WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army has reversed a decision to punish three officers for command failures that led to one of the deadliest firefights for U.S. forces since the Afghanistan war began nearly a decade ago.
Families of the soldiers killed during the battle said they were briefed Wednesday by Army officials on their call not to reprimand the officers for dereliction of duty. They were told punishing the three would have a chilling effect on other battlefield commanders who have to make crucial decisions.
David Brostrom, whose son Jonathan was killed during the attack, said he and members of other families walked out of the briefing before it was over because they were so upset.
"I've never seen anything like it," said Brostrom, a former Army colonel who retired from military service in 2004. "The Army has reinforced leadership failure."
The attack at the small village of Wanat near the Pakistan border left nine American soldiers dead and 27 wounded. Their platoon-size unit was attacked by as many as 200 insurgents during the early morning hours of July 13, 2008.
U.S. Central Command, the military organization managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, directed a Marine Corps general last September to investigate the battle after families expressed dissatisfaction with an earlier inquiry by the Army.
The investigation by Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski concluded that the brigade, battalion and company commanders should be punished for having too few troops at the remote outpost and for not supplying them properly, according to the family members.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Marine combat officer in Vietnam, said on Wednesday that after receiving Natonski's investigation in January, the Army issued letters of reprimand to all three officers for being "derelict in the performance of their duties through neglect or culpable inefficiency."
But after an Army command in Georgia took a closer look at Natonski's report, service officials decided to annul the reprimands, according to Webb.
"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 a statement. "This development raises concerns regarding the principle of command accountability in the Army."
In a statement, the Army said that the second look at the incident proved that the officers were "neither negligent nor derelict" and that "their actions were reasonable under the circumstances."
Col. William Ostlund, the battalion commander, said, "This is good news for this round, but it is by no way over for me or the other officers." Ostlund, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the attack and is now deputy commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, indicated there are still other administrative steps the Army may take, but wouldn't specify what those were.
Kurt Zwilling, whose son Gunnar was killed at Wanat, said the families were satisfied by Natonski's investigation.
"I'm not surprised the Army didn't punish its own," Zwilling said.
Natonski's findings were delivered to Army Gen. Charles Campbell, then the leader of Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. Campbell retired earlier this month, but he conducted the briefing at Fort McPherson for the families because he made the decision to overturn the reprimands.
Carlene Cross, whose son Jason Bogar was killed at Wanat, said the families first were informed of Natonski's findings, which she said were endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus, the Central Command chief just appointed top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
"Then Gen. Campbell gets up and says they're not going to do anything to them," Cross said.
"They've completely revoked all of the dereliction findings and basically they won't even get a slap on the wrist," she said. "We were just furious."
On the day of the attack, fewer than 50 U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, along with two dozen Afghan soldiers, were stationed at the remote Wanat outpost.
A detailed account of the battle written last year by a military historian at the Army Combat Studies Institute in Kansas said there was a growing hostility toward the Americans in Wanat and a failure by higher-level commanders to recognize the tension when they ordered the unit to the village just a few weeks before the attack.
Concern had been expressed by 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, a platoon leader, about the number of troops he had and the mountainous terrain surrounding the outpost, according to the historian's report.
The commanders withdrew airborne intelligence-gathering assets from Wanat to another location one day before the attack despite vehement protests from the unit. The reasons, according to the report, were that "nothing of consequence" had been detected in Wanat and the equipment was needed elsewhere.
The soldiers at Wanat also had shortages of water and fuel. According to the report, a lack of heavy construction equipment meant troops had to use picks and shovels to dig their fighting positions and fill sandbags.
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.