasn't really the thing?
LOBELLO: I wanted to apologize without giving the impression that the Marines did something that they shouldn't have done.
GROSS: You mean because you thought the Marines, at that moment, with the amount of information that they had, really had no choice?
LOBELLO: Right. I think that we did exactly what we were trained to do.
GROSS: Did you think that the family that had lost three people would be capable of understanding that or seeing it the way that you saw it?
LOBELLO: I guess I didn't think about that too much before I saw them. I wondered if they would forgive me. I never thought that they would see it from my point of view, though.
GROSS: Lu Lobello and Dexter Filkins will be back in the second half of the show. Filkins' article "Atonement," about Lobello and the Kachadoorian family, is published in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with former Marine Lu Lobello and New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins.
Lobello was one of the Marines who, in the middle of a firefight in the early part of the Iraq war, shot at three cars they thought were carrying the enemy, but the people inside were civilians, members of the Kachadoorian family. Three of them were killed. A young woman, Nora, was shot in the shoulder.
Lobello was haunted by that incident. Years later, he found a 2003 New York Times article about it by Dexter Filkins, who was also my guest. Lobello contacted Filkins, and together, they tracked down Nora and her mother Margaret, who was also in one of the cars. Filkins' article "Atonement," about Lobello and how he recently met Nora and Margaret, is in the current edition of The New Yorker.
Well, Dexter Filkins, what was your reaction when Lu Lobello contacted you?
FILKINS: I was just, I was just floored, because I had just - you know, again, I was in Iraq for four years. I saw so many people die, and yet I always remembered this family, always. They just stuck in my mind. They are very, very sweet people. They're just the nicest that - they're wonderful people. And I spent some time with him back then, as I was kind of hearing their story, and it was so sad, and yet they were so gentle.
And so as the years went by in Iraq, I used to - they lived in this neighborhood called Baladiyat, and whenever I went to Baladiyat, I would ask around after the Kachadoorian family. I'd say: What happened to the Kachadoorians? Where's this young woman named Nora with blond hair and the bad shoulder?
And - because I was sort of haunted by it, and, you know, they sort of vanished. I think, for the most part, they were still there. I just was never able to find them. And so I just thought it was going to be one of those things that I would - you know, one of those many, many, you know, unfinished stories or kind of loose ends that I would just never hear the end of and, you know, I have thousands of those.
But - so then to get Lu's message out of the blue was just weird. It was like this thing, that this unconnected thing finally I connected again, you know. And then to discover, my God, that this family is living in an apartment in Glendale, California was just - I just - it's amazing. It was just extraordinary. I mean, just the - you know, the miracles and disasters that it took, as I say in my story, for them to end up in this sunny little boulevard in Glendale was just extraordinary.
GROSS: Well, one of the extraordinary things about it is that it was your article that helped them get out of Iraq to California. Do you want to explain that connection?
FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, God, there are just so many. You know, so this - the Kachadoorian family, basically it's just the mom, Margaret. And they have, you know, you can see they have Christian names. They're Armenian Christians. They are Jehovah's Witnesses, of which there, you know, can't be more than a few in Baghdad.
But they lived together. Nora got married to a very nice man, and they lived there until 2006, and that was, you know, the worst part of the Civil War in Iraq when it was just, you know, unimaginably bad. And Assad, who is Nora's husband, was working for Reuters, for the news agency Reuters, and he got threatened by one of the - pretty clearly by one of the death squads, basically saying, you know, you're working for the Westerners. If you keep doing it, we're going to kill you.
So he took his family out of Iraq in 2006 and joined the, you know, then hundreds of thousands - I think there were more than two million - Iraqi refugees in Syria. And they lived there for a few years, trying to get out. And typically, when you're a refugee in one of these situations, you basically go to UN, the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. It's a UN agency, and you sort of go there and throw yourself on them and say: Can you find a country that will take me? You know, thousands and thousands of Iraqis did that. Tens of thousands of Iraqis did that.
So they weren't getting anywhere. They were just, you know, their kind of application was languishing. And then, at some point, a relative - the same relative whose house - I think it was like their - Margaret's sister-in-law or something, the same relative whose house they were staying at in Baghdad had since moved to Canada, and she'd seen - somehow seen my article and mailed it to them in wherever they were living in Damascus, Syria in 2009.
So in 2009, they took, you know, they, like, walked my article over there and sort of laid it down in front of the person at the UN and said, look. Here's what happened to us. And they said well, gosh. Why do you tell us that, you know, that your family had been killed by the Americans? And their application moved right away. And so by the end of 2009, I think they were in California - miracle on miracle.
GROSS: My guests are New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins and former Marine, Lu Lobello. We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with former Marine Lu Lobello, one of the Marines who fired on the Kachadoorian family in the early part of the Iraq war, killing three of them, and Dexter Filkins, who wrote about the incident for The New York Times back in 2003. Filkins writes about Lobello and his recent meeting with two members of the Kachadoorian family, Margaret and Nora, in the current edition of The New Yorker.
So, Lu Lobello, before you actually met, you know, Margaret and Nora of the Kachadoorian family, you contacted Nora through a video that you sent to her. Why was that the first way you wanted to make contact with her?
LOBELLO: By sending a video, I felt that I could encapsulate more of the emotions I was feeling. I tried to write out something to send to them. I probably made 25 drafts, and deleted them all. It just seemed so odd to put on paper. I just didn't know what to say, really. And every time I would read what I just wrote, I thought that it sounded like something I would hate to read if I was them. So eventually, I tried to video myself in hopes that it would better show them the way I was feeling.
GROSS: What did you say?
LOBELLO: I introduced myself. I told them of the night that we met. And I told him I was sorry, and that I had to speak to them, if I could. I told them that they lived so close to me that I had to reach out. It was just - it was too odd to me to not want to say hello and not to find out how they were doing, to see if I could help them, really. I wanted to know if there was something I could do to make their life easier.
GROSS: How close to you do they live?
LOBELLO: About two hours.
GROSS: That's close.
LOBELLO: I've been up there several times since.
GROSS: Well, what was the initial reaction you were expecting? Were you afraid that they would be so angry that you were one of the Marines who fired on their family and killed three family members? I mean, they would have every reason to be just angry and not want to speak to you, not want to be in a room with you. Or, you know, what was the range of reaction you were preparing yourself for?
LOBELLO: I don't think I prepared myself until I was literally walking up there with Dexter. It seemed so unreal. It seemed like it wasn't going to happen, and it seemed like too surreal. And so I didn't realize the impact that this was going to have on all of our lives until I was walking up there. But I jokingly thought about every reaction from them wanting to kill me to them being completely fine with it, but never really thought about it in earnest until I was walking to the door.
GROSS: And what was their reaction to actually meeting you?
LOBELLO: Well, there's a big cultural difference, I would say, first off. I kind of expected to walk in and just embrace each other and cry, and they put me in my place very quickly and said, stop it. Don't cry, and sit down. And they were very composed when I first showed up. They looked like they could handle anything that came their way.
GROSS: And so what was the conversation like after that?
LOBELLO: It was heavy. It came in spurts. I was trying to explain what happened to them that day. They were offering their forgiveness. I would say every five minutes, it seemed like it would've been proper to stand up and say thank you and goodbye. And it took a lot to sit there through these long pauses and not run for the door.
GROSS: Dexter, did you have the same feeling?
FILKINS: Yeah. Oh, my God. Yeah. I mean, at one point, yeah. It was just - it was so, so intense. I mean, I just - you know, they live in this tiny apartment, and it was surreal. I mean, here we were, Lu and I, we were walking up to their house in this kind of palm-lined street in California to kind of to deal with this event that happened in Baghdad, like, almost 10 years ago, you know, in the middle of a war.
And, you know, we walked up to their house and, I don't know, the kids were playing in the front yard, and it was pretty weird. But it was - it was so intense. I think, if I may say, I mean, I think - I mean, Lu's exactly right. I think that, you know, Lu kind of lost it right away, and they didn't. And at one point Margaret said to Lu, you know, you're crying, but, you know, I don't have any tears left. You know, all my tears are gone.
And it was like that. You know, it was like that. And I think, you know, they were prepared, from what I could see. I mean these are incredibly generous people. I mean, they have the biggest hearts in the world. They were prepared to forgive Lu and everyone. But they, you know, I think Margaret and Nora wanted Lu to know how much they'd suffered, too. They wanted to let him think about that a little bit.
GROSS: Lu, how did they let you know that?
LOBELLO: I don't think there was any way they could hide it. Whether or not they were purposely attempting to make me feel their pain, I think that it's noticeable on their faces when you walk in to meet them. That's how I felt about it.
GROSS: Did you want their forgiveness? Were you seeking forgiveness?
LOBELLO: I would like to think that I forgave myself, and that I wasn't dependent on their forgiveness. But I've always prided myself on being able to say I'm sorry. That's the way I was brought up. If you do something that you're sorry about, you're not losing any face by saying I'm sorry, and you might be gaining a friend. So I think that more of us should say we're sorry.
GROSS: So when they offered their forgiveness to you, how did they offer it? What did they say?
LOBELLO: I believe Margaret said: We forgive you. Are you OK now, now that we have given you this forgiveness? You know?
LOBELLO: And I think that they tried to even tell themselves as though this was going to just wipe it away in some ways, you know. OK, Lu, you've come here now, and we forgive you. It was nice meeting you. I'll talk to you later. But I knew that I wanted more. I wanted to build a relationship with these people. I wanted to understand where they were coming from and help them out for their future.
GROSS: So what did it mean to you when they actually offered their forgiveness?
LOBELLO: It meant the world to me. I don't think it was a clear moment, though, where they said we forgive you and I suddenly felt better. The whole process of going up there, the whole journey to find the Kachadoorians and the whole experience was all part of it. Just letting me into their home and feeding me and meeting with me, the whole thing was as if they were saying: We forgive you, and we understand.
FILKINS: If I could just...
GROSS: Yeah. Dexter. Yeah.
FILKINS: There was - well, it was just it unbearably tense in the beginning. We just, you know, it's a very small living room, and we sat there. There were, let's see, five of the Kachadoorians, the two kids, and then Lu and I and a photographer, who - the photographer by the way, Andrew Bruce, spent seven years in Iraq. So it was a room full of very damaged people. But I, it was...
FILKINS: It was very - it was really, really tense. And just like - as Lu said, there were just these long pauses, you know, and I don't - you know, I was fumbling around and, I don't know, taking cookies off the tray or something. And - but I think the moment that it all kind of gave way was, you know, she said - Margaret was looking right at Lu and said, yeah, we've - I forgive you. Are you OK with that now? And then Lu - if I remember, Lu started to kind of break up a little bit, and he asked - he asked Assad for a cigarette.
GROSS: Assad is Nora's husband.
FILKINS: Nora's husband, Iraqi. So they went outside. They went outside and shared a cigarette and something changed when that happened. I don't know what you guys did out there but everything just kind of the tension broke and then, you know, 10, 15 minutes passed and then they came back inside and kind of - it was OK. Everything was OK after that. You know, the tension was sort of gone and everybody sort of realized what was happening and everybody was just a lot more comfortable.
GROSS: Lu, what happened with that cigarette?
LOBELLO: I think it was akin to two guys sharing a drink. I think it was just something that was universal, international. Having a cigarette, just, you know, talking about the weather and the kids. And it was just a mini-bonding session. And I agree with Dexter. It felt a lot more loose after that.
And Dexter and myself understand as well that the male of the house needs to be - I don't want to say appeased but, you know, I felt as though Assad was my gatekeeper and I think that having a couple minutes alone with him and the family seeing that me and him were able to talk and be comfortable with each other, it kind of set the tone for the rest.
FILKINS: Well, then when Lu was outside with Assad smoking a cigarette and I was inside with the two Kachadoorian women. Nora, who's now about 30, she'd been sitting quietly for the most part the whole time. Didn't say anything, really, just a couple of words here and there. And finally, when Lu was outside she spoke and she said we want to help him.
And, you know, it was very nice. I mean, one of the oddities of the story - and there are so many - and I'm not really, I mean, I'm not sure what it means but they're Christian, for one thing, which makes them a minority in Iraq. I mean, it's only like 2 percent of the population or probably a lot less now because so many of them have left.
And they're Jehovah's Witnesses and they're very religious and - certainly as anyone would be after something like this. You know, every time I asked them about forgiving Lu or what had happened or how did they feel about it or why they're not bitter - because they're not - they would just default immediately to, you know, the Bible or they would start talking about religion and God and forgiveness.
And it was really amazing. I mean, you could just see kind of the power of religion at a really, really micro level. I mean, they, you know, they believe deeply in their religion. And she said and they said over and over again we have to forgive him. You know, this is what, you know, God commands us. You know, he's forgiven us and we have to forgive. We must. And there was no doubt in their mind about that. And the conviction which with they did it was very moving.
GROSS: Lu, what is your relationship been like with the Kachadoorian family since that first meeting when you confessed that you were one of the Marines who had shot at the family, killing three people? And they accepted your apology and forgave you.
LOBELLO: Well, it's been very interesting. It's been very intense. I would actually say it's been spearheaded the most by Assad who I probably talked to more than I do Nora or Margaret. And the other interesting thing about Assad is that he was at the hospital where Nora was taken after we fired upon her and that's where they met. And correct me if I'm wrong, Dexter, but I think that that's where they met. Right?
FILKINS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's totally bizarre, this whole story.
FILKINS: I mean, you know, Assad, the husband - they ended up meeting - he met his future wife Nora in al-Wassati Hospital, which is where I found Nora. And he was there because the Americans had fired accidentally but they had fired and killed some journalists on a rooftop on the same day on the other side of town, these Reuters people. And he was working for Reuters. And some guys got wounded and some guys got killed.
And so he took one of the wounded guys who was British to the hospital. So he was basically in the next room. And so they brought Nora in one night, like, after her surgery and she was kind of crying and moaning and wailing from the pain. And again, this hospital was stripped of everything. There was no medicine, there was nothing and the only way you could get anything, frankly, was by bribing somebody.
And as Assad describes it, he said, I heard this, you know, young woman, her cries and I couldn't take it anymore. It was breaking my heart. So I grabbed a nurse, I gave her some money, and I said just find this women some painkillers. And one thing led to another and that's how they got married.
GROSS: My guests are New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins and former Marine Lu Lobello. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with former Marine Lu Lobello, one of the marines who fired on the Kachadoorian family during a firefight in the early part of the Iraq war, killing three of them, and Dexter Filkins, who wrote about the incident for the New York Times in 2003. In the current edition of The New Yorker, Filkins writes about Lobello and his recent first meeting and reconciliation with two members of the Kachadoorian family, Margaret and Nora, and Nora's husband, Assad.
So, Lu, how many times have you seen the Kachadoorian family since that first meeting? How often do you, you know, communicate by e-mail or whatever?
LOBELLO: Well, about two weeks ago - or maybe it was last week - I was at a Glendale courtroom with them as one of their witnesses. So we have went in the last couple months from our initial meeting to a lot of communication through Facebook, which is a very easygoing platform. It's not as formal.
I think that we really got to be comfortable with each other after the initial meeting. I went up there - one night I got a phone call from Assad and he said that his neighbors were harassing them. So I woke up one of my law school buddies, Corey, and said you have to come to Glendale with me and it's going to be a very odd trip and I'll explain to you why in the car.
And so I took my friend up there and we sat with the Kachadoorians and said - they were, like I said, they were having problems with their neighbors. And I feel more than anything they just wanted someone that they felt knew the system, knew American laws, understood what they should do. We ate that night. We had some more tea. After that we talked on the phone multiple times.
Long story short, I had to go up there, as I said, and visit the courthouse with them because they were unfamiliar with the process. So we spent about four hours in the pews together and it was interesting. We've grown a lot closer, I would say.
GROSS: So were they trying to sue the family that was harassing them?
LOBELLO: Yeah. They were trying to get a restraining order against them, which is so interesting to me because those concepts for them when they were living in Iraq are foreign. To go now to the courthouse and to call the cops to help you, I don't think it's second nature to them. I thought that it was a really big leap of faith that they were going to try out the American system and I was somewhat acting as their liaison.
Which was fun for me, because, like I said, I'm in law school. So it was a good experience in that respect, as well.
GROSS: So for a long time you were kind of haunted knowing that you were one of the Marines who fired on this family in an intersection in the early days of the Iraq war in 2003. Three of the family members were killed. You suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't know how much of that was based on this one day, on this one incident.
But when you met the family and when you offered your apology and they offered their forgiveness, did something physically change for you? Did you sleep better? Did you feel less stress physically? Did anything - was there like a physiological change in your life?
LOBELLO: No, I don't believe so.
GROSS: Are you still experiencing PTSD?
LOBELLO: Yes, very much so.
GROSS: And this didn't change any of that.
LOBELLO: It didn't change the symptoms that I have. I don't think it physiologically changed me. It helps the narrative story that plays through my head and gives me direction. And I think that perhaps in another five years that I will be able to say that I've had some real physical changes and that I'm not seeing the same symptoms.
But as for now, it's just nothing but more exposure to these memories and these triggers. And I think that this kind of thing will pay dividends long down the road, but as for now, it's not as easy as, you know, this physiological change. So...
GROSS: So do either of you have any questions left about what happened on that day in the intersection? Or have your questions basically been answered?
FILKINS: I do. I do. No, it's not a question but I asked one of the Marines this and he got a little offended. And I recorded that in the story. At the beginning of the war I saw so much of this, as I mentioned, you know, Iraqis sort of caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, often in cars, often driving towards checkpoints and getting killed as a result.
And it just happened a lot. I mean, it happened - I remember just a few days before it happened to the Kachadoorians I saw it happen to another family. And what happened over the course of the war in Iraq was sort of the Americans just got better, you know, at dealing with that. You know, they didn't yell stop. They yelled it in Arabic or they had signs in Arabic.
You know, and they didn't shoot the drivers. They shot the engine blocks, you know, to stop the cars. It was stuff like that. Now, it's easy, you know, to second guess people in combat, you know, and God knows what that's like. But it's good to know that there was a learning curve dealing with this kind of stuff because it probably spared a lot of lives. Obviously, you just wish that we had known all this stuff ahead of time, but alas, we didn't.
GROSS: Lu Lobello, Dexter Filkins, thank you both so much for talking with us.
GROSS: Lu Lobello was a former Marine and is now in law school. Dexter Filkins' article "Atonement" is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You'll find a link to "Atonement" and to Filkins' 2003 New York Times article about the Kachadoorian incident on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.