Friday, 11 May 2018

The Washington Post/Dan Lamothe: Congresswoman close to soldier killed in Niger raises suspicions about Pentagon investigation

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Congresswoman close to soldier killed in Niger raises suspicions about Pentagon investigation
by Dan Lamothe May 9 Email the author

Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, were killed in an ambush Oct. 4, 2017, in Niger. All three soldiers were assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) on Fort Bragg. (U.S. Army photos)

A congresswoman close to the family of a U.S. soldier whose remains were not recovered for more than a day after he was killed in Niger last year raised suspicions Wednesday about a Pentagon investigation due to be released.

Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said the family of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, still has no closure, and she questioned what happened between the time his unit was ambushed on Oct. 4 and the recovery of his remains nearly two days later. Military officials said he was found lying on his back under a tree with numerous bullet wounds, including some in the back, suggesting he was moved after his death, she said.

“How did he get under the tree if he was shot 16 times?” Wilson asked, her voice rising in a phone interview. “And some of those bullet wounds were in his back, but he was laying on his back with his hands by his sides? So how does this happen? It’s very strange, very suspicious and very unsettling for me and for the family.”

Wilson’s comments came as the Pentagon prepares to release the results of a months-long military investigation led by Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., the chief of staff of U.S. Africa Command. The congresswoman knows the Johnson family because the soldier had been a member of a mentoring program she founded.

A spokesman for U.S. Africa Command referred requests for comment to the Defense Department public affairs office on Wednesday night. Air Force Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment.

The congresswoman’s comments are likely to prompt irritation and concern at the White House and in the Pentagon that began last fall when she accused President Trump of upsetting Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, during a phone call. In the fallout from that allegation, John Kelly, a retired Marine general who is now Trump’s chief of staff, accused Wilson of having a history of grandstanding.

Three other U.S. soldiers — Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright — were killed in the battle.

One specific point of contention is that Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an Oct. 23 news conference that an aerial drone arrived after U.S. and Nigerien soldiers were ambushed by a larger force of militants and began recording video footage.

“As soon as they asked for help, within minutes it was re-tasked to provide intelligent surveillance and reconnaissance — full-motion video, one of the capabilities right over the scene of the troops in contact,” Dunford said at the time.

Wilson said she and family members have asked about that repeatedly. The Johnson family was briefed by U.S. military officials last week at the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command in Doral, Fla., and the congresswoman said she asked about it again there.

“My question in Miami was …  even though the video came late — that the aircraft arrived late — where is the video that it actually captured?” she said, referring to the briefing at Southern Command. “So they said, ‘Uh, we will show it to you.’ So I said, ‘Okay. I would like to see it.’ Because if it came late, it probably captured La David’s last moments and what was going on with him. Because that was the basic concern of the family and me, being in this room.”

But the military did not show the video that day, and has not shown it to Wilson subsequently in Washington despite her requests, she said.

“At first, they said that I could see it,” she said. “And then when I kept pressing and nobody showed it to me, they said, ‘It doesn’t exist.’ I was expecting to see it. Even if it was blurry. Even if it was short. Even if it was nothing except plain desert, I expected to see what he was referring to in this chronology of what happened in this firefight.”

Wilson said an independent investigation should have been carried out, and noted that numerous details have leaked out during the course of the military’s inquiry.

“Whatever they say, they want you to accept,” she said. “And … that’s not what we do. We’re talking about someone who paid the ultimate price with his life. A young man who left a young family, a young, grieving widow and loving relatives.”

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Dan Lamothe covers the Pentagon and the U.S. military for The Washington Post. He joined the newspaper in 2014. He has covered the military for more than a decade, embedding with U.S. troops in Afghanistan on numerous occasions.
Follow @danlamothe
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