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An operation in Niger went fatally awry. Who is the Army punishing?

From left, Staff Sergeant Bryan C. Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin M. Wright were killed in the 2017 attack.
From left, Staff Sergeant Bryan C. Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin M. Wright were killed in the 2017 attack.US Army via Associated Press

The Army has punished two members of the Special Forces team ambushed in Niger last October for their decisions before the mission and for insufficient training alongside their Nigerien allies in advance, according to military officials. Four others in their chain of command were also disciplined.

Some of those punished in recent weeks included the Green Beret team leader, Captain Mike Perozeni, and his second in command, a master sergeant. Those absent from the six letters of reprimand include the two senior officers who approved the mission and who then oversaw the operation as it went fatally awry.

The punishments appear to run counter to another narrative the Army has pushed in past months: the heroism displayed by the troops under fire. Almost all of the soldiers on the 11-man team, including those who were killed, have been nominated for valor awards, though they have yet to be approved. According to one official, senior officers at Special Operations Command believe that members of the team can be held responsible for failures before the mission and still be awarded commendations for their actions during the ambush.

Captain Jason Salata, a spokesman for Special Operations Command, said in a statement that he would not discuss “any accountability actions.” But he added that “we remain committed to learning all we can from this ambush as a way to continue to honor the sacrifice and commitment of our fallen soldiers.”

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The events that led up to the ambush are the result of three missions.

The first, which took place Oct. 3, began with the Green Beret-led unit, Team 3212, departing from an outpost in Oullam and heading toward the Niger-Mali border. The team’s stated initial plan was to visit a vulnerable checkpoint of Nigerien troops and speak with the soldiers there. The investigation said the mission was misrepresented to higher-ups by a lower-ranking officer. According to Pentagon officials, the officer failed to disclose that the team’s actual plan was to go after an Islamic State leader named Doundoun Cheffou.

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The second mission, which was launched the night of Oct. 3 after intelligence located Cheffou, involved an operation against the leader’s camp with a helicopter-borne team of US commandos and Nigerien counterterrorism troops from the town of Arlit, along with Team 3212.

Because of bad weather, the helicopter mission was canceled. Team 3212 was told to go to the campsite alone in what was the third and final mission. After searching the empty campsite, the team headed back toward Oullam. It was ambushed outside the village of Tongo Tongo by a large group of Islamic State militants that had been tracking its movements for hours.

Before the Oct. 4 ambush, many Americans were unaware that the Green Berets and 800 other US troops were deployed in Niger. The attack led to the largest loss of US lives in combat in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia.

The deaths of the four soldiers — Sergeant First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sergeant Bryan C. Black, Staff Sergeant Dustin M. Wright and Sergeant La David Johnson — set off an intense debate over what the US military is doing in Africa, and why.

As of now, four officers and two enlisted soldiers received letters of reprimand, known as a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand. Major General Edwin J. Deedrick Jr., commanding officer of the First Special Forces Command, administered five of the letters. The sixth was given by Thomas to Major General Marcus Hicks of the Air Force.

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A letter of reprimand’s severity is based on where it is placed in a soldier’s file. If the letter is considered “local,” it will disappear after the soldier changes jobs. But, if it is permanent, the punishment will stay with the soldier throughout his time in the military. In short: A permanent letter of reprimand often means the end of a career.

Below are the members of Third Special Forces Group and Special Operations Command-Africa who were punished and why.

Perozeni was the leader of Team 3212, Alpha Company, Second Battalion, Third Special Forces Group. He received a letter of reprimand citing his actions before the mission, including insufficient training and rehearsals before leaving base Oct. 3. One of the main criticisms outlined in the letter states that Team 3212 had rarely trained with the Nigerien soldiers who fought alongside his team that day.

Team 3212 had been in Niger less than a month and had focused on training another counterterrorism unit before the Oct. 3 mission. Perozeni was recommended for the Silver Star, a medal for valor third to the Medal of Honor. He was wounded during the ambush.

The team’s second in command, a master sergeant, was punished for many of the same reasons Perozeni was faulted for: not doing enough training with the Nigerien troops, along with a lack of rehearsals before the mission. His name, and others, have been withheld because of privacy concerns. The names have not been published throughout the investigation.

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Major Alan Van Saun, company commander for Alpha Company, was on paternity leave when Team 3212 was ambushed. He was reprimanded for improper training before the company was sent to Niger.

While Van Saun was stateside on leave, the acting company commander was a junior captain, meaning most of his responsibilities were left instead to a more experienced chief warrant officer. Even though the warrant officer’s role meant he was not in charge of Alpha Company, he carried out most of the company commander’s responsibilities. Because of this, the chief warrant officer’s letter of reprimand faulted him for the inaccurate mission plan that helped launch the first of the three missions.

Investigators believed Team 3212 and its immediate leadership in Niamey lied about the first mission because the team had a US intelligence contractor, who was able to detect and locate cellphone and radio communications, accompanying the team.

The investigators thought that by bringing the civilian, Team 3212 had counted on finding and going after Cheffou. Team 3212 brought him, however, because dated intelligence pointed to Cheffou’s presence in the area and it was worth at least trying to locate him when the team was at the Nigerien checkpoint, according to military officials.

The Army also punished Alpha Company’s sergeant major, who left the unit before Team 3212 deployed. As the top enlisted soldier in Alpha Company, he was responsible for the overall training of the company and ensuring that the six teams in the company were properly staffed.

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He was faulted for improperly training the company while it was in North Carolina. His replacement who deployed to Niger was not punished.

The highest-ranking person punished was Hicks, commanding officer of all Special Operations forces operating in Africa. He was aware of the third mission but was not a part of the approval process. He was punished by Thomas for not having appropriate oversight of the officers below him. He has long been set to retire after finishing his command.

The commander who oversaw Alpha Company and Team 3212, Lieutenant Colonel David Painter, was not punished. He approved the first and second missions and ordered the third. As battalion commander, he oversaw and approved all of his soldiers’ assignments and training, both back in the United States and in Niger. He told Team 3212 to continue on the final mission despite Perozeni’s pushing back on the operation, stating that the team had been out too long and lacked the resources for the operation. Painter is now a battalion commander in the Army’s new advising unit, the Security Force Assistance Brigade.

Colonel Brad Moses, commanding officer of Third Special Forces Group and Painter’s direct superior, received no punishment. He approved the second mission and was closely consulted regarding the third and final mission to send Team 3212 into the campsite and the ambush that followed. He is now chief of staff at Army Special Operations Command, the headquarters that oversees the unit charged with investigating and punishing those in Team 3212.