Pentagon originally said Marine killed in combat

The Pentagon confirmed late Tuesday that it is investigating the death of a 24-year-old Indiana Marine after he was shot to death in Afghanistan, allegedly by several US-paid private security contractors.

The contractors, according to a fellow Marine in Afghanistan who communicated with an investigative reporter in Chicago, were Afghanis who were found with "copious amounts of opium" and had been paid by the United States as guards.

"He was killed by American Hired Local National Contractors that were high on opium the morning of the 19th," the ABC reporter quotes a friend and fellow colleague of Lance Corporal Joshua Birchfield as saying in an email message.

Lance Corporal Joshua Birchfield was killed after being shot in the head Feb. 19. The Department of Defense originally reported that he died of "small arms fire" while in combat.

But the story is apparently darker and more complex -- raising questions of whether the Pentagon originally concealed information about the Marine's death.

The Chicago Marine who tipped off the ABC reporter purportedly wrote a detailed email surrounding the circumstances of Birchfield's death. In it, he asserts that the young Marine was killed by Afghanis paid as private contractors.

"These men are armed to the teeth and supposedly here for our protection," the fellow Marine is said to have emailed. "We have been shot at by the contractors on several cases before this incident. We have been told to refrain from returning fire and attempt to identify ourselves as Marines so they stop shooting."

"They are also drug abusers," he continued. "The shooter was found to have copious amounts of wet opium on him shortly after the shooting ... we found a bag of wet opium in the compound that the contractors were using to get high."

"A mix of drugs and gray areas of loyalty between U.S. forces and Taliban seems to be the motivation behind the shooting," he added.

The Pentagon, announcing an investigation into the death on Wednesday, declined to say what exactly they were investigating.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the Associated Press "the military is looking into the circumstances surrounding the Feb. 19 shooting of 24-year-old Lance Cpl. Joshua Birchfield of Westville. He declined further comment."

"Maj. Carl Redding of the Marine Corps confirmed the investigation but referred additional questions to Marine Corps officials in Afghanistan," the AP added.

Investigators reportedly found the private security guards with drugs and weapons and placed several under arrest.

ABC reporter Chuck Goudie wrote about Birchfield's death in a column in the local newspaper The Daily Herald. Curiously, his column includes the caveat, "The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV." WLS-TV is an ABC affiliate.

Goudies says Birchfield "was on a security patrol about a half-mile from a Marine forward operating base. About 7 a.m., as day broke, shots were fired at Birchfield's patrol team, according to members of his unit. The ambush was by U.S.-hired security guards who were supposed to be protecting a highway paving project from Taliban-installed roadside bombs."

"The contractors were able to have such proximity to a U.S. patrol because we pay them to work on our FOB (forward operating base), pave the 515 (highway), and provide security from Taliban IED (roadside bomb) implacers in the area," he says he was told.