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Military investigating if Stone was killed by friendly fire

COLCHESTER, Vt. --A Vermont National Guard soldier who died last week in Afghanistan may have been killed by fire from coalition forces, the military said Tuesday.
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Military representatives of the United States, Canada and Afghanistan will investigate the circumstances of the deaths of Master Sgt. John Thomas Stone and a Canadian soldier who died in the same firefight at a southern Afghan base, officials in Vermont and Afghanistan said.

The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan first announced the probe into the Taliban attack in Helmand province last week in which Stone and Canadian Pvt. Robert Costall were killed, "including whether any of the casualties may have resulted from friendly fire."

Brig. Gen. Michael Dubie, commander of the Vermont National Guard, held a brief news conference at guard headquarters at Camp Johnson to confirm the report from Afghanistan.

"The investigation will determine all the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident, including whether any of the casualties may have been resulted from friendly fire," Dubie said. "We were first notified two days ago that it was possible that there may be an investigation."

The formal probe was confirmed Tuesday.

Stone was part of an embedded training team that was working to prepare Afghan troops to defend their own country when the base came under attack by Taliban militants. One other American, three Canadians and one Afghan soldier were injured in the fighting.

Dubie said Stone died at about 1:50 a.m. Wednesday, local time. "The characterization that we have heard is that it was a major firefight in the middle of the night, in a very desolate part of Afghanistan," he said.

Stone, 52, a medic, had been stationed at the base for about six weeks and had recently been joined by fellow members of the Vermont National Guard.

Dubie said he expected investigators would want to talk with the other Vermonters. "I can't tell you exactly how they'll be involved," he said. "They'll be interviewed. In any case, we are a self-correcting organization. We believe in full disclosure."

Lt. Veronica Saffo, a spokeswoman for the Vermont guard, emphasized that the presence of an investigation should not be interpreted to mean the military believes Stone and Costall were killed by their comrades.

"It's definitely not an indication that it was friendly fire," Saffo said, adding that the military tends to "err conservatively in favor of conducting an investigation."

Dubie said U.S., Canadian and Afghan personnel would work together on the investigation team. "The result will culminate in three separate national investigative reports," he said.

The Toronto Globe & Mail, which reported the friendly fire investigation on its Web site, described the base where the firefight took place as primitive and "little more than an expanse of sand surrounded by a single ring of sandbags." The newspaper said concertina wire was erected beyond the sand berm.

There are no permanent buildings at the base and soldiers defending against the attack were firing from inside the sandbags, the Globe & Mail said. There were about 100 Afghan National Army soldiers and American trainers at the base and a force of 38 Canadian forces were flown in to provide additional defense after Taliban attacks nearby earlier in the day, the newspaper said.

Stone was the tenth Vermont National Guard soldier to die in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. A total of 21 Vermonters have died during combat operations and another man died of natural causes in Kuwait while training to go to Iraq.