The mothers of two of the four soldiers killed in a 2017 ambush in Niger say recently discovered video from the battle is more proof that their sons’ valor awards should be reevaluated.
The 45-minute video, filmed by one of those 3rd Special Forces Group soldiers, sheds new light on the final actions of the fallen troops.
The military should “upgrade all those boys, especially after seeing that,” said Debbie Gannon, the mother of Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson.
The new video was quietly recovered during a French operation to kill the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara this summer. The footage shows Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright defending a fatally shot Staff Sgt. Bryan Black as dozens of ISIS fighters bound toward them, the mothers of Wright and Johnson told Army Times. Both women were shown the new video by 3rd Group officials in October.
“Jeremiah composed himself after being shot three times and he was still helping Dustin, telling him where the [ISIS] shots were coming from, and he was still shooting,” Gannon said.
“You don’t see them running away from the battle,” Terri Criscio, the mother of Wright, agreed. “You see them holding their ground until they cannot hold it any longer.”
U.S. Special Operations Command left the possibility open for award upgrades when reached for comment.
“Based on the new video, soldiers’ awards could be reevaluated,” said SOCOM spokesman Col. Curtis J. Kellogg. “It would be inappropriate to speculate about or presuppose any decision related to the awards process.”
A much shorter, edited version of the video was disseminated by ISIS propagandists a year after the fatal ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo. But the entire video may bolster the case for award upgrades, as well as renew focus on the botched mission that led the 3rd Group team into an ambush.
The winding tale of how the lightly armed team ended up in the melee, and why the military’s investigation placed primary blame on the ground force rather than senior leaders, is the subject of a new ABC documentary, 3212 UN-REDACTED, by investigative journalist James Gordon Meek, which premiers Thursday on Hulu.
The fact that more helmet camera footage was recovered by French forces came to light during a Question & Answer session for the documentary’s premier in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
U.S. Africa Command received the video for analysis in mid-August from a foreign military, Kellogg confirmed to Army Times. He declined to name the partner force since U.S. troops did not participate in the mission, but family of the fallen said they were told the video was secured by the French.
“Our primary concern is with the families of our fallen soldiers who were notified about the video last month after appropriate agencies were able to determine what the footage depicted,” Kellogg said. “To protect the privacy of the families and out of respect for their loss, DoD is not releasing the video or a description of its contents.”
La David Johnson was only briefly on the helmet camera footage, family members said, because he was tasked to a different vehicle when the gun battle unfolded. He was also eventually separated from the larger U.S. team when he and two Nigerien partners were unable to reenter their vehicle due to concentrated enemy fire.
Criscio, Wright’s mother, said the new footage shows the other three slain soldiers experiencing radio and signaling trouble.
“The team could not hear Jeremiah reaching out to them to let them know where they were,” Criscio said. “There was a communication error where the team thought that Jeremiah was giving them the thumbs up — that they were good to move. And he was actually asking Bryan and Dustin if they were good to go.”
Gannon and Criscio argued that the new footage should be used to reevaluate the level of awards previously given to both their sons.
“You hear Jeremiah and Dustin make the decision to stand with Brian and fight,” Criscio said. “So they knew [the danger].”
Wright was initially recommended for the Medal of Honor in August 2018. But Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, who led Special Operations Command-Africa at the time, downgraded the recommended decoration to a Distinguished Service Cross in September of that year, according to award approval records Meek shared with Army Times.
Raymond Thomas III, the Army general helming SOCOM at the time, then downgraded the award again to a Silver Star in December 2018, the records showed.
The leader of the Green Beret team on the ground, Capt. Michael Perozeni, was also initially recommended for a Bronze Star with Valor. That was downgraded to an Army Commendation Medal by Thomas in early 2019.
The new footage, as well as the scrutiny placed on the military’s inquiry into the mission, offers an opportunity for the awards and the investigation to be reevaluated, according to Gannon and Criscio.
“I plan to talk to my senators and my congressman and I plan to reach out to the Senate [armed services committee],” Criscio said. “So whether [military leaders] do it or not, I know that I and Debbie are going to push for it.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has 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.