In Niger Ambush, Rushing Into the Gunfire to Save the Fallen
Posted May 10, 2018 8:45 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Four U.S. commandos take off on foot, under heavy gunfire, to look for missing teammates in the borderland of Niger. Another is shot in the elbow behind the wheel of a vehicle yet continues to drive. That driver, after his team leader is shot and thrown from his truck, turns the vehicle around and goes back to pick him up as militants loyal to the Islamic State close in.
The Pentagon’s release Thursday of a report into the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, their interpreter and four Nigerien soldiers is short on details about how the underequipped team of U.S. commandos came to be sent to hunt the leader of an Islamic State affiliate. But the executive summary and a video animation of the ambush show heroic efforts among the soldiers to save one another, some of them fighting to the end.
The pitched battle began at 11:40 a.m., just after the convoy of eight U.S. and Nigerien vehicles left the village of Tongo Tongo. More than five hours later, after two French Mirage aircraft made low, lifesaving passes to keep the militants from swarming the Americans and Nigeriens, the surviving members of the team were evacuated.
Between those bookends, the soldiers scrambled to administer aid and find a way to stay alive in a one-sided battle.
Video footage seized by militants from the helmet camera of Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, one of those killed, had already made clear that he and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright stopped and tried to assist a fallen teammate, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, when the three were overrun by fighters after having been separated from the rest of the group.
Black was killed instantly, and the other two soldiers were forced to flee, before Johnson also went down. Wright, the last to fall, stopped running, turned around and tried to keep the advancing fighters away from Johnson before being killed himself.
But what had not been previously evident was what happened to the rest of the Army Special Forces team, called Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212. The Pentagon animation, based on battlefield evidence and eyewitness accounts, showed the remaining soldiers, caught in a fight they had not expected.
After the ambush began, the convoy stopped and returned fire. The team’s leader, Capt. Michael Perozeni, and a group of Nigerien soldiers, all on foot, tried to flank the attacking fighters.
The maneuver — a common tactic for a small unit caught in a close-range ambush — failed as the militants massed and counterattacked. Perozeni discovered that there were far more fighters than initially thought, and he and the Nigerien soldiers ran back to the convoy. He ordered the entire convoy to fall back.
Smoke grenades were thrown to hide their withdrawal, and five of the vehicles made it out of the immediate zone of attack. But the black utility vehicle carrying Wright, Johnson and Black did not make it out. Two Nigerien trucks also stayed, immobilized. The three Americans were killed around noon.
The five-vehicle remnant of the convoy pushed nearly half a mile south but came to a halt as it became clear that more than a quarter of Team 3212 was missing. Two U.S. commandos volunteered to go back on foot and look for them, heading into the thick of the ambush site, where they shot and killed several militants.
The rest of the team remained behind, continuing to fire back at the advancing fighters. Two more U.S. commandos then left that group on foot and headed back toward the ambush site to help in the search.
The militants continued to surge forward. For the second time, Perozeni ordered the remnants of his team to fall back. Only two American vehicles were left; the Nigerien ones were immobilized. Perozeni jumped into the bed of a truck driven by Sgt. 1st Class Brent Bartels, who drove around in a circle sweeping up Nigerien troops. Then, believing that the second U.S. vehicle was behind him, he accelerated hard to the north.
But Sgt. La David T. Johnson, an Army mechanic by trade and the driver of the second U.S. truck, had been pinned down by heavy fire and was unable to get back into the driver’s seat. He and two Nigerien soldiers ran west. The two Nigeriens were shot and killed within 1,000 feet.
Johnson kept running, for almost a quarter-mile, before taking cover under the lone thorny tree in the scrub. He kept firing his weapon until the advancing militants surrounded and killed him.
The other U.S. vehicle was heading north, still under fire. Five of the seven people aboard were shot. Perozeni was thrown from the bed of the truck; Bartels, wounded, turned around and went back to get him, then continued north until the truck got stuck in a swamp.
The group radioed for help, saying it was about to be overrun. The call was the second the soldiers made, after initially reporting that they were “troops in contact.” That phrase, rare for that part of the world, means in military parlance that a unit was involved in an extensive gunbattle.
The four U.S. commandos who had gone on foot to look for the missing team members rejoined the group, and they abandoned the stuck truck, running into the tree line.
“The combined group established a final defensive position,” the executive summary says, “where they prepared to make their last stand.”