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Mystery surrounds death of soldier

Quincy woman is called a noncombat casualty

The Massachusetts National Guard soldier from Quincy who died in Afghanistan Friday was found with a single bullet in her head lying near her church on a secure military base, her family said yesterday after a briefing from Army officials.

The Department of Defense said in a statement yesterday that Ciara Durkin's injuries came from a "non-combat related incident" that is under investigation. The statement contradicts a Sunday statement from the Massachusetts Army National Guard that said Durkin, an Army specialist, was killed in action. A guard spokesman said the term was meant to imply that Durkin was deployed in Afghanistan at the time of her death.

"We're completely in the dark," said Pierce Durkin, the soldier's 28-year-old brother. "Patience is probably dissipating."

Family members, who are pushing for more information from Army officials, are girding for the possibility that Ciara (pronounced Kee-ra) Durkin was killed by a fellow service member, intentionally or accidentally, at the Bagram Airfield. They said they are confident that she did not commit suicide.

"The family has been going over this several times," Pierce Durkin said. "There is nothing to indicate that it could have possibly been self-inflicted."

The unusual case is drawing intense interest from Ireland, where Durkin, 30, and most of her family were born and where three siblings live. Her family is appealing to the Irish government, in addition to American congressmen, for additional help in clearing up the details of her death. A US Central Command spokesman in Afghanistan, reached by telephone yesterday, did not provide further details to a reporter.

Pierce Durkin said his family is hoping that the military will "speed up and that they will deliver a very thorough and very honest and very fact-based and sincere report."

Inconsistent stories surrounding the injury to Army Private Jessica Lynch and the death of former professional football player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman have increased the family's skepticism, Durkin said.

"We understand that military relations are so much connected to public relations concerns," he said. "Therefore, if it was something that was unfavorable it would be handled from a public relations mindset not a principled one."

The vast majority of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been combat-related. The US military reported yesterday that 3,100 of 3,799 deaths in Iraq and 252 of 438 deaths in Afghanistan were classified as combat deaths.

Deaths listed by the military as nonhostile include injuries from car crashes and other logistical accidents, as well as suicides. Durkin's unit, which handled financial accounts on the base, was not involved in combat.

Shooting deaths on a secure base are "very, very rare," said Ted Oelstrom, a retired lieutenant general who directs the National Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School. "There has been probably a handful of these incidents over time."

Pierce Durkin was the last member of his family to hear from his sister. She left him a birthday greeting on his voicemail at 1 a.m. Friday.

"She was saying, 'Pierce, I love you. I can't wait to see you.' And she started singing 'Happy Birthday,' " he said.

The siblings were close, the two youngest in a family of nine children. When she was on leave in Quincy for two weeks last month, she and her brother made plans to pool their money to buy a home so they could quit paying rent. She wanted to go to school to study information technology or finance, her brother said.

"I don't think anyone could have gone from such a jovial mood on the 14th [of September] to such a 180" degree turn toward suicide, Pierce Durkin said.

Ciara Durkin may have been on her way to or from church when she was killed, according to her sister Fiona Canavan. Military officials told the family she was nearby when she was found.

"We know they had very frequent concerns about snipers over there," Canavan said. "But she was in a secure area . . . which, even though the investigation is not complete, leads the family to believe it was what is called 'friendly fire.' "

Military officials told Durkin family members the investigation could take as long as eight weeks.

Durkin's wake will take place from 4-9 p.m. Friday at the Dennis Sweeney Funeral Home in Quincy. Her funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Quincy.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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