Families blast decision not to punish higher-ranking officers in Niger ambush

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017.

Family members of some of the special operations soldiers killed in a 2017 ambush in Niger reacted angrily Wednesday after being handed a 289-page report by Army officers and learning that no further disciplinary action was required beyond the letters of reprimand that have already been issued.

"I'm angry as hell," Debra Gannon, the mother of Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson, told ABC News, as she sat inside a popular Fort Bragg bar, next to a photo of her son on a memorial wall.

Arnold Wright, the father of Green Beret Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, said, "I don't see how people in the direct chain of command are being promoted when it was their decision to override the ground commander (who) was instrumental in my son's death."

Four American soldiers, Johnson, Wright and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black and Sgt. LaDavid Johnson, were killed in an ambush by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Niger. Their family members spoke with ABC News on Wednesday in North Carolina and expressed their unhappiness with the Pentagon's decision not to punish senior commanders for their role in the circumstances that led to the deadly attack.

"I don't think any of the families feel satisfied with any of it, the way it's been handled," said Dustin Wright's father, who was once an Army captain. "I wouldn't recommend anybody go in the U.S. Army. And that's a far stretch from where I was 21 months ago."

On Wednesday, family members of the four soldiers received redacted copies of the original investigation into the ambush that was completed a year ago. A six-page summary of the investigation's conclusions was made public last May, but the release of the full report was delayed pending decisions about who should be held accountable and who should receive awards for valor.

The decision that two senior officers in the Green Berets' former chain of command -- Col. Brad Moses and Lt. Col. David Painter -- would not receive administrative punishments means that they will be eligible for future promotions and commands. Military officials would not explain to the families at the briefing or to ABC News why the two senior commanders did not receive more substantive punishments. Painter, according to multiple sources, received a reprimand, but it wasn't a career-ending punishment and he is reportedly up for a promotion.

A spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command said Wednesday that neither Moses or Painter would comment on the report. ABC News has been attempting to seek comment from these two officers since last year.

Wright said he was told at the briefing that his son Dustin Wright had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, but that it "was downgraded twice" and that he would receive a posthumous Silver Star in a public ceremony.

The families were also told of the recent decision by acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan that no further disciplinary action was required beyond the letters of reprimand for seven Green Berets and Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, who headed U.S. Special Operations Command - Africa.

Shanahan's decision came after a new review of previous investigations -- which he had ordered -- recommended no additional disciplinary steps.

"They wanted to make out like the team went rogue to cover somebody's a** up the line, and that's not what happened," Wright told ABC News.

PHOTO: Myeshia Johnson sobs over the casket of fallen soldier and husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger.
Myeshia Johnson sobs over the casket of fallen soldier and husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger.

Cowanda Johnson, LaDavid Johnson's aunt, told ABC News that she and his widow Myeshia Johnson got up and walked out in frustration about 20 minutes into the tense meeting with Army officials, which was held with the four families at Fort Bragg on Wednesday.

"The bottom line is, they could have told us the truth within three or four months," Wright said. "I think the reason it stretched out to 20 months was because they were trying to figure out a way not to tell the truth."

"They could have spent a couple of dollars and mailed it to us and we would've gotten the same thing out of it," said Debra Gannon, whose son was one of the enablers on the team trained to gather intelligence at enemy sites.

Gannon and her husband Ray, Jeremiah Johnson's stepfather, left the meeting at Fort Bragg and visited Charlie Mike's, a Fayetteville, North Carolina tavern that displays photos of every special operations soldier killed in action since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

PHOTO: Debra and Ray Gannon toast her son Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson at Charlie Mike's bar near Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Debra and Ray Gannon toast her son Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson at Charlie Mike's bar near Fort Bragg in North Carolina. They visited the bar, June 5, 2019 following a meeting with Army officials and the families of the four special operations soldiers who were killed in a 2017 ambush in Niger.
Photo by James Meek/ABC News

Families were also told about the awarding of medals of valor to nine of the 10 members of the special forces team that was ambushed almost two years ago, including posthumous awards to the four soldiers killed in the attack. Military officials identified the former, most senior non-commissioned officer on Operational Detachment-Alpha 3212 as the only soldier who will not receive a medal for valor, but offered no explanation.

On Oct. 4, 2017, the team of eight Green Berets, two Army special operations enablers and an intelligence contractor -- accompanying a platoon of Nigerien soldiers -- was ambushed by a large group of about 120 ISIS-affiliated fighters as they left the village of Tongo Tongo, close to the border with Mali.

How the team ended up in Tongo Tongo in the first place, and was left so vulnerable to attack by the ISIS fighters, was a key focus of U.S. Africa Command's investigation.

A copy of the redacted investigative report, obtained by ABC News, stated that -- unbeknownst to senior commanders -- junior officers had assigned the team a mission to capture a senior ISIS leader in the town of Tiloa or "if he resisted, to kill him."

The report acknowledged that there was information they obtained which conflicted with that claim. The families of the fallen soldiers have been told by others, outside the investigation, that the team carried out a reconnaissance mission after U.S. commanders in the capital Niamey and in Chad ordered them to act on a single piece of new intelligence, related to a cellphone that was possibly connected to an ISIS subcommander.

The report found that the captain in charge of ODA 3212 and some of his Green Berets expressed skepticism -- prior to launching the reconnaissance mission -- about the new order, noting that the intelligence was thin and that the ISIS subcommander might no longer be near the Mali border, in a village called Tiloa.

When no sign of the ISIS target was found after the team drove to Tiloa, the team carried out a "key leader engagement with a partner force commander."

After the team left Tiloa, and neared their base in Ouallam, Painter, a commander in Chad, ordered them to participate in a second kill-or-capture mission, targeting the same ISIS leader, Doundoun Cheffou. This mission was at a location new intelligence pinpointed further north, near the border with Mali, numerous military and intelligence officials with direct knowledge of events have said in a year-long ABC News investigation.

Their new mission was to support a second special operations team that was to actually carry out the kill-or-capture raid. But bad weather forced the second team's contractor helicopters to turn back, leaving the Green Beret team on their own.

Painter ordered ODA 3212 to search an abandoned ISIS campsite for intelligence, according to a dozen sources with direct knowledge. Once again, the Green Beret team leader, Capt. Michael Perozeni, pushed back to Painter that his team was not ready for the new mission. Their partner force had not slept in 24 hours and was out of food and water, the intelligence was still not convincing and the nearest backup, if they encountered a gun fight, were U.S. forces, 10 hours away by vehicle, the sources have told ABC News.

But the military report given to the families on Wednesday disclosed none of that, downplayed the captain's objections to carrying out the mission stating his "preference was to return to base" and it made no mention of lacking a backup force if anything went wrong.

Military officials with direct knowledge have told ABC News that the captain loudly shouted into a phone that searching the campsite without backup, a reliable partner force and good intelligence was a terrible plan.

But the team leader was ordered to continue with the mission.

Ultimately, that mission did not find the ISIS leader at a recently used campsite, and the team headed to Tongo Tongo to get water for the Nigerien forces. The U.S-Nigerien team was ambushed by the ISIS fighters as they left the village.

PHOTO: A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Ga., Oct. 5, 2017, upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Ga., Oct. 5, 2017, upon arrival at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

Family members have complained that Painter, the officer who allegedly ordered the team to move to the campsite, as well as Moses, the commander of the 3rd Special Forces Group who was briefed on that order, should be accountable for placing the team near ISIS fighters.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who has advocated for the families called the decision to not punish higher-ranking officers "a shirking of responsibility to the memory and families of the deceased."

"One thing is clear: mistakes were made that cost these men's lives," Gallego said in a statement. "Their families – and the American public – deserve clear answers about what happened, who will be held accountable, and what will be done to prevent this from ever happening again."

"They've jerked us around now for 20 months," Arnold Wright told ABC News. "Honestly I've learned more from people not involved in the investigation than from the investigation."

"We are not done fighting," said Debra Gannon. "And I told them that in there, I told them that we are not done fighting."

Family members confirmed that Dustin Wright and LaDavid Johnson would posthumously receive the Silver Star, Jeremiah Johnson and Bryan Black will receive the Bronze Start with "V" device for valor. Silver Stars will also be awarded to other team members who survived the ambush.

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