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.
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