Daniel Rubin: Answers, finally, on fallen son, but no solace

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In her Holmesburg apartment , Cynthia Woodard looks over the 23 pounds of documents that she hopes will help her make some sense of the loss of her son, Michael Scusa.

Cynthia Woodard wanted answers. She'd waited a year and a half for them. But when they finally came by FedEx, contained in 23 pounds of official documents, she couldn't bear to look.

The box arrived March 8, and it sat on her living room table as she paced her apartment, talking to herself.

Open it and find out what happened to her son, Army Spec. Michael Scusa. Learn who, if anyone, was held accountable. Or just let it go.

She couldn't let it go.

So she sliced open the box from the Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Ky. Inside rested two massive binders, one red, one black, and both headlined "COP Keating, Kamdesch District, Afghanistan."

Combat Outpost Keating was the scene of one of the Afghanistan war's more deadly screw-ups, an undermanned and overexposed post in Nuristan province that the Army's 61st Cavalry was getting ready to abandon when hundreds of insurgents attacked on the morning of Oct. 3, 2009.

The Army had abandoned the post long before, Woodard says.

Military commanders had drawn plans to shutter the remote outpost and concentrate on more populous areas a couple of months before the battle. But the Army kept delaying the move while removing people and equipment that might have protected Keating.

Eight soldiers died that day; 22 were injured. No ground attack in the previous year and a half had been as costly.

And the Army's first attempt to explain what happened had left Woodard seething.

"It was a joke," said the 53-year-old single mother. The Army sent her one thin folder, its contents heavily redacted. Many of the pages left uncensored were marked in letters and numerals as undecipherable to her as hieroglyphs.

Now, a year later, the Army has made amends, and how. It has released to the families two five-inch-thick bricks of maps and eyewitnesses accounts, videos.

Woodard read some pages. A few days later she started one of the videos.

"I kind of glanced at it. I knew he was killed by the blue building. Then I turned to this page that showed where all eight were shot, and I shut it and didn't look at it for a week."

When her oldest son, James, came down from New Holland, Woodard read eyewitness accounts from men who'd been with her son. Again she had to stop.

"It's so much," she said Monday, sitting at her living room table, a tissue clasped in her left hand, her son's dog tags hanging from her neck. She lives with Gizmo, a 9-year-old Chihuahua with a heart condition, in an apartment with a view of Holmesburg Prison. She has turned the place into a shrine to Scusa, who was from Villas, N.J.

Pastels and charcoal portraits of the soldier - shaved head, rimless glasses on a gentle face - hang next to his ribbons and a letter of condolence and appreciation from President Obama. "That's his real signature," she says, finger tracing the glass.

She said it will take years to be able to get through the report, but she keeps trying.

This is what she knows so far about the death of her youngest, whose body was returned to Dover the day he would have turned 23.

Three hours before the assault, several hundred insurgents gathered in the village and ordered civilians from their homes. From four sides the militants fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades down at the exposed outpost, which lay in a bowl.

An hour into the battle, Scusa went with another soldier for ammunition, running about 100 meters through enemy fire, then back. "He was quick on his feet," she recalls.

He made a second run.

"He got 70 meters when he was -"

She rubs her eyes and then looks into the distance.

One of the bullets ripped into his neck and struck a carotid artery.

By the time fighter jets and attack helicopters could respond to COP Keating's increasingly alarming calls, nearly half of the U.S. soldiers who fought there had been killed or injured. The bodies of about 150 insurgents were found.

Woodard doesn't really know what she is looking for in the hundreds of pages that weigh on her.

Tie up some loose ends, see if anyone owns up to making a mistake. She's heard that officers have been punished for their decisions, but she doesn't follow the news closely. She can't let go of her anger at Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who as former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan bears ultimate responsibility.

She hears from other family members that the video from the battle will be used to train soldiers. Her son would have liked that, she thinks.

"It's going to be used for something positive. Michael loved history. Now he's part of it."

 


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.