The Army National Guard has cleared itself in an investigation into whether one of its bomb disposal units was properly trained and equipped prior to a deployment to Afghanistan during which one of its soldiers was killed in action while sweeping for improvised explosive devices.
Sgt. James Slape, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the North Carolina National Guard’s 430th Ordnance Company, died Oct. 4, 2018.
He was killed in Helmand province as he cleared around a MaxxPro truck that had been immobilized by an IED earlier in the day. He was using a counter-IED hand-held device to try to extract six soldiers still inside, according to copies of award citations previously obtained by Army Times.
Shortly after Slape’s death, The New York Times, citing documents it obtained, reported that his unit had repeatedly requested better equipment and training but were denied both due to a lack of funds.
Two months after Slape’s death, the Army National Guard initiated an AR 15-6 investigation into the pre-deployment training and equipping of his unit.
Last week, officials told Army Times that they have concluded the investigation and found no evidence of issues with the unit’s training or equipping.
Officials declined to provide the investigation to Army Times. A Freedom of Information Act request for the document has been filed.
Slape’s family members were provided a redacted copy of his death investigation, which is separate from the unit’s training and equipping investigation, according to Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Jamie Davis.
“The Army National Guard researched and investigated the process, equipment, and training readiness prior to deployment," Lt. Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, director of the Army National Guard, said in a statement. "We also reviewed the existing Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) regulatory and doctrinal guidance related to leader training and certifications.”
Unknown to them at the time, the site they were clearing would later be determined to be a minefield.
“A summary of the findings concluded the 430th OD CO (EOD) was properly equipped and trained for its contingency operating mission," Hokanson added. "It also concluded the 430th OD CO (EOD) leadership was fully qualified to perform their duties.”
When they arrived downrange, the soldiers of the 430th still did not have the most advanced mine detectors that could locate bomb components the Taliban use, according to two officials who spoke to The New York Times.
Davis, the Guard spokesman, declined to answer follow-on questions pertaining to the investigation.
The New York Times also reported that U.S. troops had repeatedly visited the ridge on which Slape was killed, as it served as an optimal point to intercept Taliban radio and cellphone traffic from nearby villages. Repeat visits to the same location, however, risk offering enemy forces insight into friendly troop movements.
Copies of award citations from the soldiers who responded to Slape’s death called the area a “minefield.”
After pulling Slape from the spot where he was mortally wounded, soldiers began treating him. A third IED would be found within 30 feet of where the troops sat down to apply tourniquets and place IV lines into the wounded EOD tech.
The series of IEDs on the site appeared to have been recently placed, according to The New York Times: “In late September, another unit from the battalion stopped there and found no buried explosives, though the soldiers reported that they were being watched.”
As an Army EOD tech, Slape was a member of a career field that grew in importance over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Slape’s job involved finding and rendering safe the sophisticated and regularly changing IEDs crafted by expert bombmakers to hide on roadways, in drainage pipes and among crowds.
“James [Slape] was a professional warrior who served his nation with distinction in a very difficult career field," Hokanson said. "Nothing we say or do can express our sorrow to Sergeant Slape’s family for the loss of their loved one. We can only offer our prayers and support to his family, friends and fellow soldiers, and always remember Sergeant James Slape’s sacrifice for our country.”