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Fort Bragg soldiers killed in 2017 Niger ambush start receiving posthumous awards

FS GABRESKI AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, WESTHAMPTON BEACH, NY - Six New York Air National Guard members receive the Bronze Star for Valor during a ceremony on Friday, Dec 6 at F.S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base. The six members of the 106th Rescue Wing's 103rd Rescue Squadron are being honored for the courage they showed under fire during a December 10, 2012 rescue mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Bronze Star with V device is the fourth highest ranking United States military award for heroism. The Combat Rescue Officer and five Pararescuemen, known collectively as Guardian Angels, flew into a "hot" LZ and were under continuous Taliban fire from AK-47s, machineguns, and rocket propelled grenades, as they called in helicopter gunship support, and provided emergency medical care to the four men while shielding them with their own bodies. The six members include: Capt. Ronnie Maloney, of Middle Island; Senior Master Sgt. Erik Blom, of Hampton Bays; Technical Sgt. Anthony Yusup of Bloomsburg, PA; Staff Sgt. James Dougherty of Rocky Point; Staff Sgt. Matthew Zimmer of Westhampton; and Staff Sgt. Christopher Petersen of Commack, then a senior Airman. All were assigned to the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron Detachment of the 651st Air Expeditionary Group, a part of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing, at Kandahar Air Field at the time.

The families of four soldiers killed in an October 2017 ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger, have started receiving posthumous awards on the soldiers’ behalves.

Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, all soldiers with the 3rd Special Forces Group, were killed following an Oct. 4, 2017, ambush while headed back to their base alongside Nigerien partners.

Vandor award ceremonies will take place in multiple locations to honor the service and sacrifice of the 3rd Special Forces Group soldiers who “acted valiantly” during the attack, said Sgt. 1st Class Caleb Barrieau, a spokesman for the 3rd Special Forces Group.

“We will be forever indebted to these brave men who sacrificed so much while defending this nation and fighting to bring peace and stability to the downtrodden, forgotten corners of the globe,” Barrieau said.

In June, Department of Defense officials announced that among the awards: Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington, and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio, would receive the Bronze Star Medal.

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Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, and Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia, would receive the Silver Star.

Two additional team members would receive the Silver Star and Army Commendation Medals.

The family of Sgt. 1st Class Johnson received his medal on Saturday, and the family of Black participated in a ceremony held Tuesday at Fort Bragg.

“It is very nice today to see that the Army is recognizing some of the soldiers for some of the things they did,” Black’s father, Hank Blank said. “It was a long time coming, and we’re pleased to see it take place today.”

Black’s wife Michelle, mother Karen, brother Jason and sons Ezekiel and Isaac were at the ceremony.

Family members said they are appreciative of the support of the 3rd Special Forces Group and overall Special Forces community.

“I think something people don’t realize is it’s not just the families who are grieving,” Michelle Black said. “It’s also the men who return. I mean, they lost their friends. And they’re in these six-month deployments with these guys … and I think them having us, and us having them, that’s important for all of us.”

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In an interview after the ceremony, the family described Bryan Black as someone was was always naturally curious and interested in the medical field from a young age.

Michelle Black described her husband as driven to the point of constantly reading books with subjects ranging from cabinetry, cooking, anatomy and physiology, jujitsu and multiple languages he taught himself by investing hours of study into learning.

“I think it kind of stemmed from the initial language learning through the (Special Forces qualifications course), and then of course once he went to Niger he was like, ‘I want to be able to converse with the people in Hasau,’ ” Michelle Black said.

Karen Black said once her son arrived in Africa, he would alternate teaching a cook English, and the cook spoke to him in Hausa, which he would practice in town.

His family said he earned a nickname with the local townspeople that roughly translated to “white man who speaks Hausa.”

“He would go out in town and shop and he would speak with all of the elders in one of the villages that they were at nearby and then he would speak to a lot of the kids in town,” Michelle Black said.

On June 5, the Department of Defense released a redacted report of the investigation of the October 2017 attack based on photographs, audio, video and testimonial evidence.

In a Feb. 23, 2018, memo for the secretary of defense, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said Africa is home to several violent extremist organizations that threaten regional stability and U.S. national interests, and Niger faces threats of violent extremists at its borders by groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Waldhauser said the October 2017 ambush was a tactical surprise.

“No single factor within the control of U.S. forces was the proximate cause of our soldiers’ deaths,” he said, adding that some tactical decisions caused confusion, and lack of pre-mission rehearsals created “challenges” between U.S. and Nigerien forces.

The 176-page redacted findings of fact report states that Team Ouallam — which Wright, Black, Staff Sgt. Johnson and Sgt. Johnson were part of — was a Special Forces team with nine Special Forces personnel in Ouallam, and commanded by an Army captain.

The executive findings report states that the team left with Nigerian forces on Oct. 3 on a counterterrorism operation to target a key member of the Islamic State near the village of Tiola.

Once in Tiola, the team was unable to locate its “target,” and conducted a key leader engagement with a partner force commander.

The report states that the “target” fled before Team Ouallam arrived.

The team headed back to its home base and stopped in Tongo Tongo to resupply, as its Nigerian partner forces needed water.

The team conducted an impromptu key leader engagement with village leaders and left Oct. 4 and was ambushed south of Tongo Tongo.

After Tuesday’s ceremony, Black’s family provided The Fayetteville Observer with a statement that said they are appreciative of 3rd Special Forces Group and the Special Forces community.

Family members continued to say they are disappointed in the U.S. Africa Command investigation, which they believe portrays a misleading narrative, resulting in “a failure to fully recognize the heroism and leadership displayed” by the unit members their son served on Oct. 4, 2017.

On June 5, Department of Defense officials said the Army would present nine valor awards to honor the acts of bravery and heroism demonstrated by members of the U.S. special operations team involved in the enemy attack.

Hank Black said the family thinks there are other members of the team who “deserve recognition at a higher level.”

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© 2019 The Fayetteville Observer