Today, the Department of Defense made what perhaps could be sadly construed as a gruesome announcement.
As we remember too well, four U.S. soldiers were killed on October 4 in Niger when their patrol of 12 U.S. Special Forces were ambushed by an ISIS-affiliated group.
One of the soldiers killed was Sgt. La David T. Johnson. His body was recovered two days later.
At the time, Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson,was prevented from viewing his remains before he was buried in his home state of Florida on Oct. 21.
Today’s DoD’s terse announcement reads as follows:
“On Nov. 12, 2017, a joint U.S Africa Command military investigation team discovered additional human remains at the site where Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s body was recovered following the Oct. 4 attack. Today, we can confirm that the Armed Forces Medical Examiner has positively identified these remains as those of Sgt. Johnson. The department continues to conduct a detailed and thorough investigation into the deaths of Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, and Sgt. La David T. Johnson. We extend our deepest condolences to all of the families of the fallen.”
Update, Oct. 20:
Questions are being asked here and elsewhere about the circumstances under which four U.S. service members were killed in Niger more than two weeks ago.
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. held a press briefing in the Pentagon yesterday. Here are some of their (unedited) comments on this issue:
And the attacks against the U.S. service members in Niger earlier this month is a reminder of that threat. Four U.S. service members were killed in Niger during an advise and assist mission. Additionally, two U.S. service members were injured and evacuated in stable condition to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The wounded have since been moved to the U.S., and are being treated.
These service members were providing advice and assistance to Nigerian security forces’ counterterrorism operations when they came under fire from hostile fighters.
While we are still gathering facts and await the final investigation, we do know that the team came under fire and French helos and fixed-wing aircraft arrived to assist. The wounded were airlifted out by the French and the service members killed in action were evacuated by contract air.
Question: First of all I wanted to know if by now the Army knows why one — why Sergeant Johnson was left behind in Niger? Because the corpse was found – they found him the following day.
MS. WHITE: Well, first I would say that we don’t leave anyone behind, as the secretary said earlier. He was separated.
General, if you’d like to expand.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.: I’ll just amplify a little bit, the comment about leaving someone behind. The secretary talked a little bit about it earlier this afternoon, and he expressed out position pretty clearly on it, but let me just give you a little bit of detail.
But I’ll tell you categorically, that from the moment of contact no one was left behind. Either U.S., our partner and Nigerian forces, our French forces were on the ground, actively searching for this soldier.
Now the fact of the matter is, it’s a battlefield, we just had a significant engagement, it’s tough country, and it’s out in the middle of nowhere. So, it’s not perhaps as clear as it might appear in the bright lights of this briefing room, but we spent a lot of the — a lot of men and a lot of women searched very hard to find him.
It took us a little while to do that, we didn’t leave him behind and we searched until we found him, and we brought him home.
Q: Could you give us a little better intel picture of what you saw on the ground at the time to help maybe illuminate why this was a successful ambush, why you didn’t know more about what was there that they would encounter that day.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I’m not going to be able to go into much detail with all of that because we’re still looking at it very hard and if, in fact, we had a problem there then we’ll make sure we investigate it and understand so that whatever advantage the enemy may be getting in this particular situation, he isn’t able to learn and profit from the experience whereas we can. So I’m not going to be able to give you any more information on that.
Q: When did you tell the White House that an attack was underway right after it had started?
MS. WHITE: Again, our communications with the White House are confidential. The White House was briefed and understood.
Q: This is very basic information — don’t you think you should tell the American people what happened to their soldiers out there?
MS. WHITE: I think it’s important to tell the American people the right information and when we have it all, we will let them know.
Q: Gen. McKenzie, I’d like to ask two questions. I want to make sure I get both questions in and get answers to both of them before you move on. So my first question is when you are — talked about what happened, you said if we had a problem again on Niger. If we had a problem, you want to know what it is and you want to address it. This was an am—again, two questions, sir.
This was an ambush. It seems self-evident that you did have a problem. I don’t think there’s any question about that since you were ambushed — since the troops were ambushed. So my first question is you had last time referenced it was ISIS to the best of your knowledge. First question is how is this not an intelligence failure?
My second question is when you are asked by Bob Burns about the difference, what’s the distinction between separated and left behind? You said, I believe you said, it was a distinction without a difference.
So it’s still very unclear to me what happened to this young soldier if you know he was separated. Tell us how you know that. Tell us what you know, then, about what happened to him because you are — stating – your department is stating a conclusion he was separated. So you must know something about what happened to him. So that and how was it not an intelligence failure?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So Barbara, of course we do know a lot about what happened to him and I’m not going to be able to share that information with you. At some point when the investigation’s complete, conclusions have been reached, I’ll be happy to share that information with you. I’m not going to be able to share it with you right now.
Q: Back to getting my question answered, I specifically was asking two questions.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Every tactical engagement doesn’t necessarily proceed from an intelligence failure. We’ll look at it and we’ll come to conclusions about how intelligence could have supported adequately or inadequately the engagement that occurred. But on a battlefield, the enemy gets a vote. The opposition gets a vote. We don’t — let me just finish, please. We don’t live in a perfect environment where everything is available and visible all the time.
It’s a difficult environment. Sub-Saharan Africa is a very difficult place to operate, so we’ll investigate this. We’ll have conclusions, and those conclusions will be presented. I’m not prepared to go further.
Q: Sir, a question for you as well. Related but different — you elaborated a bit on the search and said that it never stopped. That there’s reports out that would suggest that additional resources were brought in. Can you share with the American people at all what that search looked like, what sort of things were involved, and what the troops on the ground did to find this young man?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Recovery of personnel is one of our most sensitive operational areas, so we never share tactics, any sort of procedures that are associated with that. I will tell you that additional resources were brought in and it was searched very hard and that search never stopped until we recovered the soldier. I think, probably, that’s the most important thing the American people want to know.
Q: If I could follow on the American, Nigerian, or French troops never leaving the battlefield. Did I hear you correctly that American troops stayed on the battlefield the entire time until Sergeant Johnson’s body was recovered?
GEN. MCKENZIE: American troops might have been repositioned to operations in the immediate area, but I would tell you that within the battle space, either American or Nigerian or French and in some cases all three at the same time were engaged in active searches. Once the investigation’s complete, I’ll be able to give you a more descriptive timeline, but we — the sense that somehow it was a desolate site, we went back, didn’t search for the soldier.
Nothing could be further from the truth and that’s an important myth that needs to be corrected now, I think.
Q: Thank you. Two questions for General McKenzie.
In general, what are U.S. Special Operations Forces doing to combat terrorism on the African continent? And are any of them acting as advisers on direct combat missions?
GEN. MCKENZIE: On the African continent, we’re engaged with a variety of partner nations building CT capacity – – counter terrorist capacity. Niger is an excellent example of that, we’ve had a long relationship with them.
There are a variety of nations there that we do that. Our missions are advise and assist, we’re not directly involved in combat operations.
Q: Are any advising on direct action missions by partner forces?
GEN. MCKENZIE: No, we’re not involved in direct action missions with partner forces.
Q: General, question about the Niger troops. Were all the troops that were involved in that patrol, have they all completed their requisite qualifications and training – – gone through the training pipeline?
Were they fully qualified to be out on the mission that they were on and the billets that they held?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I’ll have to get back to you on the specific details. That’ll be, obviously, a matter of the investigation we’ll look at.
I have no reason to believe that isn’t the case, no reason at all to believe that isn’t the case, but I just don’t have that level of detail right now, as I talk to you.
Q: Sen. McCain has said that he expects to see more transparency out of the Pentagon following all this, so has Sen. Graham.
Sen. McCain said he’d be willing to hold up nominees to do whatever — to do sort of whatever — whatever he needs to do, in order to get more information out of the Pentagon. Do you have any response to that?
MS. WHITE: So what I can tell you is that the Pentagon did notify the staffs of both the SASC and the HASC regarding the Niger — the tragic events, and we have kept them up-to-date.
Of course, we will work with Senator McCain and his staff, to ensure they get everything that they need. It is very important to the secretary, and he’s personally dedicated to that.
Q: To follow on the question about the Senate, a couple of lawmakers have said they did not know about these operations in Niger until this incident happened. Has the Pentagon provided outreach — had the Pentagon provided outreach in advance of this to notify lawmakers that this was going on? And then I have a follow.
MS. WHITE: We did. We notified both the HASC and the SASC leadership, their staffs on the afternoon that we knew of this incident. And we also updated them via phone calls and e-mails throughout the situation. And we also had a general who briefed today in a closed session to both the HASC and the SASC.
Q: And then Gen. McKenzie, one on the accountability for personnel, did the forces on the ground realize immediately that one soldier had been separated or was this something that became clear — you mentioned that, you know, there were U.S. forces or French forces on station throughout the entire time, but at what point did they realize someone had been separated?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I’m not going to go into any details on that. I’ll just lay it onto the little comment I made earlier. It’s a difficult fight, it’s very confusing, being in an engagement like that. But I’m not going to be able to give you any more details.
Q: General, can you say — why did you have to rely on a contractor for medevac in Niger? And, if you can, who was the contractor?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I’m not going to be able to share the details of who the contractor was. We rely on contract support in a variety of places around the world, and I’m not going to go into any more detail on it than that.
In a stunning appearance in the White House briefing room, retired Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, provided an emotional description of how the remains of those killed in combat are handled, how Gold Star parents and others are given the tragic news and how commanders and the commander in chief express their sorrow to the survivors.
Coming from a Gold Star Father whose son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in battle in 2010, his words – on those subjects — were sincere, powerful and convincing.
Without passing judgment on the political aspects of the general’s position and remarks, the only comment and questions I have for now, are the following:
Trump, is the person who first — as if in some form of a macabre competition — turned this sacred ritual into a political football by criticizing other presidents for allegedly failing to call the families of fallen service members and then was intensely criticized – rightly or wrongly — for the words he used in speaking with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in Niger..
Why couldn’t this man, who calls himself the commander in chief and who claims to have so much empathy for service members, why couldn’t he – as the president. as a man, as a person with a heart and soul — appear at the podium himself and say to the widow of Sergeant Johnson, something to the effect of “If my words caused you pain and grief, I am very, very sorry.”?
Why did Trump have to send a Gold Star Father “who had long guarded his personal story of loss even as he served as a high-profile public official” and obviously still grieving from his loss, to clean up the mess he made?
Much is being said and written about how the “soulless coward” has handled the gunning down of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger 12 days ago, including this excellent piece at the Washington Post this morning.
I no longer have words that can be written in a family publication to express my disgust and horror.
However, my friend — a poet and a patriot — does.
Here they are.
“Most (Presidents) didn’t make calls”: uttered Trump with real gall
Another fabrication: from the phoniest “patriot” of this Nation
This impulsive fabricator of fake news
Insensibly blurting out another of his heartless and publicity-seeking views
With no base in fact: in goes on an easily disproven attack
Is he intellectually lazy: on just plain crazy?
“Loser” he called war hero and five-year prisoner of war McCain
Then a Gold Star Mother he did publicly defame
Did this arrogant excuse for a man ever volunteer for service to our land?
The answer is no: begging for deferments: to war he did not go
First it was deferments academic: then one that was really pathetic
This rich little playboy gofer couldn’t serve: he had a bone spur!
While McCain in a POW camp did rot: playboy Trump was out dancing the fox trot
Is this the guy to be respected: one whose patriotic duty he neglected?
Calling football players S.O.B.’s for “taking the knee”: See, you’re not a patriot like me!
Yet he calls swastika and Confederate flag waving scum “some good guys” having fun
He tweets every day: with silly things to say: but for war widows it’s a 12 day delay
To a fallen soldier’s wife: “he knew what he signed up for”: Empathetic? No: Pathetic!
He shows no maturity but rather deep-seated insecurity
He seems totally obsessed with Obama’s Great Recession recovery success
As he wraps himself in “old glory”: he politicizes everything with made up stories
He’s no patriot as he claims: for his mistakes he passes the blame: he’s a national shame
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who has had the honor, the privilege, and the reward of serving his adopted country for 20 years proudly in both the enlisted and commissioned ranks, under six presidents – Republican and Democratic. Not once did he have the feeling that his commander in chief did not have his back, did not value his service, did not appreciate the minor sacrifices his family and he endured. In particular, never once the thought even occurred that, one day, a President of the United States would denigrate the troops and their service… would call those who did not return from battle “losers” and “suckers.”