A US soldier who took part in an attack in which 12 people, including a Reuters journalist, were killed and two children injured has written an emotional apology to the victims’ families in Iraq.

Ethan McCord is seen carrying the children to safety in a Pentagon video of the attack in a Baghdad suburb three years ago. The film was released on the internet this month by WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing secret documents.

“The acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war,” writes Mr McCord in an apology, which is also signed by Josh Stieber, another former soldier from the same unit. “We humbly ask you what we can do to begin to repair the damage we caused.”

The release of the 38-minute video embarrassed the Pentagon and prompted indignation at the spectacle of soldiers from Bravo Company killing with the seeming detachment of video gamers.

Mr McCord’s comments are likely to cause further disquiet: he claims he was so distressed by what he had witnessed that day that he asked to see a counsellor but was told by a superior: “Don’t be a pussy.”  In the video, an Apache helicopter is seen firing at a group of Iraqi men, killing the photographer and his driver. Then the helicopter opens fire on a van trying to rescue the wounded, killing several more people.

As the helicopter circled overhead, Mr McCord’s platoon arrived on foot. He was the first to approach the bullet-riddled van. Inside, a girl sat crying in the back.  “She had a stomach wound and glass in her eyes and in her hair,” Mr McCord recalled last week. Next to her was a boy who was covered in blood. In the front seat, their father sat slumped to one side. “Just from looking into the van and the amount of blood that was on the boy and the father, I immediately figured they were dead.”

Mr McCord carried the girl into a house to be examined by a medic. Then he went back out to the van. “That’s when the boy took, like, a laboured breath. That’s when I started screaming, `The boy’s alive, the boy’s alive’,” he said.

He picked up the child and ran with him to a Bradley armoured vehicle. “He opened his eyes when I was carrying him,” Mr McCord said. “I just kept telling him, `Don’t die, don’t die’. He looked at me, then his eyes rolled back into his head.”

Back in his room that evening, Mr McCord said he felt “distraught” as he tried to wash the children’s blood out of his uniform. “So I went to a sergeant and asked to see the mental health person, because I was having a hard time dealing with it.”

He was warned that there would be “repercussions” if he insisted on counselling: “So I tried to move on with everything. I’ve lived with seeing the children that way since the incident happened. I’ve had nightmares. I was diagnosed with chronic severe post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Mr McCord left the army. Back home in Kansas, his condition began to improve. Then, when he turned on his television this month, he saw himself in the grainy video footage. “The flood of emotions came back,” he said. “I know the scene by heart. It’s burnt into my head. I know the van, I know the faces of everybody that was there that day.”

He was happy to know that Sajad Salah, the 12-year-old boy, and Duaa, his six-year-old sister, had survived. Their father had been driving them home from school when he saw the injured Reuters driver crawling across the road and stopped to help.

“Knowing that I was part of the system that took their father away from them . . . it’s heartbreaking,” Mr McCord said.

“That is what helped me and Josh write the letter, hoping that it would find its way to them to let them know that we’re sorry. We’re sorry for the system that we were involved in that took their father’s life and injured them.”

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