Pentagon: No additional punishments after review of investigations into deadly 2017 Niger ambush

From left, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Sgt. La David Johnson of Miami Gardens, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga. All four were killed in Niger, when a joint patrol of American and Niger forces was ambushed on Oct. 4, 2017, by militants believed linked to the Islamic State group.

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 6, 2019

WASHINGTON—Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will not pursue additional punishments for military personnel involved in the 2017 ambush in Niger that led to the deaths of four American soldiers following a review of the initial probes into the attack, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

Pentagon officials also announced they would award nine valor medals for heroic actions undertaken during the six-hour firefight following the Oct. 4 ambush in a remote area of southwest Niger. The families of each of the four soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C.’s 3rd Special Forces Group killed in the attack will receive valor awards for their soldiers’ actions that day.

Shanahan requested a new review earlier this year of the investigations into the ambush “to ensure every aspect of this investigation had been fully considered, including individual accountability,” Owen West, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “After this review of the investigation by [Army] Gen. Robert Brown, the acting secretary of defense was satisfied that appropriate individual accountability measures and organizational improvements were in place.”

News of the ambush raised questions about the U.S. special operations missions in Africa. The mission faced further scrutiny after a monthslong probe into the deadly ambush resulted in reprimands doled out mostly to junior and mid-grade officers and enlisted personnel, while only one general officer was punished.

After the new review by Brown, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific, Shanahan accepted its findings on May 29, according to West.

"The department is absolutely confident after two investigations and three reviews that accountability has been rendered in this case," he said.

During the process of the investigation, “our primary concern has been the families of the fallen,” Shanahan said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “We knew we had to be thorough to ensure the right decisions were made for our servicemembers and provide the opportunity for closure to the families.”

The team of some 40 American Green Berets and support soldiers and Nigerien forces was attacked by more than 100 “well-trained and well-equipped fighters” in Tongo Tongo, according to the report. Two U.S soldiers were wounded and four were killed during the attack. Staff Sgts. Bryan Black and Dustin Wright, both Green Berets, and Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed in the ambush. Jeremiah Johnson was posthumously promoted from staff sergeant to sergeant first class.

Four Nigerien soldiers also died in the attack.

Nine valor awards were approved for actions during the ambush, and the investigation found the Special Forces team “served gallantly under fire,” West said.

“If not for the courageous actions of several soldiers, additional loss of life likely would have occurred,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson will be posthumously awarded the Silver Star, and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black and Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson will be posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor. A defense official said no one had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

“The awards will be officially announced and presented in accordance with the families' wishes, and at a time that is appropriate to honor the actions and sacrifice associated with the valor awards,” according to the Pentagon.

The only information the Pentagon gave regarding the other five valor awards was two additional team members will receive the Silver Star and the other medals to be awarded are a Bronze Star Medal with "V" device, the Army Commendation Medal with "V" device, and the Army Commendation Medal with "C" device for combat.

Investigators, who spent months conducting interviews and reviewing the site of the ambush, determined the Special Forces team was improperly trained for its mission and inadequately prepared to face the deadly ambush in which they found themselves outnumbered three-to-one against a heavily armed enemy force.

Senior AFRICOM officials were not aware that the team set out on a mission Oct. 3, 2017 with Nigerien troops to find a local ISIS leader. The mission should have included a rehearsal of the operation, further planning and high-level approval, according to the investigation.

Once they were ambushed, fighting raged on for nearly an hour before headquarters learned their troops needed help. At that point, it took more than 45 minutes for the help to arrive, in the form of two French fighter jets that conducted four shows of force, which eventually convinced the ISIS force to retreat.

West said the Pentagon had implemented changes as a result of the investigation for the special operations community, which included mandating mission rehearsals and streamlining mission approval procedures.

Nine disciplinary actions were taken across the chain of command, he said, including a general officer.

While the investigation into the ambush highlighted errors in training and planning, lower-level officers were singled out for missteps rather than senior AFRICOM and SOCOM leaders, an issue that captured the attention of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Mattis launched a review of the initial report’s findings in the months after it was completed over concerns junior troops were shouldering too much blame. That Mattis-ordered review in December 2018 resulted in the overturning of a reprimand for one of the Green Berets who survived the ambush, Army Capt. Michael Perozeni, who was the team’s leader.

The Defense Department on Wednesday declined to name the nine people who were punished for their roles in the ambush. The only information provided by a defense official was the general officer was a two-star Air Force general.

The New York Times previously reported the military personnel punished included the team’s then-battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Painter, and the top special operations general in Africa at the time, Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks. Hicks served then as the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa. He has since moved to U.S. Special Operations Command’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida where he is serving as the command’s chief of staff.

Others reprimanded, according to the New York Times, included the team’s company commander and sergeant major, a warrant officer serving with the team and a master sergeant on the team.

Despite the added scrutiny to the mission in Niger after the deadly attack, the United States appears set to maintain special operations and conventional military missions in the region for the foreseeable future as it works to help Niger and bordering countries suppress a range of militant groups operating there. The Islamic State in West Africa, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the top threats in Africa, defense officials have said.

The Air Force said it recently completed a runway on a new drone base in Agadez, Niger, but it will be several months before it can be activated.

That mission is expected to require some 600 airmen, who will operate on the base.

It will be used primarily for surveillance drones, but the Nigerien government approved a U.S. request in 2018, shortly after the deadly attacks, to fly armed drones in the country.

Stars and Stripes staff writer Corey Dickstein contributed to this story.

Twitter: @caitlinmkenney