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2018 blast in Syria that killed US, UK soldiers accidental detonation, not enemy action

Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, 36, of Austin, Texas

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 29, 2019

U.S. Special Operations Command on Monday confirmed that a 2018 blast in Syria that killed two special operations soldiers from the U.S. and U.K. was caused by coalition explosives, not a roadside bomb.

Britain’s Defence Ministry said Saturday that British commando Sgt. Matthew Tonroe, who was the first U.K. servicemember to die fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, was killed by an accidental explosion in March 2018 and not an improvised explosive device, which had been reported.

“An investigation determined both U.S. Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar and Sergeant Tonroe died as a result of the accidental detonation of explosives carried by coalition forces not by enemy action,” SOCOM said in its statement.

Tonroe, 33, and Dunbar, 36, died as a result of the blast, which occurred while they were on a joint operation in Manbij, northern Syria. The Pentagon stated at the time that they were part of a joint U.S.-U.K. team "conducting a mission to kill or capture a known ISIS member.”

Five others with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition were wounded in the explosion and were evacuated for treatment.

“Our thoughts continue to be with Master Sgt. Dunbar and Sgt. Tonroe's family and friends,” SOCOM said.

Tonroe had enlisted in the U.K. Army in 2004 and had deployed numerous times to Afghanistan and the Middle East, a statement from the Ministry of Defence said after his death. He served in the 3rd Battalion of Britain’s elite Parachute Regiment.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that he was a sniper with the elite British Special Air Service, or SAS, and had spent time embedded with SEAL Team 6. He was survived by his mother, a brother and his girlfriend.

Dunbar was assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C. That designation has historically been used for members of the Army’s secretive special operations unit known as Delta Force.

In the months since Dunbar’s death, his father has posted on Facebook praising the unit, which is headquartered in a compound he said he visited in May for a Memorial Day ceremony honoring his son. In one post, he said his son was on an October 2015 mission to rescue ISIS-held prisoners near Hawija, Iraq, which claimed the life of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the first American combat death in the anti-ISIS campaign.

Dunbar, of Austin, Texas, had joined the Army as an infantryman in May 2005 and served as a machine gunner, a fire team leader and a squad leader at Fort Bragg after initial training, then as squad leader in the 82nd Airborne Division and then as a squad leader in the 38th Cavalry Regiment (Long Range Surveillance) at Fort Hood, Texas. While assigned to Fort Bragg and Fort Hood, he deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a biography provided by the Army Special Operations Command.

In 2013, Dunbar was assigned to SOCOM and deployed three times in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the biography said.

Growing up, he was "the biggest nerd ever," his sister Crystal Dunbar told Austin’s KUT radio in April 2018.

"He had big, Coke-bottle glasses, and he was always playing the superhero,” she said. “So, whether he was playing cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, or anything like that, he was always the superhero."

He joined the Army to make a better life for his son, Crystal Dunbar said, and it made him a better man.

"He was a young father and he decided he needed to better his life for his son,” she said. “We weren't for him going into the military just based on our own fear and our own selfishness. But it changed him. It changed him into an amazing father.”

Jonathan Dunbar’s decorations include three Bronze Stars.

Dunbar left behind a wife, who was pregnant with a daughter at the time of his death, and three children, his obituary said.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland

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