The team leader at the center of the investigation into a deadly ambush of a special operations unit in Niger last year has been recommended for an award for his valor in combat, the New York Times reported Thursday.
Capt. Michael Perozeni, the Green Beret in charge of the mission, could receive a Silver Star for his actions, despite bearing some responsibility, according to the military’s investigation, for the botched mission. Seven more soldiers from that mission are also up for awards, according to the New York Times.
“There will be awards for valor,” Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser. commander of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters when the Pentagon released the investigation in May.
A Defense Department spokeswoman would not confirm Thursday whether Perozeni was on that list.
“Individual members of the U.S. Special Operations team performed numerous acts of bravery while under fire on Oct. 4, 2017, and their actions are being reviewed for appropriate recognition," Air Force Maj. Sheryll Klinkel said in a statement.
Perozeni, according to the New York Times, was called out in the 8,000-page incident investigation for filing a misleading mission plan, taking 11 U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigeriens into a dangerous area without a back-up plan.
According to the official report, the team was going after a key member of the local Islamic State cell, but did not obtain the higher-level approval required to step outside of their train-advise-assist mission with Nigerien counter-terrorism forces.
The New York Times also reported that Perozeni had pushed back against the part of the mission that would turn deadly, but he was ordered by a lieutenant colonel based in Chad to continue the mission.
When the soldiers came under attack, each of their eight vehicles — three U.S. vehicles and five Nigerien vehicles ― became separated from each other within minutes, in a kill zone that was thousands of yards long. Under heavy enemy fire, the vehicles had stopped, and U.S. and Nigerien forces exited to return fire.
As enemy forces closed in, Perozeni made a string of split-second decisions to have the U.S. and Nigerien troops get back in their vehicles and pull back to avoid being flanked. But the vehicles ultimately lost contact with each other and did not immediately have visibility on the forces left behind.
Four more soldiers are up for Silver Stars, the third-highest award for valor, the Times reported, and three are recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross ― the award second only to the Medal of Honor.
All four soldiers killed in the ambush are under consideration: Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson for the Distinguished Service Cross, and Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black for the Silver Star.
During the ambush, La David Johnson and two Nigeriens had been returning fire from outside his vehicle. He fired the vehicle’s M240 mounted machine gun until it ran out of bullets, then picked up an M2010 sniper rifle.
When the call came to pull back, the three were trapped. Intense incoming fire kept La David Johnson from being able to reach the driver’s seat.
So, they ran. The Nigeriens were shot; La David Johnson was the only one left. He ran the length of five football fields to reach the only cover in the area: a single thorny tree. He took his position and returned fire as an enemy truck with its own mounted machine gun closed in.
His body was found two days later.
Meanwhile, Black, Jeremiah Johnson and Wright were returning fire from outside the second U.S. vehicle.
Jeremiah Johnson acknowledged the order to move out with a “thumbs up,” and another team member threw a smoke grenade to give them cover to move.
Wright began driving their vehicle slowly forward, while Black and Johnson remained outside, using the vehicle as cover to continue firing.
As Black moved slightly ahead of the vehicle, he was shot and killed by enemy fire.
Jeremiah Johnson would fall next. Badly wounded by enemy fire, he could not continue on. Wright stayed beside him, returning fire until both were killed.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.