Five U.S. senators, among them Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, today asked the secretary of the Army to explain the Army’s decision to overturn the results of an independent investigation into the 2008 Battle of Wanat in eastern Afghanistan.
Nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 were wounded in the lopsided battle that saw 200 militants attack and nearly overrun the small U.S. outpost, which was just being built and lacked established defenses.
Among the dead was 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Aiea, a Damien Memorial and University of Hawaii graduate.
The families of the soldiers who were killed also are appealing the Army reversal to President Barack Obama.
A letter to the president is being finalized, and the families expect to deliver it to Obama’s office within weeks.
“Dear Mr. President,” the draft letter begins. “On July 13, 2008, our sons were killed in Wanat, Afghanistan. We waited for answers as to why they died in a remote village with insufficient supplies and defenses in a horrific battle.”
The family letter says that that year, the Army’s internal investigation held no one accountable “for obvious leadership and resource failures.”
The letter asks that Obama direct the U.S. defense secretary to restore the findings and disciplinary action of the independent investigation.
Brostrom’s father, David, a retired colonel who spent 30 years in the Army, pushed for and obtained the second investigation looking at the planning and resourcing by the Army as it sent a platoon of soldiers into a known hostile area with less than two weeks left remaining on their Afghanistan deployment.
The soldiers said they were low on water and heavy equipment to set up what was intended to be a new outpost.
Jonathan Brostrom’s company, battalion and brigade commanders received letters of reprimand following the reinvestigation, which found a series of command failures leading up to Wanat.
In June, the families of the nine dead soldiers were briefed on the results of the re-investigation, which was ordered by U.S. Central Command and conducted by Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski.
Following Natonski’s briefing and a question-and-answer session, both of which lasted several hours, Army Gen. Charles Campbell took the floor and dropped a bombshell, telling the families he was reversing the decision to punish the three officers who had received letters of reprimand.
A dejected Brostrom said after the meeting that “there wasn’t one family member” of those present who was not very upset. “Nobody understood,” Brostrom said.
Today’s letter by the five U.S. senators asks that Army Secretary John McHugh meet with them to discuss the Army’s justification for its reversal of the U.S. Central Command findings.
In addition to Akaka, U.S. Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) also signed the letter.
“Gen. Campbell’s decision to exonerate the officers identified by Gen. Natonski as being derelict in their duties owing to inaction prior to the battle has raised a number of troubling issues,” the senators said.
Campbell justified his decision to exonerate the three officers on the basis that they exercised “a degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances,” according to the letter.
The senators said Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, and Natonski were familiar with the details of Campbell’s review and his rationale for exonerating the three officers, and when asked for their reaction, both Petraeus and Natonski stated that they stood by their re-investigation and its findings.
The Department of Defense Inspector General also concurred with the findings of the U.S. Central Command re-investigation.
“Family members of the deceased who have contacted our offices have expressed their concerns over what they see as the Army’s failure to hold commanders accountable and the resulting likelihood that similar tragedies will occur,” the letter states. “As one mother said, ‘The Army argues that if they reprimanded the commanders, it will lead to risk aversion in battle. The reckless decisions made at Wanat were not made in battle; they occurred months and weeks before from negligence and neglect.’ ”
The senators said in the letter to McHugh that they recognize the difficulty posed in responding to the issues that families of the deceased have raised regarding Campbell’s actions.
“Given the depth of their concerns, however, we consider it necessary for you to address them, to inform us of your views on the principle of command accountability, and to describe how the Army is applying the lessons learned at the Battle of Wanat,” the group said.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient who lost his arm in combat, was not a signatory to the letter to McHugh, but he said an explanation for the Army reversal is warranted.
“I lost friends on the battlefield and I visited with their families after the war,” Inouye said. “The ultimate sacrifice made by these brave men creates a painful void in the lives of their loved ones. My deepest sympathies are with the Brostroms and the other families who lost their sons in Wanat Valley.”
Inouye said given U.S. Central Command’s investigation’s findings, “and the long and painful struggle of the families involved, a clear explanation of the Army’s review of the (Central Command) findings and the decision not to reprimand those initially held responsible is the least the Army can provide.”
Inouye said he has been in difficult situations as a platoon leader and “I know the grim reality of wartime. Unfortunately, causalities are almost inevitable, but we expect our commanders to always do the right thing.”