The pentagon deployed elite commandos in response to the deadly ambush of a Special Forces team in Africa, fearing that one soldier whom was missing at the time was alive and might fall into enemy hands, U.S. military officials said.
The commandos, with the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), were deployed from the United States late October 4 after three U.S. soldiers and 5 Nigerien troops partnered with them were declared killed in action, said three officials, who had familiarity with the operation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
The remains of the missing soldier, Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, were recovered the evening of Oct. 6 after local nigeriens found Johnson’s body and turned it over to Nigerien authorities working with U.S. troops.
Johnson’s separation from his unit after an ambush by militants affiliated with the Islamic State triggered the declaration of what the military calls a DUSTWUN, which stands for “duty status whereabouts unknown,” the officials said. Declaration of that status typically leads to an intense search for a missing service member. It is used when a commander suspects that a service member may be absent involuntarily, but does not think enough evidence exists to make a definitive determination, according to a U.S. military manual.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to allude to the deployment of JSOC members during a news conference Monday, saying that “national assets” were made available for the search. Dunford received a phone call from Marine Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, the night of the ambush, triggering their approval for additional help, the chairman said.
Two U.S. military officials said it is unlikely that JSOC would have deployed forces for the search if it was clear at the time that Johnson was dead. The concern, the officials said, was that the missing soldier could be captured alive.
“All of us were preparing at the time for PR support,” said one U.S. military official, alluding to sensitive personnel recovery operations.
The deployment of JSOC in response to Johnson’s disappearance was first reported by ABC News. It has not previously been reported that the military issued a DUSTWUN alert, or that commanders had some concerns that Johnson was alive and potentially attempting to evade those who had ambushed his unit. It is not clear whether they ever became directly involved in the search.
JSOC includes the military’s most elite forces: the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team 6, and the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force. It is not clear which force was assigned to help, or if both were.
The ambushed unit included 12 U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Special Forces Group, and deployed on a reconnaissance mission Oct. 3 while accompanied by about 30 Nigerien soldiers, Dunford said. They were ambushed by small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and vehicles with weapons mounted on them outside the village of Tongo Tongo while trying to return to their base in the capital, Niamey, he said.
Johnson, 25, worked as a mechanic and was attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group team. His death has been at the center of a political fight in which President Trump has been accused of being disrespectful in a phone call last week to the soldier’s pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson. Trump and some of his senior White House officials have denied that was the case.
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The other U.S. soldiers killed in the operation were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29. Staff Sgt. Johnson was a conventional soldier trained to work with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, while Black and Wright were Green Beret soldiers.
Two U.S. military officials said that La David Johnson may have become separated from his unit in part because they were ambushed twice on Oct. 4. That detail, first reported by NBC News, may explain the chaotic nature of the mission. Dunford said Monday that the U.S. and Nigerien troops first faced enemy fire that morning, but did not call for help until about an hour later, perhaps because they initially thought the situation was under control.
The U.S. military has not clarified publicly when exactly Johnson died, although the military did announce that he “died Oct. 4 in southwest Niger as a result of enemy fire.”
Myeshia Johnson told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that U.S. military officials said she should not view her husband’s remains. Dunford, asked about that, said afterward that a casualty assistance officer may suggest that a family may not want to see their loved one’s remains, but that it is the family’s choice.
“I don’t know what happened in the case of Mrs. Johnson, but we’ll certainly find that out,” Dunford said. “From a policy perspective, we would typically defer her to the family’s desires, and we do that.”