On the anniversary of the Oct. 4, 2017, ambush that killed four American soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, family members of three of the fallen expressed continued frustration with how U.S. Africa Command handled the investigation.
The fathers of Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, as well as Black’s mother and widow, released a joint statement Friday. The statement was also supported by Black’s brother and Johnson’s widow.
“After 2 years of scrutiny and disparagements, team members, both those killed in action and survivors, have finally been recognized for valor and performance under fire. However, we are disappointed in the AFRICOM investigation," the family members wrote in their statement. “It downplays the reported pushback by team commander CPT Michael Perozeni against the mission which led to the deaths of our soldiers, and portrays an overall misleading narrative.”
That narrative led the military to give some of the soldiers awards that were at a level significantly below what was merited, the family members wrote.
The leader of Operational Detachment Alpha 3212, Capt. Michael Perozeni, shouldered much of the blame for the ambush until it was revealed that he asked not to continue the mission prior to the attack, according to the redacted investigation.
“The team reportedly assessed that it was a mission that they shouldn’t have executed, and once in the ambush, they fought well and the lesson learned is to listen to the commander on the ground and go with their recommendation, unless there is an overriding operational reason that you just have to do it,” Henry Black, the father of fallen Green Beret Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, told Army Times on Friday.
Perozeni’s team had been searching for Doundoun Cheffou, an Islamic State leader linked by intelligence to the kidnapping of an American. Perozeni asked the battalion commander in Chad to return to base after the helicopter assault force they were supporting unexpectedly pulled out of the mission.
The Chad-based commander told the team to continue and they were ultimately ambushed by a large force of ISIS-linked militants.
“We are therefore disappointed that some of the soldiers were not recognized for the true heroism they displayed on that day, or were recognized at a level significantly below what their actions merited,” the family members wrote in their statement. “We are disappointed that the award recommendation for CPT Perozeni, from what we have read, has been downgraded to an award that we believe is profoundly beneath the leadership and valor he displayed during the ambush.”
The Army awarded nine valor medals to both survivors and fallen members of ODA 3212, including four Silver Stars and several Bronze Stars with valor.
Two of the Silver Stars were posthumously awarded to Wright, another Green Beret, and Sgt. La David Johnson, the fourth soldier killed in the ambush. La David Johnson died after emptying an M240 machine gun atop his separated vehicle and then switched to an M2010 sniper rifle prior to making a final stand underneath a sparse thorny tree, the only cover in the area.
Perozeni was originally recommended for a Silver Star for his efforts in rallying his 11-man ODA team and 30 Nigerien soldiers against an ambush force three times their size, according to the New York Times. However, it was ultimately downgraded to an Army Commendation Medal with Combat device, the Times also reported.
Jeremiah Johnson and Bryan Black were posthumously awarded Bronze Star Medals with valor.
Wright’s father said he was told that his son Dustin was put up for the Medal of Honor, but that it “was downgraded twice” before he received a posthumous Silver Star, according to ABC News.
Jeremiah Johnson, Black and Wright were outside the same vehicle when the ambush started. They returned fire before the decision was made to pull back and avoid being flanked. The three men acknowledged the order to move out and threw a smoke grenade to mask their cover, but Black was shot and killed as the truck began driving slowly forward.
Wright and Johnson continued to defend their position and their fallen comrade before Johnson was badly wounded. They attempted to bound away when Johnson fell. Wright returned and fought over the body of his comrade, according to his citation.
“And as a related item, we are saddened that the Army career of MAJ Alan Van Saun, the company commander over ODA 3212 at the time of the ambush and who was home on paternity leave, has apparently ended because of what we consider to be an undeserved reprimand related to the ambush," the family members’ statement adds.
Van Saun, who is now out of the Army, wrote an opinion piece about his experience in the wake of the ambush that was published in the New York Times Friday.
The investigation into the ambush ended Van Saun’s career with a formal reprimand. Investigators determined he failed to prepare his soldiers for the deployment, “a conclusion tied to a training event that occurred prior to me even taking command of the organization,” he wrote.
“Following a complicated tragedy with no clear proximate cause, First Special Forces Command issued reprimands with inaccuracies and inconsistencies, focusing on predeployment training and personnel issues, instead of operational decisions made leading up to the ambush,” Van Saun wrote.
“Senior leaders within Africa Command and First Special Forces Command presented their findings to the families of the fallen based on circumstantial evidence, which left them with more questions than answers," he added. “Africa Command held a press briefing, that, for the most part, admonished one of my Green Beret teams for their pre-mission planning and preparation, but barely mentioned the decisions made above their level."
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.