Pentagon Acknowledges Mistakes As It Briefs Families Of Troops Killed In Niger

Apr 27, 2018
Originally published on April 27, 2018 6:08 pm

The Pentagon has started briefing the families of four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger last October, and the military acknowledges a series of missteps contributed to the deaths, one family member told NPR.

"I think in any instance where people lose there lives, there were obviously mistakes that were made," said Will Wright, the brother of one of those killed, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright. Will Wright is himself a combat veteran, having served as a staff sergeant in Afghanistan. He and his family were briefed by military officers on Thursday.

"Having seen combat, having an understanding of combat situations, you're always going to make mistakes, you're never going to do it perfect. There are things you wish you could change every time," Wright told All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro.

Asked if the military briefers described the failures on this mission, Wright said they did. But he added, "Out of respect for the families that haven't received their briefings yet, I'd like to avoid specifics."

The officers did tell Wright that the U.S. troops in Niger now have assets they did not have before, including armed drones and armored vehicles.

The Pentagon has sent the classified report on the Niger ambush to Congress. The report has not been released publicly, but an official who has seen it described it to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. The official said there was both a lack of planning and training for the mission.

The report also raises questions about whether U.S. Special Forces in Niger are taking too many risks.

Five years in Niger

Twelve Americans, led by Green Berets, joined with a larger force of Nigerien troops on a routine patrol last Oct. 3 in the southwest part of Niger, near the border with Mali.

Americans forces have been in Niger since 2013 to train, advise and assist the Nigerien military in its battle with extremists linked to the Islamic State. The Americans are not supposed to take part in combat unless they come under fire.

As planned, the Americans and the Nigerien forces met with village leaders and spent the night. But instead of returning to their base the next day, the troops received a new mission. They were told to look for intelligence in an area where a militant leader had apparently fled.

According to the official who has seen the report, a lower-level officer signed off on this new mission, and higher-level officers were not aware of the change in plans.

The U.S. team was not expecting to encounter any militants and did not have heavy firepower or air support.

But the American and Nigerien forces ran into an ambush and were overwhelmed by some 50 fighters in a two-hour shootout in the village of Tongo Tongo.

The four Americans killed included Wright, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson. Two more Americans were wounded, and five Nigerien soldiers were killed.

"As a veteran myself, the fog of war is something that's hard to unravel," Will Wright said. "Having the details [from the military], it really helped put things in context."

President Barack Obama sent the U.S. troops to Niger five years ago, and around 800 are believed to be in the country. The Americans are building a drone base, but do not have a large airfield for manned aircraft that could mount a rescue mission.

"We as a nation are involved in Africa, but it is not on our radar," Will Wright said. " Most Americans aren't aware, they aren't informed about the extent of our involvement in Africa."

Niger and other African countries want U.S. training and expertise to deal with security threats, but they do not want a large, visible American presence.

Until the American deaths in Niger, the U.S. military presence there received little attention.

The New York Times reported that on Dec. 6, two months after the October ambush, another group of Green Berets and Nigerien forces killed 11 militants in a shootout. The U.S. military did not announce the fighting at the time. But the Times reported it last month, describing it as one of 10 previously undisclosed clashes in West Africa since 2015.

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In early October of last year, U.S. troops were ambushed by Islamist extremists while on patrol in Niger. Four Americans and four Nigerian soldiers were killed in the fighting. The Pentagon hasn't said much about what happened that day until now. They finished an investigation and this week began briefing relatives of the troops killed in the ambush. We're going to hear now from one of those relatives. Will Wright's brother Dustin was a 29-year-old Army staff sergeant killed in the ambush. Will Wright, welcome to the program.

WILL WRIGHT: Thank you for having me - appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Was this briefing experience for you a sense of closure or sadness? Did it make you angry? Can you sort of take us into the room, how that felt?

WRIGHT: It was enlightening. It gave us a window into the preparation and processes that led to this event. It gave us clarity on some of the details. So it was helpful, and it was - brought closure to a lot of questions we had.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example?

WRIGHT: One question in particular I had was on the timelines and when other assets arrived as far as support - Nigerian forces, the French involvement. Airpower is a huge advantage for American military forces, and what I wanted to know and what our family was interested in - when were drones on station or in the area at the site of the attack? When did the French arrive? And they did answer our questions in the context of combat. The response was quick. It was powerful, and it prevented the situation from getting much, much worse.

SHAPIRO: The report from the Pentagon said there were multiple failures at various levels. Is that consistent with what the briefers told you when you met with them yesterday?

WRIGHT: It is. But out of respect for the families that haven't received their briefings yet, I'd like to avoid specifics and give them time to have their day to be briefed. And, you know, at a later date, we can address specifics.

SHAPIRO: Do you hold anyone responsible? Do you think there should be any discipline? Do you think there was something preventable here that somebody should be held accountable for?

WRIGHT: I don't hold any one individual responsible, but that does not mean there shouldn't be changes a turning of the page, so to speak. If you asked me to point to one thing that went wrong, well, as an NCO, a staff sergeant myself who's been in combat, I can tell you I may have made different decisions on the ground. But I wasn't there. And the main thing is what we do next. And if it's looking for heads to roll and punishing people, we're going to lose sight of the true issues that we have as a nation, and that's standing behind our troops and being more engaged ourselves.

There is a very complacent attitude when it comes to American involvement in the world. We've been at war in this particular war for 17 years, and it's time for us to wake up. You know, we still have troops in danger. We still have places that are very hostile that we have soldiers there. And if they're going to be in those areas, they need to have our full support and our full attention because we sent them there.

SHAPIRO: Is there something specific that you would like people to remember your brother Dustin by?

WRIGHT: His heart, his passion, the way he loved others, he served others. And if you're one of his people, he'd give his life for you. And that's what he did. He gave his life to have his brothers know he'd never leave a fallen comrade. That's what I want him to be remembered for.

SHAPIRO: Will Wright, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: His brother was Army Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, who was killed in an operation in Niger last October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.