Before we begin, these are the names of the fallen: Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, and Sergeant La David Johnson. This much we know. Don’t let President Trump’s response to the situationovershadow their service and their honor.
The four men died on October 6 in the country of Niger, which is just north of Nigeria, south of Algeria, and southwest of Libya. The place where they died was some 120 miles north of the capital of Niamey. All four were assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group but serving at the time under the command of the “Unified Command” known as AFRICOM. It appears that they were killed in a one-sided engagement with the “Islamic State of the Greater Sahara,” which claims to be affiliated with ISIS, but there are doubts about the legitimacy of the connection.
According to a military spokesperson who spoke to me on background, there were between eight and 12 American soldiers on this particular operation, and they were moving with roughly 40-50 Nigerien soldiers. I say moving because, although it was not stated in any previous reporting, this was clearly a close ambush of a densely packed convoy.
Not only were Black, Wright, Johnson, and Johnson killed, but two other American soldiers were seriously wounded. The spokesperson confirmed to me that they have been evacuated to the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany. Both are suffering from gunshot wounds, not shrapnel from IEDs or a mine. When pressed, he as much as confirmed that situation when he acknowledged that the vehicles were unarmored. In other words, this was not an ambush of a foot patrol along a dusty path or on a jungle trail, these troops were hit by complete surprise when their convoy was taken under fire along a road.
The other factor that confirms that this part of their mission was not directly intended to be about close-quarters combat is the Military Occupation Specialties (MOSs) of the men.
Both Black and Wright were classified as “18D”, which means they were the type of men one usually thinks about as Green Berets. Those men have gone through the generically named but incredibly difficult Qualification Course, usually just known as the Q Course, and then additional specialized training as well. In Wright’s case, he was an engineer. Black was a medic. But what many people do not realize is that in any larger SF unit there are additional soldiers who are not products of the SF training program, but who have necessary specializations of their own. In this case, Johnson was a “91B”, a Light Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic, and the other Johnson was a “74D”, which is a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear specialist. The latter two are not the sort one usually takes on a combat patrol, though necessity does sometimes lead to odd compositions, and SF is all about adapting to whatever the situation demands.
AFRICOM, one of the Unified Commands by which the Department of Defense divides up the planet, is one of the least well-known. The Unified Commands are those four-star commands to which all four services submit their combat and support troops when they are deployed overseas. There’s CENTCOM, covering most of the Middle East; EUCOM, covering Europe and dealing with NATO; and PACOM, covering the Pacific and most notably North Korea and China. While relatively unknown, AFRICOM’s mission is important, and dangerous, even if it is almost unknown outside of the military.
Though there is officially only one American base in Africa, Camp Lemonier in the country of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, there are also 11 officially acknowledged “Cooperative Security Locations” and probably at least three times that many facilities that are either temporary or held unused for future operations across the continent. In this terminology, the Pentagon tends towards a bit of obfuscation, though definitionally correct. In a similar way, there are only around 4,000 American military members “based” in Africa, almost all of them at Lemonier. But in the language of the Department of Defense, “based” means someone is assigned to a post there for an extended period. Thus various units may come into the area on a temporary basis of a few weeks or a few months and not show up in that official tally of how many American servicemen we have in Africa. For all of these reasons, among others, AFRICOM tends to slip from people’s radar. Until now, of course.
Most people would be challenged to point out Niger on an unlabeled map. Fewer still would know what sort of conflicts are going on in the region, let alone inside the country. But it is a critical place, which is why there are roughly 800 American servicemen and women assigned there.
Special Forces are designed and equipped to accomplish several different types of missions, from Direct Action (think hostage rescue missions), to Strategic Reconnaissance (way behind the lines and sometimes out of bounds). But their most important missions, and indeed the ones that they are most uniquely prepared for, are Foreign Internal Defense. That is, at a higher level, also known as Advise and Assist, but it comes down to the same thing. Small teams of SF soldiers go out and work with local forces to make those locals better, more efficient, more combat ready and capable. Generically speaking, one 12-man Special Forces A-Team is theoretically capable of training up a local unit of 1,000 of an allied nation. This is a massively efficient return on investment for the United States.
This is the broader mission on which Black, Wright, Johnson, and Johnson gave their lives.
We may never know the exact details of what happened on that road in Niger where four men gave the last full measure of their devotion. Even AFRICOM is still investigating to try and figure out what exactly took place. But this is almost beside the point. Theirs was a mission, far from their homeland but with the express purpose of confronting those who would do us harm nearer to their lands and farther from ours. It is a solitary and sometimes desperate mission, but a sadly necessary one, as it has been since John F. Kennedy first authorized the creation of the Special Forces, the “Quiet Professionals.”