Reprimands in Marine Deaths in Ganjgal Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

Recall that in 2009 three Marines and a Navy Corpsman approached the remote Kunar village of Ganjgal where they were ambushed in what was surely a planned incident.  At the time even the women and children could be seen firing weapons, spotting or carrying munitions.  The Marines made repeated calls for artillery and air support over the next couple of hours, with support denied due to the fact that the authorizing Army officers could not verify that noncombatants wouldn’t be harmed.  We know this because a McClatchy reporter was with the Marines.  In other words, whatever obfuscation that the Army can throw at this incident cannot supersede the conclusions that we can draw directly from McClatchy’s report.

And obfuscation came.  The Army did an investigation that concluded, among other things, that the officers were out of the command center for decision-making during this engagement.  But in fact they were out only some of the time, and did indeed refuse on multiple occasions to authorize supporting fires.  They also had the presence of mind to authorize white phosphorus rounds to provide smoke and thus give cover for retreat, so they knew about the danger.  They just didn’t authorize support.

The families have pursued a conclusion to this, and they may have finally gotten it.

The Army “severely reprimanded” two of the three officers cited for negligence after a flawed mission in eastern Afghanistan resulted in five U.S. deaths, according to a congressman who pushed for the information’s release.

The Army officers were cited for poor planning and oversight of a Sept. 8, 2009, operation in Ganjgal, a remote village near the Pakistan border with Kunar province. Three Marines and a corpsman were killed on the battlefield after they were repeatedly denied air and artillery support while pinned down by more than 100 insurgents. A soldier died the following month of medical complications related to wounds he suffered in the ambush.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Army recently shared with him documents indicating two of the three officers cited last year in a joint Army-Marine Corps investigation were deemed primarily responsible for the mission’s failures and given reprimands, likely career killers.

“There was nothing else we could do,” Jones said of the discipline. “This was a very tragic situation that never should have happened.”

Jones, whose congressional district includes thousands of Marines at Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps air stations New River and Cherry Point, got involved in October after family members of the fallen troops expressed disgust that the Army refused to disclose whether anyone was held accountable for mistakes that led to their loved ones’ deaths. On Jan. 28, he sent letters to the families of each service member informing them what he learned.

Army officials declined to comment on the disciplinary action. The officers are entitled to privacy unless they are charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Col. Thomas Collins, an Army spokesman.

The Ganjgal investigation, conducted by Army Col. Richard Hooker and Marine Col. James Werth, determined that the “negligent” leadership of three officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce contributed “directly to the loss of life which ensued.” They refused direct calls for help from U.S. forces on the ground and failed to notify higher commands that they had troops under fire, the investigation found.

The officers were members of Task Force Chosin, a unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. The military has not released their names, but they are likely captains or majors.

Killed in the battle were four members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out Okinawa, Japan: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; Gunnery Sgts. Aaron Kenefick, 30; and Edwin Johnson, 31; and Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. Hours after the battle began, they were found in a ditch shot to death, stripped of gear and weapons.

A former corporal, Dakota Meyer, is nominated for the Medal of Honor for charging into the kill zone to find the four military trainers and carry them to safety.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, survived the battle despite suffering several gunshot wounds. He died Oct. 7, 2009, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after his body rejected a blood transfusion he received in Afghanistan, said his widow, Charlene.

Charlene Westbrook questioned why the third officer cited for negligence wasn’t reprimanded, and said she is frustrated the Army hasn’t explained the rationale for its disciplinary decisions.

“We were searching for answers, not for the same thing we’ve been told before,” she said. “It’s very frustrating and, again, another betrayal, I feel.”

Collins said the families were provided complete, redacted copies of the investigation report last year. There is no indication they were ever promised an update on disciplinary actions, he said.

Reprimands in the Ganjgal case were delivered after similar discipline was rescinded last year for mistakes made in Wanat, Afghanistan, during an ambush July 13, 2008. Nine soldiers died and 27 were wounded in the battle.

Perhaps the families have partial conclusion (and I confess, I didn’t know until this report that Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook had also perished) .  I had previously recommended that the Army field grade and staff level officers involved in this incident find a different line of work.  And now they must do exactly that.  I had said that the source of this problem – rules of engagement and micromanaging the military – would not be targeted, and General McChrystal wouldn’t even so much as be mentioned in the AR 15-6.  I was right on all accounts.

When he took over the campaign in Afghanistan, McChrystal quickly issued a severely debilitating tactical directive, but in fact added to the cultural milieu with his own interpretation:

“If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so.”

As for micromanaging the military, when the Marines first entered Marjah in the Helmand Province, General Rodriguez, then second in command in Afghanistan, decided that he wanted to micromanage a completely separate command structure, that of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).  “Less than six hours before Marines commenced a major helicopter-borne assault in the town of Marja in February, Rodriguez’s headquarters issued an order requiring that his operations center clear any airstrike that was on a housing compound in the area but not sought in self-defense.”

The officers on duty that fateful day the Marines were killed in Gamjgal were responsible for their decisions.  It gives me no joy to report or comment on their demise as officers in the U.S. Army.  But the climate of micromanagement of forces in theater set in motion by Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez was also responsible for the incident at Ganjgal.  Incidents can (and in fact most often do) have more than a single root cause.

I will forever hold General McChrystal responsible for the deaths of three Marines, a Navy Corpsman and a Soldier in this incident.  Until he admits to the debilitating nature of his command and visits these families to watch them weep, this incident is unresolved, and the families have no closure.  He can join as many boards of directors as he likes.  There is unfinished business, and the ghosts of four Marines and a Soldier are watching.

Prior:

Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills Four U.S. Marines

More Thoughts on Marines and Rules of Engagement

AR 15-6 Investigation of Marine Deaths in Kunar Province



  • Harold

    One of the questions I ask people who express a desire to me to become officers-
    Two of your men are stranded near an enemy village. Air support is available now, evacuation is a half hour away. The air support sees two armed enemy approaching the stranded men. Do you authorize an air strike to kill them and save your men? Everyone answers yes.

    Same scenario, a squad of 10 enemy. Everyone syas yes.

    Same, company of 100 men, some people start to hesitate, then say yes,

    Same, but the local village mullah has gotten out the women and children and rest of the rabble, and there are babes in arms. Do you authorize the airstrike?

    The only accepatable answer is YES. Your responsibility is to your men, screw the enemy, and that includes babes in arms. If you cannot say yes, you shouldn’t be in combat command.

  • DirtyMick

    Those officers operating out of Joyce should be serving time in Leavenworth and McChrystal too. He has blood on his hands

  • http://www.mikejohnsonscholarships.org Brian Johnson

    I have felt from the beginning that General McChrystal is ultimately responsible for the death of my son, his unit and SFC Ken Westbrook in Gangjal. I have written to President Obama for answers, as one father to another, to no avail. Seventeen months and 10 days later, we still greive for the loss of our sons. We feel the pain, and are engulfed in waves of grief with each each new casualty (and various other emotional triggers).
    Our sons suffered Death by Incompetence, knowing at the end that those they considered brothers-in-arms abandoned them on the battlefield.
    I have no wish to meet General McChrystal or hear his apology or condolences. I only hope that he lives a long life and is always tormented by the ghosts of those he called his brothers-in-arms.
    Nothing will bring our boys back, so we move forward in life to honor thier sacrifice and cherish thier memory. To that end, I would like to voice support (and hope that others will too) for awarding the Medal of Honor to Dakota Meyer for the exceptional bravery that brought our boys home to rest. Thank you Dakota.
    Semper Fi

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Thank you Mr. Johnson for visiting my site and sharing your heart with us.

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  • Mongo

    Concur with holding General McChrystal accountable for the deaths of these good men. It is unconscionable that any Officer should second guess his troops in the field and withhold support. In fighting such as this, there is no collateral damage.

    Mr. Johnson, you and the other parents have my condolences for the tremendous loss you have suffered. You gave the best thing you’ve ever done in this life to America, namely your son, and I can only imagine the heartbreak and suffering of knowing how he died. I pray that peace will come to you in time, and that changes will be made to prevent another tragedy such as this. God bless you all, sir.

  • Charlene Westbrook

    I am Charlene Westbrook, widow of a United States Army Combat Veteran, SFC Kenneth Westbrook. My husband, Sergeant First Class Kenneth Westbrook, was grievously injured and later passed away from what was explained to me as graft vs host disease associated with whole blood, a rare blood disorder which doctors say he contracted while at the battlefield hospital in Afghanistan.

    I was afforded the opportunity to review the redacted Investigating Officer’s Report. The eyewitness accounts of the unbelievable horror our American Warriors endured that day is unimaginable, unbearable and should have been avoided by all costs. The Investigating Officer’s findings and recommendations state that the officers appointed over those men were found to be negligent and derelict in the performance of their duties. The Investigator further recommended that the officers receive an administrative reprimand or a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR), however, no further information on whether those actions have been initiated and/or completed have not been provided.

    My husband dedicated 22 years of his life proudly serving in the US Army with complete trust and honor to the very institution that in the end abandoned him and the other men who died that fateful day, September 8, 2009. I do, too hold McChrystal as the coward who has the blood of my husband on his hands.

    “The American soldier is a brave one and he demands professional competence in his leaders. In battle, he wants to know that the job is going to be done right, with no unnecessary casualties. The non-commissioned officer wearing the chevron is supposed to know how to perform the duties expected of him. The American soldier expects his sergeant to be able to teach him how to do his job. And he expects more from his officers.” – General Omar N. Bradley.

  • Susan Price

    I am Susan Price, the Mother of Fallen Hero Gunnery Sgt Aaron M Kenefick, USMC, killed that day on Sept 8th 2009. Like the Westbrook, Johnsons & Layton families, there are no words yet invented to share with you our sense of loss and void from our families lives!!!!!! Loosing a child or a spouse to WAR is one thing, loosing that special someone because of the deriliction and negligence of another, ESPECIALLY a “BROTHER IN ARMS” is something else.

    We the families of the fallen five, have read the 15-6, Investigation report over and over and over again….It is unbelievable to read how many times my “BELOVED SON” called for help, and it is Beyond Human comprehension to read on further some smart ass remarks by some of these officers who discounted American Human Life, Special American Human life, front line Valor, not some back office cant get ahold of white gloved officer!!!

    You cannot equate a piece of paper to the loss of human life, word has it that nothing came of this supposed reprimand!!!!! The word is that an order from a higher source told them not to answer the call for air support and artillery back up….The question is? Who gave the order and why?

    So many unanswered questions this day. The actual mission was not even suppose to take place this day. Intel saids they were told that this would be a day filled with Taliban activity on the 8th. Who wanted my Son and the other Fallen Heroes put into this position? Why? So many unanswered questions!!!!!!!!!!!

    McChrystal is responsible as well as the contributing 3 Officers who got off and those others who were a party to this knowledge. These men had families, they had a place in society besides the battlefield, they made differences in the lives of so many and for so many, who would want to scapegoat them out??????

    Another comment made while my son called for 2 hours was “is this for Marines or is this for Army” I dont understand when you are at war what difference does it make what uniform you wear, all blood is the same color, and all I know is that my family and the other families of the fallen live in emotional pain every day of our lives due to this neglence. Where is Justice, does anyone really care about our men, really!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.jamesraydoclayton.org Brent Layton

    As the father of James Ray “Doc” Layton, killed that day in Ganjgal, Afghanistan I will say this: This was the greatest loss a parent could endure. We all know the inherent risks our men and women take and to a point, we prepare for the worst. Knowing that our men were put into a situation in which they relied on help and were denied repeatedly, this is in-excusable. I have said before as a retired law inforcement officer, we rely on each other for back-up and know that when that call goes out our “backs” are covered. To know James, Aaron, Mike, Edwin and Ken lost their lives due to “inadequate” leadership in the operation center among several other cited incidents of “Negligence” on Sept 8th is sickening and unfortunately nothing new.

    The post comments in the 15-6 investigation clearly states one of the Army officers in charge believed the Marines to be under “light, harrassing fire.” At 0530 hrs, the first shots rang out and the team said that they had been ambushed and were facing approx 150+ insurgents calling for help. At what point was this “light harrassing fire?” The 15-6 also states that what intelligence they gathered via intercepted radio traffic the day before from Ganjgal that they knew the team were going to be ambushed but thought by only approx 30 and yet knowing this they were sent into a “kill zone” a four man team including my son who were killed approximately two hours into the ambush still calling for air and artillery along with the rest of the unit, TWO HOURS!!!!!! The entire ambush lasted for hours.

    It took 1,800 rounds of 50 Cal and two Hellfires to just get our son’s bodies, hours into the battle. The report clearly says the mission was compromised, the insurgents were well placed, even had recoilless rifles. The insurgents were well trained by military, wore uniforms similar to the ANA, even were mistaken as our counterparts by our own at one point, A clear setup. The mission was to take place the day before but was changed to the 8th “Oddly?” I think not. This whole ambush stinks of corruption and ass covering but by the enemy only, I also think not.

    Brent Layton, proud father of fallen hero HM3 James Ray “Doc” Layton “Corpsman to the Core.” KIA 09/08/09 Ganjgal, Afghanistan

  • Marilyn Custer

    How does one live with himself knowing that he is responsible for such a tragedy? Is this an isolated incident? Or has it happened too many times?? Can I tell you that as an Army Mom I have attended too many services for those fallen that were part of 10th Mountain Division? Isn’t it strange that the officers in charge on Sept 8, 2009 were part of 10th Mountain Division?

    Let’s revisit the directive:

    “If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so.” -McCrystal

    First off, they may have been a “Marine Embedded Training Team” but the Marine that headed up the mission who called repeatedly for air support was Kenefick. A seasoned combat veteran who could never have won “Marine of the Year” twice (yes 2 times) in his first 10 years of service if he didn’t know what he was doing. GySgt Johnson 12 years of service and Ken Westbrook, 22 years..(think he’s seen some combat before?)

    To the ones who made the decisions we can ask, “are they haunted by the cries for help?” I’m sure they are. Do you think that maybe they feel they are victims as well?? Maybe. Ultimately, it was McCrystals directive that seems to have led to the hesitation. And it’s McCrystal who sees no faces and hears no voices at night.

    Did he or does he know…1st Lt. Michael Johnson was newly married, Ken Westbrook was married with 3 teenage boys, GySgt Johnson..3 young children and a wife that still serves the military, Aaron Kenefick, a daughter and girlfriend he was going to ask to marry him upon returning from deployment…James Layton had a girlfriend but never got the opportunity to even start his future.

    So, why would the families not be allowed to know the names and punishments of those in command that day?? They know reprimands won’t bring back their loved ones but They do expect the parties involved to accept responsibility and deliver the truth…and that’s the LEAST that could happen.

    My son once explained to me the bond that combat creates. He said “Mom, these guys ARE my family”. And, that he would do “anything” for them. That’s love. That emotion was exemplified when Dakota Meyer risked his own life to retrieve his fallen brothers. Most people are not aware that James and Dakota lived with Aaron in Japan and he mentored them as if he were their brother. Well, he was. I also hope to see it come to pass that Dakota be awarded the Medal of Honor.

    I commend the families of the fallen for exposing the truth at any cost. And, believe me, it IS at a COST. Susan Price and I met a few months before Aaron deployed and through her I have had the privilege of meeting the members of 4 out of the 5 families. They have shared their stories with me and we have shed tears together. It is through their efforts and courage that I, and other military families of active duty, can believe and have hope that our sons and daughters will not have to fall victim to such negligence in the future.

    Marilyn Custer, proud mother of US Army Sgt. Bryan M. Custer an Iraqi War Veteran

  • http://www.bingwest.com Bing West

    Ganjigal was a terrible tragedy. Generals Conway and Dunford took strong steps to insure the truth was told. General Dunford flew to the Ganjigal area and interviewed the participants. The lesson from Ganjigal has spread throughout the Army and Marine Corps.

    In the book, The Wrong War, I try to tell the story as best I can. Words, however, can never assuage the grief of loss that could have been avoided. Men in the rear made mistakes, but Dakota Meyer, Will Swenson and those at the front never stopped fighting to reach their fallen comrades.

    If the Medal of Honor is awarded – as it should be – it will shine forever upon the five who gave their lives for our country.

    Semper Fidelis, Bing West

  • Rev. Danielle Benson

    What happened that tragic day is nothing short of treason. Call it dereliction of duty if you want to. But, the fact remains that these incredible men were betrayed by the very people they trusted to help keep them safe. Giving these treasonists a slap on the wrist is an insult to every true American soldier and every American family who trusts these “higher ups” to do their duty. I wonder how they would be
    spitting fire if the dead child was THEIRS. These despicable sub-human monsters need to be taken to task for being traitors to OUR OWN COUNTRY. They are NOT Americans. They are a disgrace to the uniform they wear and the sacred oath they took.

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  • Family Friend of Ken Westbrook Family

    To date it is August 17th 2011, nearing the 2nd year Anniversary of our Heroes passing and Army Sgt Kenneth Westbrook has not been honored with his combat medals…Where is the honor that is due to the Westbrook family for Army Sgt Kenneth Westbrooks 22+ years of service?

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  • Larry Tyson

    1. I spent close to 24 years in the USN. I did not inform myself on this incident until last Friday (9/23/2011), however I can draw some of my own conclusions based upon my experience, it will be true but very blunt. The real reason those officers were not Court Martialed is they “wear the ring” of the Army Service Acadamy, that is they are “ring knockers”, this is a direct insult to those in command who wear the ring but shirk from their duty’s. You shall never ever see a “ring knocker” critized much less punished for “crimes” committed by other “ring knockers” Why do you think Will Swenson resigned??. He tesifiefed against the “ring knockers” and was extremely critical of their lack of action, his career was esentially ended, do not believe otherwise. However to Mrs Price, Mrs Westbrook and My Layton, and others interested, Gen. Arron (?? not sure the spelling), has personaly taken charge of Capt. Swinson’s recommendation, I know this is of little comfort, however may I request you look at this way ” SINCE THE ARMY WILL NOT DO ANYTHING A MARINE WILL”, if you remember the Clint Eastwood movie “HEART BREAK RIDGE” then remember he was talking to a major who was a nit-wit, Gunny Hightower stated “SIR he is a MARINE, he adapts, he ovecomes, that is what MARINES do” Ladies and Gentlemen, your sons and husbands died for a cause they beleived in, our USA, very unfortunate, they had “leaders” who evidently do not share that resolution. I submitt this:

    V/R,
    Larry Tyson Retired Serivce Member

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,General McChrystal,General Rodriguez,Kunar Province,Marine Corps,Micromanaging the Military,Rules of Engagement and was published February 17th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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