Families who lost sons in a deadly 2008 battle in eastern Afghanistan expressed outrage yesterday after the Army decided not to discipline three key officers involved.
"It was horrible. It felt like I was shot in the face," said David Brostrom, an Aiea resident and retired Army colonel whose son, 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, was killed in the July 13, 2008, battle while trying to reinforce an observation post that was close to being overrun.
Nine soldiers died in the battle of Wanat, and an additional 27 were wounded in one of the worst U.S. combat losses of the nine-year war.
Families of the soldiers killed were briefed yesterday at Fort McPherson, Ga., on the results of a second investigation ordered by U.S. Central Command.
The Army simultaneously announced it was reversing a decision to punish three officers for command failures outlined by a Marine Corps three-star general who was tasked with reinvestigating the Wanat battle.
"There wasn’t one family member of those 15 that were there that was not very upset," Brostrom said by phone from Georgia. "Nobody understood."
Jonathan Brostrom, 24, who grew up in Hawaii and attended Damien Memorial School and the University of Hawaii, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.
The families were briefed by Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski and by Army Gen. Charles Campbell, who recently retired but informed the families of the decision to reverse the Marine Corps officer’s findings. The families also were given CD copies of a 4,000-page report of the investigation, Brostrom said.
David Brostrom fought for and obtained a second investigation after he and other families said the Army gave short shrift to an initial investigation, conducted at the brigade level, into the attack by 200 militants on his son’s platoon.
Officers singled out by family members as receiving disciplinary action after the Marine Corps investigation were Capt. Matthew Myer, the company commander who following the Wanat battle received a Silver Star; Lt. Col. William Ostlund, the battalion commander; and Col. Charles Preysler, who was commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
Natonski, the Marine Corps investigating officer, said in his findings that Ostlund and Myer "were through neglect, derelict in the performance of their duties to properly supervise the planning and execution" of the setup of the Wanat outpost in remote Kunar province.
Preysler, the brigade commander, "was derelict, in that through culpable inefficiency he failed to establish and maintain sufficient knowledge of the planning, resourcing and execution" of the base setup, Natonski said. The names were blacked out in the released version of the Marine Corps investigation.
The Army said yesterday that Campbell, who was appointed to review the new investigation, initiated adverse "administrative actions" on March 5 against 173rd Airborne Brigade officers.
The officers were then allowed an opportunity to make a case to defend their actions.
"After careful consideration of the additional information, Campbell concluded that the officers were neither negligent nor derelict in the performance of their duties and that their actions were reasonable under the circumstances," the Army said. As a result, Campbell withdrew the administrative actions, the Army said.
Some of the 49 Americans at Wanat, mostly soldiers from Chosen Company of the 173rd Brigade, complained they were low on water and heavy equipment to build what was planned to be a new outpost. They were scheduled to go home in less than two weeks.
The Marine investigation found that there were leadership failures in properly identifying resources required for the mission, assigning specific tasks and planning for engagement with the local population.
The failure of the battalion commander or field grade officer to visit Wanat prior to the battle resulted in a "lack of awareness by leaders," the report states.
U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a news release yesterday that on July 9 he asked the Defense Department to conduct a re-investigation of Wanat. David Brostrom had met with Webb seeking the review.
Webb said that on Jan. 21 Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command and now the commander-designate of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, approved the re-investigation, and the Defense Department’s inspector general concurred with the findings.
As a result, the Army issued letters of reprimand to the three officers. But Webb said the more recent action annuls those reprimands.
"I find it deeply troubling that the Army has exonerated these officers and in the process rejected the findings of the independent review," Webb said in the release. "This development raises concerns regarding the principle of command accountability in the Army."
"I believe we got what we wanted when the investigation showed there was wrongdoing by the Army," Kurt Zwilling of Missouri, whose son Gunnar was killed at Wanat, told The Associated Press. "But I’m not surprised the Army didn’t punish its own."
Carlene Cross of Seattle, whose son Jason Bogar was killed at Wanat, criticized Campbell for his decision to reverse disciplinary actions against the three officers.
"I said, ‘Is this about Wanat, or is this about the Army wanting to make sure that in the future its commanders don’t have to worry about making decisions that they are going to be in trouble for later?’" Cross said. "And he actually said, ‘Yes, that’s part of it.’"
She added that the "Army has lost all credibility in this, and the American public is going to realize it."
Nine soldiers died in the battle of Wanat in eastern Afghanistan, and another 27 were wounded. After an initial investigation by the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a second investigation ordered by U.S. Central Command and conducted by a Marine general resulted in the decision to punish three officers for command failures. That decision was then reversed in an Army review of the probe.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, investigating officer:
Battalion commander Lt. Col. William Ostlund and company commander Capt. Matthew Myer "were through neglect, derelict in the performance of their duties to properly supervise the planning and execution" of the setup of the Wanat outpost. Col. Charles Preysler, the brigade commander, "was derelict, in that through culpable inefficiency he failed to establish and maintain sufficient knowledge of the planning, resourcing and execution" of the base setup.
Army Gen. Charles Campbell, former commander of U.S. Forces Command, who reversed disciplinary measures:
"That U.S. casualties occurred at Wanat is true. However, this did not occur as a result of deficient decisions, planning and actions of the chain of command. … The U.S. casualties occurred because the enemy decided to attack the (combat outpost) at Wanat and battle resulted. It is critical that we not mechanically equate U.S. casualties with professional error or misconduct."