On Oct. 4, 2017, Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3212 was attacked just outside the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger. My youngest son was a medic and member of ODA 3212. My son, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, was killed in the attack along with three of his teammates and five partner Niger soldiers.
As the anniversary of my son’s death and the deaths of his teammates and Niger partners approached, I have thought much on the last four years, and what I have since learned. Those thoughts brought me back to a specific phrase in the Code of Contact, a phrase I first heard in January 1979 when I entered active duty in the Marine Corps, and which has remained with me all these years:
“I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”
Reflecting on the last four years, I have asked myself: “Do I trust in my God?” The answer is a solid ‘yes,’ for I have experienced that, in the darkest times, my God has been trustworthy and has kept all His promises.
I have also asked myself: “Do I trust in the United States of America?” As an active Marine from 1979 thru retirement in 1999, the answer would have been “yes.” For a number of reasons, in the years since my retirement until October 2017, my trust became less sure. And in the four years since October 2017, the answer is: “Not so much.”
“Trust” takes many forms. From the military perspective, trust might be a senior commander listening to a subordinate commander. For example, if a subordinate commander is assigned a mission, but considers the mission untenable and therefore recommends against it, trust might be the senior commander responding “Got it, we will cancel or delay the mission.” Or, in the same scenario trust might be the senior commander responding “Got it, but this is a ‘must do’ mission. Lay out your concerns, and we will provide you with all available resources to mitigate risk and maximize success.” This second trust scenario appears to have been the case for ODA 3336 on April 6, 2008, for a mission to the Shok Valley, Afghanistan.
I became aware of the battle in Shok Valley when I met Ron Shurer in Puyallup, Washington, in December of 2019, when Ron was honored with a ceremony and memorial at his high school alma mater, Rogers High School. Ron was a medic with ODA 3336 during the Shok Valley mission, and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. As I listened to Ron, the stories of ODA 3336 in Shok Valley and ODA 3212 in Tongo Tongo seemed to share both similarities and differences, so in subsequent days I spent time looking at the details of the Shok Valley battle, to include reading about the details of the mission in the book “No Way Out”, authored by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer. Here’s a synopsis of key elements:
The Team Commander of ODA 3336, along with the commander of the Afghan commandos integrated into the ODA, were opposed to the mission, and the Team Commander requested that the mission be cancelled or postponed. His request was denied by his higher command. However, to support the mission, an Air Force combat controller was attached to ODA 3336, and both airborne and on-call rotary and fixed-wing kinetic assets, along with responsive medevac assets, were integrated into the mission. Shortly after heliborne insertion into the objective area, the mission quickly went awry when the ODA and Afghan commandos came under a coordinated attack from a numerically superior and well-positioned enemy force. However, ODA 3336 was able to call in immediate, robust and continuous kinetic air support. The mission failed, with a number of ODA members seriously wounded and three Afghans reportedly killed, but the unit survived, the wounded were medevac’d, and the ODA and commandos were able to be extracted, all because of the robust, immediately available, and continuous kinetic air support. After the mission, the team was not denigrated for a mission failure for which they bore no fault, and team members were honored with numerous and high awards for heroism. ODA 3336′s higher command proved itself worthy of trust by allocating assets for the mission that enabled the majority of the ODA and commandos to survive.
Sadly, for ODA 3212′s October 2017 mission to Tongo Tongo, its higher command failed. Based on a detailed review of the US African Command’s (AFRICOM) investigation, and based on a detailed review of the mission as described in the book “Sacrifice”, authored by Michelle Black, in contrast to the higher command of ODA 3336, the higher command of ODA 3212 proved itself unworthy of trust.
On Oct. 3, 2017, ODA 3212 had completed its mission taskings in the vicinity of the town of Tiloa. The mission had been planned by ODA 3212, mission taskings had been successfully executed, and ODA 3212 was returning to its base. Only a few hours’ drive from mission completion, ODA 3212′s movement to home base was halted by its higher command. The team was ordered to turn north and execute a new mission near the border with Mali. The Team Commander, with agreement from the commander of the accompanying Niger partner force, recommended against the mission, citing several risk factors. His recommendation, as with ODA 3336 and Shok Valley, was denied. However, unlike Shok Valley, ODA 3212′s higher command indicated it was unworthy of trust by providing no additional resources to mitigate risk. Therefore, the Team Commander, on his own initiative, seeking to minimize the serious risks to his force that were being ignored by higher command, contacted another U.S. team, a heliborne unit called Team Arlit, and requested their participation. Arlit agreed, contacted ODA 3212′s higher command, and obtained approval to participate. Higher command directed ODA 3212 to be the supporting force, Arlit the main force. ODA 3212 was directed to travel north to a specified location and did so while higher command and Arlit planned the mission. When ODA 3212 and its partner force arrived at their specified location, they were informed by higher command that Arlit was forced to abort. ODA 3212 was ordered to execute the mission with no replacement supporting force. ODA 3212′s Team Commander, again citing the now elevated risks, requested to abort and return to base. Higher command again proved itself unworthy of trust: The Team Commander’s request was denied and ODA 3212 was ordered to execute the mission. Higher command failed to reassess risk. No additional resources were allocated to mitigate the enhanced risks from (1) the loss of the heliborne force, (2) the elimination of a supporting force, (3) the lack of medevac and kinetic air support, and (4) the increase in risk by now being required to travel through the night without support within a geographic area where, in the last 12 months, there had been seven attacks on Nigerien Army convoys and installations by up to 100 heavily armed and highly mobile insurgents.
ODA 3212 traveled from roughly midnight to 4 a.m. to reach its designated jump off point in the objective area. The ODA traveled in three underpowered, unarmored ‘militarized’ civilian vehicles, with the Niger partner force in five large trucks. The move north covered 15 miles thru mostly roadless, rough terrain, often requiring a ground guide to lead the convoy, and was of necessity noisy, debilitating, and observed by insurgents. After conducting mission taskings on the objective area, ODA 3212 and its partner force stopped at the village of Tongo Tongo to obtain food and water for the Niger soldiers. Upon exiting the village, the ODA and partner force were attacked by over 100 heavily armed, highly mobile insurgents. There was no kinetic air support, and no medevac. In spite of fighting effectively with sound tactics, four Americans and five Nigeriens were killed. The remaining members of ODA 3212 and the Niger partner force were most likely saved from death by low-level flyovers of two French Mirage jets. The survivors were ultimately extracted by heliborne French forces.
Upon completion of its investigation, the AFRICOM investigation team, and thus ultimately the AFRICOM commander who approved the investigation, were themselves proved unworthy of trust. The AFRICOM commander and the investigating team, overlooking the poor decisions, inadequate resourcing and absence of risk mitigation by ODA 3212′s higher command, and failing to identify and applaud the sound advice repeatedly given by the Team Commander, completely exonerated the higher command, and placed virtually all blame on the Team Commander and his ODA. The Team Commander and ODA were subsequently denigrated and dishonored publicly by the AFRICOM commander, with awards for heroism given at lower levels than deserved or not given at all.
‘Trust in the United States of America”? Not so much.
When I entered the Marine Corps, I was taught that the officer-enlisted relationship was more than a superior-subordinate relationship. That it was akin to a father-son relationship, and a teacher-student relationship. I learned that, as a leader, my primary job was to lead while ensuring that my “subordinates” were given all possible resources to maximize chances of success and minimize chances of failure. I learned that I was responsible for all actions for my unit, that a unit failure was my failure, and that I would be the first in line for a “fix” to rectify any failure. Sadly, on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, 2017, ODA 3212′s higher command demonstrated the opposite, and showed itself unworthy of trust. And in the days after Oct. 4, higher command again proved itself unworthy of trust by failing to “own up” to its actions that led to the disaster, by failing to stand in front of ODA 3212 and say “this is on us and not on them,” by letting the blame due them to instead be piled on top of ODA 3212 and its commander.
What I write is not from a place of vindictiveness or bitterness, for I have neither. I am familiar with those who comprised ODA 3212′s higher command. Their service prior to October 2017 was honorable, worthy of respect and admiration. I have taken no pleasure, and have been saddened, by careers and promotions lost in the years that have followed the Tongo Tongo battle. I fully understand the challenges in making decisions in hostile conditions where situational awareness can be incomplete and misleading. And I believe in forgiveness even in leadership failures such as Tongo Tongo, and that those given forgiveness can move on to become much better leaders, ones you want in command when the next battle occurs. But a condition of forgiveness is admitting and owning failures. And when leaders fail to own up to their mistakes, fail to stand up and say “This is on me, and I own the failures,” they show themselves unworthy of continuing trust, in particular when the lives of people are in the balance.
“I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”
Trust in God? Absolutely.
Trust in the United States of America? Not so much.
The events on and following Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, 2017, have taught me that trust in the United States is dependent on those persons in positions of trust. People will at times invariably fail, and that is not a reason to lose trust. Loss of trust occurs when those in positions of trust do not step up and own their failures. And when those in leadership both continue in leadership and fail to own their mistakes, something we now see all too often, a pandemic of failures can ensue, and the outcomes will not be pretty.
Henry Black is a retired Marine Corps major. His son, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, a Special Forces medic, was one of the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger in October 2017. Black is currently an analyst for the FBI and lives in Washington state with his wife, two daughters-in-law, one son and four grandchildren.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.