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Families want accountability for Afghan battles

22 dead in 3 battles and 8 officers receive reprimands, but angry families urge further action

Apr. 19, 2010 - 05:50AM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 19, 2010 - 05:50AM  |  
First Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, was one of nine soldiers killed during a deadly battle July 13, 2008, in Wanat, Afghanistan.
First Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, was one of nine soldiers killed during a deadly battle July 13, 2008, in Wanat, Afghanistan. (Army)
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They were "sitting ducks."

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They were "sitting ducks."

"Why are they still in command?"

"Where are the generals?"

Such are some of the pleas of the parents of 22 soldiers, Marines and a Navy corpsman killed in three separate — but eerily similar — battles in Afghanistan when their units were put in indefensible positions or left without sufficient support when attacked by overwhelming forces.

In each case, commanders have been found responsible for the battlefield mistakes that contributed to the dangers faced by the troops. Each of the unnamed officers has been officially reprimanded, according to Army releases.

But these reprimands display a familiar pattern of Army accountability: field commanders were disciplined, but their high-ranking superiors were spared.

Related reading:

Will scrutiny lead to overly cautious commanders?

That's true following separate investigations into the three battles in Afghanistan.

To parents of the dead soldiers, the accountability seems too little, too late — and too low on the chain of command.

Senior leaders, the parents say, are responsible for a pattern of mistakes that left their sons mortally exposed on the battlefield.

"Where are the generals, and how do you hold them accountable?" said retired Col. David Brostrom, whose son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, was one of nine soldiers killed during a deadly battle July 13, 2008, in Wanat. Brostrom's anger grew when the patrol base his son and his soldiers fought so hard to defend was abandoned shortly after the battle.

"My son and those eight other soldiers died and those 27 were wounded for what?" he said. "What did they die for? ... They said ‘Screw it' and left. Well, why did you go in there in the first place?"

Looking for answers, the elder Brostrom leveraged his military expertise, knowledge and connections to push for wider accountability to include generals who had battlefield oversight.

Brostrom started by reaching out to the chain of command for his son's unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, but he received "very curt, short answers about what happened," he said.

When Brostrom continued to have difficulty getting more information, he contacted the senators and representatives for Hawaii, where he lives, and submitted to them a detailed letter along with 26 questions he wanted the Army to answer.

"They were simple questions: where was the battalion commander, where were the Apaches?" Brostrom said.

"As a military guy, it just didn't make sense to me," Brostrom said about the answers he received. "The answers made me mad, so I gave them 12 or 13 more questions."

Frustrated by his lack of progress, Brostrom reached out to a friend and fellow retired colonel who lived in Washington, D.C. The men filed a complaint with the Defense Department Inspector General.

It was May 2009, almost a year after Jonathan Brostrom was killed in Wanat, when David Brostrom finally made a breakthrough — a friend of a friend knew Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Brostrom was able to secure a 10-minute office call with the Marine veteran.

"Ten minutes turned into an hour and 10 minutes," Brostrom said. "Senator Webb started to ask me some very detailed questions based on his military experience. The more questions I answered, the angrier he got."

Under pressure from Webb, the military announced in September 2009 it was launching a new investigation into the deadly battle.

"To me, there's a total breakdown in the chain of command and also leadership failures here," said Brostrom, a Desert Storm veteran who retired in October 2004. During his 30-year Army career, Brostrom was an aviation brigade commander and aviator who primarily flew AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters.

"You can slam the brigade commander all you want to, or the battalion commanders, and sometimes they deserve it, but the bottom line is how can the generals not catch this? To me, there's no excuse."

Two investigations into the Wanat battle — including one ordered by Central Command after the families of the soldiers killed alleged command negligence on the part of the unit's chain of command — have been completed. Three officers — the company, battalion and brigade commanders at the time — received letters of reprimand. They now have the chance to appeal, and Army officials have said the process is expected to be completed in mid-to-late April.

In all, eight Army officers have been disciplined for putting their troops in harm's way in the three deadly battles. They received letters of reprimand stemming from the battles. The Army, citing privacy laws, refuses to say whether the reprimands issued were potentially career-ending permanent letters of reprimand, which remain in the officer's file, or the much more lenient "local" letters of reprimand, which stay in the officer's file until he is redeployed or moves on to his next assignment.

Letters of reprimand are significantly different from — and less serious than — relieving an officer of command.

Names, details withheld

The Navy and Air Force have publicly fired some 25 commanders since January 2009. The Navy releases information on each firing, including name and nature of the offenses for which the officers were sacked, as a way of demonstrating what is expected of commanders and how they will be held accountable for falling short.

The Army handles such cases differently, withholding the details under the mask of privacy laws.

Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two Army general officers have been relieved of command and both were fired outside the war zones: Maj. Gen. George Weightman was fired after the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal in 2007, and Gen. Kevin Byrnes, former commander of Training and Doctrine Command, was relieved of command in 2005 for ignoring a directive to stop seeing a woman with whom he allegedly was having an adulterous affair while separated from his wife.

In May 2005, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Gen. David McKiernan, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Ten colonels in the Army Competitive Category, which excludes acquisition, medical and Judge Advocate General's corps officers, have been relieved since 2005. None of those actions took place in the war zones.

But among lieutenant colonels in the competitive category, 36 have been relieved of command since 2003; 11 were relieved while deployed to the war zone.

Citing privacy concerns, Army officials declined to provide names or reasons why these officers were relieved of command.

Inquiry findings

The recent and public string of battalion- and brigade-level commanders being disciplined for tragedy on the battlefield has left some demanding that more action be taken, this time against the general officers who oversee the lieutenant colonels and colonels.

"I'm still pro-military, but it's a tragedy if these officers get off so lightly with just a reprimand," Susan Price said about the officers reprimanded after her son, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, and four other service members were killed in an ambush Sept. 8 at Ganjgal in Kunar province. "Why are they still in command? Where the hell are these officers, and why did they get just a slap on the wrist?"

Brent Layton, whose son, Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, was shot and killed while providing medical attention to Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson during the same ambush, agreed, citing concerns that troops in Afghanistan were too restricted by the theater's rules of engagement.

"They're out there with their handcuffs on, that's the way I look at it," he said.

"I was in law enforcement, and it's just like it is in the military: Your strength is in knowing that you have help coming if you need it. These boys asked for it repeatedly, and they didn't get it."

The soldiers at Kamdesh "were sitting ducks," said Larry Mace, father of Spc. Stephan Mace, who was one of eight soldiers killed in the attack on Combat Outpost Keating in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province Oct. 3.

Investigations of the three battles found:

• The troops at Wanat were left at the remote outpost with insufficient supplies to build defenses, and they were also short of water. Webb pushed the Pentagon to reinvestigate the battle citing a concern that "command negligence" put the troops in harm's way.

• Lt. Gen. Guy Swan investigated the COP Keating battle and concluded in his report: "There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters." According to The Washington Post, the squadron and brigade commanders overseeing Keating wanted to close it. But closing was repeatedly delayed. Some family members of the deceased soldiers said the officers who postponed shutting the base also should be held accountable.

• Investigators looking into the Ganjgal battle found that "the absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact in the battlespace, and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action, was the key failure in the events of 8 September 2009. The actions of senior leaders were clearly negligent."

Despite the spate of reprimands, the Army officials insist the service's established system of investigation and accountability is sound.

"We have a well-established tradition of conducting after-action reviews or administrative investigations to determine the facts, assess performance and take corrective action when necessary," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said in a statement provided to Army Times. "Leaders at every echelon understand that they are accountable for their actions and for those of their subordinates."

The Army will "hold accountable those who fall below standards expected of them," Chiarelli said. "We do so based on actions — not position or rank."

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said he has read the reports on all three battles, and he continues to wrestle with how to communicate the lessons learned from those battles to the Army.

"We need to get back to basics on some things, the blocking and tackling of war fighting," he said. "We've got to get back to the basics across the Army. I'm trying to figure out how to communicate with the force so they can learn and know it's not a witch-hunt. It's accountability."

Brostrom is still unsatisfied despite spending "countless" hours every day fighting for answers. "I'm just as pissed now as I was two years ago, because, really, nothing has been done," he said. "The Army is still dragging its feet."

Accountability at the top

"While I certainly don't feel qualified to comment about [the battles in] Wanat ... and Kamdesh, I think there's a larger issue here of senior leader accountability that is spot-on," said Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany. "If you think about all the systems in the Army — we have a different doctrine than we had 10 years ago, we have different acquisition priorities — if you look at our training, it is fundamentally changed to focus on irregular warfare. The one thing that hasn't changed is our system of developing senior leaders."

The crucial flaw in that, he says, is a tradition of conformity in which senior officers are not challenged by subordinates, who sometimes face career consequences for seeming disrespectful.

Therefore, battlefield decisions — or lack of them — by senior leaders are followed without question and after-action reviews often do not go as far up the chain as they should.

"The general notion of holding commanders absolutely accountable for what their units do or fail to do is completely ingrained in the leadership ethos of the Army," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an adjunct professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy and highly decorated rifle company commander in Vietnam.

Part of the issue faced by troops in Afghanistan is what McCaffrey calls "tactical arrogance."

The soldiers fighting in Afghanistan today "grew up in combat," he said. "However, until [Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces] got there, platoon-sized units were out at the end of long valleys surrounded by high mountains with no artillery support from multiple, overlapping, supporting bases and with no armor in country at all that could race down roads to the rescue, and with inadequate helicopters."

These small formations were vulnerable to "enemy forces that are battalion-sized, with rockets and mortars, with heavy machine guns, and they do reconnaissance of objectives, and they do espionage, they listen to radio traffic. ... They damn near have eaten several units," McCaffrey said. "That calls for accountability."

However, McCaffrey also said he's worried about the in-depth investigations being conducted into these brazen enemy attacks.

"Everybody who loses a son or daughter in combat, they want to know with 100 percent clarity how their boy or girl was killed," he said. "These are giant operations with inadequate resources in country, in a huge nation of 28 million people, 50 percent larger than the country of Iraq. This is not where you go back and in a detailed [after-action review] determine what went wrong and then allocate punishment or merit."

As in any war, any military operation conducted in theater is a risk, McCaffrey said. But he added that the commanders ultimately are accountable for these risks.

"You're talking to a company commander who then served in other grades," McCaffrey said. "That's what I am, a rifle company commander in combat. Commanders should be held accountable for everything their unit does or fails to do. Period."

That accountability needs to also rise to the general-officer level, Brostrom said.

"Here's the problem with Wanat and Kamdesh, [the] division commanders don't think they have the responsibility anymore," he said. "They focus on higher things, and it's pushed to the brigade commanders. To me, something's wrong, so it's time for a process change. You get those generals involved again, because they're not."

Brostrom said he understands that commanders in Afghanistan face the tyranny of distance and a lack of resources, but in the case of the base in Wanat, "they approved the mission when they knew they couldn't provide the oversight."

"So you can go over the battalion commander and the brigade commander, but does it really fix the problem?" Brostrom said. "I would say no, it doesn't. Where are the general officers? They have just as much skin in the game. What is being done to make sure [this] doesn't happen again?"

Rewarding conformity

In times of crisis, when lives are in danger, people look to their leaders for specific things, said Col. Thomas Kolditz, professor and head of the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at West Point.

"The truth of the matter is, in peaceful settings, we're willing to tolerate less than perfect leadership," he said. "We work in our jobs and do what we have to do and sometimes we'll be working for someone who may not be the most competent. Put that same person ... in the combat zone, the game changes."

In 2007, Yingling wrote an article for Armed Forces Journal, a sister publication of Army Times, criticizing America's general officer corps for failing to prepare the military for the war in Iraq.

In the article, Yingling calls for a change in the way the Army, in particular, grooms and selects its general officers.

Yingling praised Gates for relieving a number of high-profile general officers and officials for failing to perform up to standard, but said that is not enough.

"It is a mistake to confuse a few high-profile firings with a fundamental change in Army culture," he said.

For example, Gates places emphasis on professional candor, Yingling said.

"However, the structure under which the Army operates discourages the kind of candor Secretary Gates is demanding," he said. "If a commander argues too strongly with his commander, his career is almost over."

Yingling added that a commander is more likely to survive a failure in combat than a personality clash with his senior rater.

That system of developing senior leaders is the "self-replicating DNA" of the Army, he said.

"It's literally how the Army reproduces itself over a generation," he said. Some solutions offered by Yingling include a 360-degree evaluation system.

"Instead of just pleasing your boss, you would have a system that draws on leaders who draw inspiration and loyalty with their subordinates," he said. "Our subordinates judge us every day, but we've created a system that excludes those judgments."

Yingling also supports more emphasis on intellectual rigor.

"For the most part, our senior leaders are thinking about the future 20 years hence perhaps for the first time in their lives and late in their careers," he said.

However, Yingling said he doubts any real change will take place.

"The Army has demonstrated an inability to reform itself," he said. "The only way that our system for developing senior leaders could change was if it would be imposed by outside intervention. I've argued that it should come from Congress."

The time to change is now — especially as the Army continues to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yingling said.

"In combat, when we fail, people die and the consequences are very real," he said. "But when you move away from the [operational] Army to the institutional Army, you see much less adaptation and much less emphasis on accountability. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I certainly hope, are going to end. When that happens, the battlefield pressure ... will recede and what are left are the peacetime structures. My concern is if we don't make these reforms now, then ... when we're beginning to move out of Iraq and Afghanistan and we return to more of a peacetime condition, we'll never do it in times of peace."

Brostrom said he sometimes wonders what would have happened if he hadn't pursued a more thorough investigation.

"I feel bad for all the officers who are being investigated," he said. "I didn't want that to happen, but my son was killed and I truly believe they knew they screwed up."

If he hadn't pursued this so doggedly, Brostrom said, "would the Army have taken an introspective look at itself? I don't think so. I really did this for the families. What happened in Wanat was not right. What happened at Keating was not right, either."

———

Staff writer dlamothe@atpco.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

Read more:

Will scrutiny lead to overly cautious commanders?

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