The Army reversed a decision Wednesday to punish three officers for their role in one of the deadliest attacks U.S. forces have been involved with in Afghanistan since the war began.
The attack occurred in the village of Wanat, near the Pakistan border, on July 13, 2008. U.S. forces were attacked by roughly 200 insurgents, and when it was over, nine U.S. soldiers were dead and 27 were wounded.
An investigation that concluded in January triggered letters of reprimand for three officers who were said to have made critical operational mistakes. The soldiers refuted the charges and showed evidence in their defense.
After reviewing that evidence, the Army general given the task of punishing the soldiers, reversed his decision and cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
Families of the soldiers who died in the attack said they were told punishing the three would have a chilling effect on other commanders who have to make crucial decisions on the battlefield.
David Brostrom, whose son Jonathan was one of those killed, 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.”
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,” he 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 the decision was “good news for this round, but it is by no way over for me or the others officers.” Ostlund, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the attack, indicated there are still other administrative steps the Army may take, but he wouldn’t specify what those were.
“It’s not over for any of the three of us at this time,” said Ostlund, the deputy commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment.