Kirksville parents seek justice for Green Beret son slain in Jordan
Cindy Lewellen didn’t know about any soldiers getting killed until her sister called.
She went online. Three Green Berets had died at a checkpoint leading onto a military base in Jordan. Her son, Matt, had deployed to the region recently.
Nothing she and her husband, Chuck, could do with the news report, so they went about their day. For 33 years, they’ve run Pancake City, a popular restaurant in Kirksville, a college town of about 17,500 in north-central Missouri.
But that evening, Cindy, pulled by a mother’s heart, drove through the parking lots of motels looking for license plates from Kentucky or Tennessee.
“I knew that’s where they would come from,” she said.
Matt was part of the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, which is on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. His mom didn’t see any plates, but around 9 p.m., the doorbell rang and she knew before the ring faded that the car had come.
Three days later, on Nov. 7, she and Chuck were on a plane to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to see their 27-year-old son come home.
Matt was the athlete, the prom king. Funny, told a good story. Through Matt’s Army friends, they learned that even in combat he was first to crack a joke. And that he’d received a Bronze Star. They’d had no idea.
The town turned out for Matt’s funeral. People, strangers, stood on the side of the road for the 40-mile procession to a veterans cemetery in Jacksonville, Mo.
Matt Lewellen died doing what he loved, and that’s where his parents would find their peace.
Except they say Matt didn’t die fighting for his country. They say he was murdered and nothing is being done about it.
“We fund Jordan a billion dollars a year and as far as I’m convinced one of their commanders executed my son,” Chuck said last week at the family’s home.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Lewellen was part of a convoy entering King Faisal air base near Al Jafr, Jordan. The same Americans had used the same gate multiple times in the days before the shooting. As the vehicles passed through the allied checkpoint, a Jordanian officer opened fire with an M16, killing Lewellen and Staff Sgt. Kevin McEnroe of Tucson, Ariz.
A third Green Beret, Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty of Kerrville, Texas, was killed during an ensuing gunfight with the same shooter.
Several Jordanian soldiers were present, but according to an FBI investigation, only one, M’aarek Abu Tayeh, fired at the Americans.
Jordan, a key American ally and part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, has not charged Abu Tayeh. In fact, Jordanian officials blame the Americans, saying they failed to follow gate procedure. A security video from the checkpoint contradicts that version.
An investigation by the FBI and American military concluded that the Green Berets acted heroically and cleared them of any wrongdoing.
Earlier this month, Chuck Lewellen and fathers of the other fallen Green Berets spoke at the National Press Club in Washington. They want an apology from Jordan, and they’ve called for a suspension of aid to the country until that happens.
“The government of Jordan lied to the world, immediately claiming that our sons failed to stop at the gate,” James R. Moriarty told the press club. “When the FBI confirmed the video showed that to be a lie, the Jordanians then claimed there had been an accidental discharge by one of the Americans. This was also proven to be a lie.
“The American public is told Jordan is our ally. Jordan has never accepted responsibility nor has a Jordanian official ever explained what truly happened.”
Last week in his dining room, Chuck Lewellen said it’s important to have the names of his son and the two others cleared of any wrongdoing.
“I want these three honored and not held up as screw-ups.”
Gunshots at ‘extremely close proximity’
Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha arrived in Jordan from Fort Campbell in July 2016 to provide weapons training for allied soldiers fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
According to investigative documents, the Green Berets involved in the shooting all were clean-shaven, wearing identifying uniforms, well trained in weapons and fluent in Arabic. The vehicles were low-mileage and well-maintained to prevent backfires. They were clearly identifiable to Jordanian guards as friendlies.
“There was no indication of threats to U.S. personnel, thus the vehicles were not armored,” the report said.
Early on Nov. 4, the team left the base to conduct weapons training at a military range about four miles away. They returned shortly after noon. The convoy included five soldiers in four vehicles. The entry to the secured base included a pivot arm, spike strip and rolling gate.
“The demeanor of the guards did not give any indication of fear or trepidation,” according to the redacted report.
The first vehicle passed the guard shack without incident.
When the second was even with the guard shack, Abu Tayeh, who was inside, “fired numerous shots from his M16 rifle through the windshield,” mortally wounding Lewellen and McEnroe, the report says.
Moriarty and a fourth American bailed from their vehicle and took cover behind a concrete barrier. Abu Tayeh left the shack and pursued them while firing his weapon. The Americans at one time put down their pistols and told the gunman in Arabic that they were Americans.
The fourth American, whose name is redacted in the report, said in his statement: “Every time we put our hands or heads above the barrier the guard fired upon us. I communicated with Moriarty and we decided to shoot back since the guard was not interested in talking.”
Abu Tayeh, wearing body armor, continued to fire, eventually killing Moriarty.
“I stood up and fired a complete magazine of my Glock at the guard,” the fourth American said. “The guard fell to the ground and I kicked his (rifle) away.”
During the 6 1/2 minutes of gunfire, other Jordanian soldiers kept other Americans away.
The report concluded that Lewellen and McEnroe had no chance because of the “extremely close proximity” of the shooter. Of Moriarty and the other American, the report said they “attempted to maneuver to gain a better position without abandoning their teammates.”
After the shooting, a U.S. spokesperson said investigators had not ruled out terrorism.
Jordan’s state news agency, Petra, reported that the American convoy had disobeyed direct orders from Jordanian troops, which led to a deadly exchange of small-arms fire.
Jordan later pulled back that claim.
But in a letter dated March 6 from Jordanian ambassador Dina Kawar to U.S. Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, Kawar wrote that an investigation determined that the shooting was a “tragic accident” devoid of any terrorist intent and that Abu Tayeh had complied with rules of engagement.
“Abu Tayeh was tasked with swift response,” Kawar said, and fired toward the source of what he took to be gunshots coming from the Americans, “who in turn fired directly at Abu Tayeh, believing he was targeting them.”
“Abu Tayeh was badly injured in the incident.”
She also cited Abu Tayeh’s 14 years of service.
Chuck and Cindy Lewellen took the letter as a slap in the face. They and the other families received a briefing on Feb. 28 in Washington and said the surveillance video includes no noise that could have been mistaken for a gunshot.
The three families want Jordan to clear their sons of any wrongdoing and for the shooter to be punished. Lewellen knows, however, that Middle Eastern politics is complicated. Jordan allows the United States a military presence in the country.
“Would I say that Congress is going full-bore to help us — no, probably not,” he said. “But I want Jordan to know that I know what happened. Now, it’s up to them.”
Poe called the killings an “ambush” and called on Jordan to come clean about the shooter’s motives.
In a statement, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said: “I’ve talked to the Jordanian government, been briefed on the FBI and Army investigations, and met with Matt’s dad. Matt proudly served his country and we need to be sure we get all of the answers about this tragic loss.”
Chuck Lewellen wants those answers to lead to action.
Cindy views things a bit differently.
“It’s not vengeance with me,” she said, shaking her head. “I think about the lives affected. I guess I want to understand him. I want to know his story and we’re not getting that.”
‘That beautiful smiling face ended’
For more than an hour, Chuck and Cindy Lewellen sat at the dining table and talked about the day the Green Berets died.
Then they shoved all the papers aside and talked about their son. They broke out family photos of the kids growing up — Matt, Andrew and Danielle.
Matt playing football. Matt the king of the prom.
Chuck told how Matt worked at the family’s restaurant when he was in high school.
“Couldn’t hardly afford for him to work there because he ate so much,” Chuck said, looking like a dad who so badly wanted to smile for his son.
Cindy showed a school paper Matt wrote when he was 9: “The gift I give is laughter. I share my jokes and make people laugh really hard. I’ll be a comedienne some day like Eddie Murphy or Jim Carey.”
That fit perfectly with what Matt’s Army buddies said about him.
The parents were surprised when Matt enlisted in 2010. So were his friends. At the funeral, Chuck told about a college roommate who upon hearing the plan said: “Umm, Matt, I’m pretty sure the Army gets up before noon.”
Chuck and Cindy drove to the University of Kansas to try to talk him out of it. They were unsuccessful, but they went back home feeling good.
“It was what he really wanted to do,” Cindy said.
She took comfort in his early duties. Honor guard, airborne school — things that kept him from harm’s way.
For a while.
Then came the deployments. First to Afghanistan in 2014. He hurried back from that one for Danielle’s softball senior day at Truman State University. In 2015, he rushed home after a second deployment to be best man at Andrew’s wedding.
“Any time Matt could make it home for family things, he was here,” Chuck said. “And when he was here, he never talked about what he’d been doing. He told me just enough to keep me satisfied.”
Super Bowl Sunday hit Chuck hard. No matter where Matt was, no matter how far from home, he would always call after those games and they would talk.
This year after the game, Chuck cried.
“Watching that surveillance video, watching the last seconds of your son’s life, I tell you, that was hard,” he said. “That was when it ended. That’s when that beautiful smiling face ended.”
Finally, he broke out Matt’s medals. Among the stack, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, awarded posthumously, and the earlier Bronze Star they didn’t know about.
Matt’s girlfriend, Renee Laque, found it.
In a box, hidden away in a kitchen cabinet.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182