Army Recommends Silver Star for Captain Criticized in Deadly Niger Ambush

Members of the Third Special Forces Group’s Second Battalion at the coffin of Sgt. La David Johnson in October. Sergeant Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger, has been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross.

WASHINGTON — The Green Beret team leader who was singled out in a Pentagon investigation for blame after a deadly ambush in Niger last October has now been recommended for one of the military’s highest valor awards, officials said.

In an internal Special Operations Command report submitted last week, Army commanders recommended that the soldier, Capt. Michael Perozeni, receive a Silver Star — a rare honor that recognizes singular acts of valor and heroism in combat. The recognition is at odds with the public conclusions of an Africa Command report released in May that said that Captain Perozeni was one of the central figures in a mission gone wrong, while not directly attributing any blame to senior leadership.

Military officials have said that both narratives — that Captain Perozeni filed a misleading mission plan before the operation but then showed gallantry during the ambush — are true. Together, they are part of the fierce debate about a Pentagon shadow war in which four American soldiers died while on a murky mission in West Africa.

Army leaders must now make a difficult decision about which of those two story lines will prevail.

Captain Perozeni is one of five soldiers from Operational Detachment-Alpha Team 3212 who are being considered for a Silver Star. Three others have been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award, according to two Defense Department officials who are familiar with the report and described it to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.

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The award recommendations were delivered to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last Friday in the annex of an internal investigation into the ambush by the military command that oversees Special Operations forces.

They sharply contrast with findings by the Africa Command that seized on missteps by junior officers before an unprepared and poorly equipped 11-man team and 30 Nigerien soldiers headed into western Niger’s desert scrub in search of a local militant leader, Doundoun Cheffou. But critics said the findings glossed over blame for senior commanders who had ordered the mission.

Of the four American soldiers who were killed in the Oct. 4 mission, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson are being considered for the Distinguished Service Cross, according to the two Defense Department officials. The other two soldiers — Sgt. First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black — have been recommended for the Silver Star.

Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokeswoman, would not comment on which soldier might receive which award.

“Individual members of the U.S. Special Operations team performed numerous acts of bravery while under fire on Oct. 4, 2017, and their actions are being reviewed for appropriate recognition,” Major Klinkel said in a statement.

Four Nigerien soldiers and a military translator also were killed in the ambush.

The two Defense Department officials said the Special Operations Command report did not suggest any punishment for the soldiers who planned and carried out the mission that led to the ambush.

One department official noted that it was doubtful that Captain Perozeni could be considered for the honor if his misleading mission plan had been a significant error, or had led to the deadly attack.

In reviewing evidence for the awards, the Defense Department has relied in part on an Islamic State propaganda video that was released after the battle. The American military initially deplored the release of the video, which includes helmet camera footage of the dying moments of three of the American soldiers.

But another Defense Department official acknowledged that the footage — despite its origin — fills in key parts of the fight that were not witnessed by other American soldiers.

The attack outside the village of Tongo Tongo, in western Niger, led to the largest American loss of lives during combat in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia. It ignited a political firestorm over President Trump’s treatment of the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, the lone African-American among the four killed. And it set off a fierce debate over secretive American military missions in remote and far-flung battlegrounds.



How the Ambush of U.S. Soldiers in Niger Unfolded

One of the American soldiers ambushed by militants in Niger was wearing a helmet camera – we analyzed the footage to understand what happened.

These four American Green Berets were killed last fall when their patrol was ambushed in Niger. The Defense Department launched an investigation into what happened. But helmet camera footage from one of the soldiers allowed us to reconstruct some of the attack. It’s the morning of Oct. 4, 2017. A convoy of around eight American and Nigerien army vehicles leaves the village of Tongo Tongo after a mission in the area. They’re quickly ambushed by militants loyal to Islamic State. Footage of that fight shows that two American vehicles are separated from the convoy. The others had fled or were hit. We see seven soldiers taking cover. The attackers are somewhere in this area. An American soldier we believe to be Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson wearing a helmet camera enters the white vehicle and drives it a short distance. He steps out and begins firing towards the tree line. Then, he runs for cover behind the white vehicle, and the video cuts to a new scene. Next, we only see the black car and three soldiers — Staff Sergeants Johnson, Wright, and Black. The white car has disappeared, and we don’t know how much time has elapsed. Wright drives the car toward the mark of a red smoke grenade. The smoke could be to mask their movements from the militants, or to mark their position for supporting units. Johnson, taking cover at the rear, fires toward the tree line. After they’ve reached the smoke, there’s a cut in the video. In the next scene, the red smoke has cleared. The car begins to move again, when Johnson and Black fall. Black is unresponsive. Johnson regains his footing. He moves forward and starts searching. It could be for support or for the enemy. Wright then drags Black to cover, behind the car. He aims back towards the treeline. The scene ends. The militants are closing in. We don’t know how much time has passed here, but Wright changes his direction of fire. He and Johnson begin running without covering each other. This suggests they’re about to be overrun. The situation is too desperate. There are more edits to the video, but we’re able to map their final steps. Johnson is seriously wounded and falls, but then moves about another 40 feet. Militant fire seems to be coming from this area. Wright stops running and shoots. A short time later, two armed militants appear on screen. Johnson appears to be unconscious. Still, he is shot by the militants at close range. Staff Sergeant Wright dies just feet away. For them, the ambush is over.

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One of the American soldiers ambushed by militants in Niger was wearing a helmet camera – we analyzed the footage to understand what happened.

The executive summary and video animation of the firefight, as described in the Africa Command findings in May, described the soldiers of Team 3212 as courageously fighting back for hours under direct fire during the afternoon of Oct. 4, risking their lives to save teammates.

The public version of that investigation found widespread problems across all levels of the military mission. But it singled out Captain Perozeni and another junior officer for filing a preliminary planning document that it said “mischaracterized” the operation as a trip to meet with tribal leaders — not as a counterterrorism mission.

What was not in the unclassified portion of the report was that Captain Perozeni had pushed back against the partof the mission that would eventually turn deadly.

Commanders ordered Team 3212 to divert from its original mission and pursue Mr. Cheffou, who was linked to the Islamic State and involved in the kidnapping of an American aid worker. Mr. Cheffou’s hide-out was abandoned by the time Team 3212 reached it, but Defense Department officials have said he helped lead the ambush against the American and Nigerien convoy hours later.

According to a classified version of the May report, Captain Perozeni asked that the Green Beret team be allowed to return to base after a planned helicopter raid on Mr. Cheffou’s campsite was aborted, according to a military official familiar with the document. Instead, a lieutenant colonel based in Chad ordered Team 3212 to continue on.

Headed back from Mr. Cheffou’s hide-out, the convoy was attacked by dozens of Islamic State militants outside Tongo Tongo. Captain Perozeni and a group of Nigerien soldiers, all on foot, tried to flank the attacking fighters. They failed, and after realizing there were far more militants than initially believed, Captain Perozeni and the Nigerien soldiers ran back to the convoy, where he ordered a retreat.

Captain Perozeni tried to hold together a unit that was under fire and plagued with communication issues, vehicles that were too lightly armored to protect the soldiers and unreliable Nigerien forces as allies.

When team members were separated, others went back to look for them. At one point, five of the seven soldiers aboard one of the American vehicles were shot, including Captain Perozeni, who was thrown from the bed of the truck. Its driver, Sgt. First Class Brent Bartels, was shot in the arm but kept going. Wounded, he turned around and went back to get Captain Perozeni, according to a narrative provided by the Pentagon in May.

Sergeant Bartels is the third soldier in the Niger firefight who has been recommended for a Distinguished Service Cross.

Sergeant La David Johnson, who was recommended posthumously, was an Army mechanic by trade and the driver of one of the ambushed vehicles. The Pentagon has described how, after being separated from other soldiers, he kept firing at the advancing militants who surrounded and killed him. His body was not found for two days.

Much of the evidence to posthumously recommend the Distinguished Service Cross for Sergeant Wright — as well as the Silver Stars for Sergeants Black and Jeremiah Johnson — comes from the helmet camera video footage that the militants seized. Additional evidence was collected by the Army.

That footage made clear that Sergeants Wright and Jeremiah Johnson stopped and tried to help Sergeant Black after he was shot. The three also were separated from the rest of the group and overrun by fighters. Sergeant Wright, the last to fall, at one point tried to keep the advancing fighters away from the body of Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, before being killed himself.

Top Army officials must still review the award recommendations — made from the Third Special Forces Group command for northwestern Africa, which is based in Germany and oversees Green Berets on the continent.

The military’s awards process is often subjective and frequently criticized. Awards can be downgraded or upgraded, sometimes years or decades later. For medals such as the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, the recommendations require multiple witness statements and corroborating information.

If the recommendations for the soldiers in the Niger firefight are approved, it would be one of the first times in more than a decade that the second-highest valor award was given to three individuals from a single battle.

In 2005, three Navy SEALs were awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy and Marine Corps’ equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross. Two of the SEALs were killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan known as Operation Red Wings.

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