Rep. wants answers on Ganjgal ambush probe

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Posted : Thursday Oct 28, 2010 14:56:27 EDT

A member of the House Armed Services Committee is calling for the Army to divulge what punishment three officers received for failing to respond adequately to an ambush in Afghanistan that killed five U.S. troops.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., asked Army Secretary John McHugh to explain the “consequences” the Army officers faced following a joint Army-Marine investigation of the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush near the village of Ganjgal, he said in an interview with Marine Corps Times.

Army Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, a spokesman for McHugh, declined to comment on what punishment was delivered, but said the Army planned to respond to Jones’ inquiry.

“Clearly, the deaths at Ganjgal were tragic,” she said. “But as is standard practice in the Army, we apply the lessons learned from all reviews and investigations … to prevent repeating mistakes of the past.”

The attack occurred as 13 U.S. military trainers and about 80 Afghan security forces made an early-morning trip to the remote village in Kunar province to meet with village elders.

Three Marines and a Navy corpsman were found shot to death and stripped of their gear and weapons in a ditch after being pinned down for hours, without air and artillery support, by more than 100 insurgents wielding rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, according to witness statements obtained by Marine Corps Times. A U.S. soldier wounded in the ambush died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

“I believe that they are seriously looking into the facts as to what happened during that fight,” said Jones, who served in Congress with McHugh, a former New York representative. “I have a great respect for Secretary McHugh, and I believe he will get to the bottom of it, and once a decision is made … he will release his findings.”

Killed in the battle were 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; Gunnery Sgts. Aaron Kenefick, 30; and Edwin Johnson, 31; and Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, died Oct. 7, 2009, after his body rejected a blood transfusion needed after he sustained several gunshot wounds in the battle.

Two investigations were launched following the Ganjgal attack. The first was headed by an Army major in the first days after the attack. The second, in November, focused primarily on command-post failure, and was overseen by Army Col. Richard Hooker and Marine Col. James Werth, military officials said. The colonels found that there was a failure of leadership in the operations center, and that the troops on the ground were promised air and artillery support before the mission if it became necessary.

The investigating colonels recommended that three Army officers — likely captains or majors — receive letters of reprimand for failing to provide adequate support from a nearby operations center at Forward Operating Base Joyce. The officers were part of Task Force Chosin, an Army unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. The Army has not said whether those reprimands were delivered.

Seeking the truth

In a Sept. 22 letter to McHugh, Jones said he believes it is “extremely important” that the punishments are disclosed.

“No service member should ever have to beg for support in the face of such terrible odds,” the letter said. “Therefore, I request that you provide me with a detailed explanation of what, if any, consequences resulted for those involved in failing to provide support to these Marines and Navy Corpsman.”

Jones said he decided to act after meeting with Kenefick’s mother, Susan Price, and Layton’s father, Brent, in his office in Washington. They met with him after flying to Virginia to accept Bronze Stars with “V” that the Corps awarded posthumously Sept. 17 to the Marines and corpsman killed near Ganjgal. The Army awarded a Bronze Star to Westbrook posthumously last year before his funeral.

The inquiry comes after the Army rescinded letters of reprimand issued earlier this year to three Army officers involved in a battle in Wanat, Afghanistan, in which nine soldiers were killed and 27 others were wounded July 13, 2008. The letters are typically considered career-killers.

In that case, a U.S. Central Command investigation headed by Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski cited leadership of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, out of Vicenza, Italy, as “derelict in the performance of their duties to properly supervise the planning and execution” of the military operation planned, according to a summary report released by CENTCOM in June.

However, the reprimands were rescinded in June by retiring Gen. Charles Campbell, who commanded U.S. Army Forces Command, out of Fort McPherson, Ga. He shared his decision with the families of the dead soldiers June 23, and the meeting ended abruptly when several of them walked out angrily, family members told Army Times.

Susan Price, Kenefick’s mother, said she was impressed with Jones, who cleared his schedule on short notice to meet with her and Brent Layton.

“The congressman is trying to do the right thing, and I’m going to do everything I can to help him find out the truth,” she said. “I’m going to keep pushing until I get some answers.”