Sgt. La David Johnson, a Miami Gardens resident, and his fellow soldiers who died in an October 2017 ambush near the Niger-Mali border displayed extraordinary bravery, though a months-long internal investigation could not determine a single failure or deficiency that led to a group of U.S. and Nigerien forces being overpowered and outnumbered by ISIS fighters, the Pentagon said Thursday.
Johnson was not captured alive and was killed while "actively engaging the enemy," according to the investigation, which was unclassified on Thursday. The report said Johnson took cover under a thorny tree about 960 meters from his fighting position after running from heavy fire, which led to his body being found two days later than the rest of the soldiers killed in action.
"Johnson evaded on foot to a location outside the immediate search area of responding forces, resulting in a 48-hour delay in finding his remains," the report said. "Efforts to locate Sgt. Johnson were initially delayed by errant reporting that Sgt. Johnson was being held in a village... north of the Mali border."
U.S. Africa Command Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, who led the military's investigation, said Johnson was found in the same spot where he died but his hands were not bound and he was not captured by the enemy, dispelling previous reports that suggested Johnson was found with his arms tied and a wound on the back of his head. ISIS fighters took equipment from Johnson's body but did not move his remains from the tree, he said.
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Johnson's death and the two-day window when the military didn't know his location have been a source of controversy for months, as military officials did not publicly divulge details about the ambush. The attack was the deadliest involving the U.S. military in Niger, where about 800 soldiers are stationed primarily to assist and train local forces while also operating a drone base in the nation's capital.
The public details of the firefight in a remote part of West Africa comes after Johnson's family peppered military officials with questions about their son's death for eight hours last week. The ISIS attack on U.S. troops raised questions about the U.S. military’s presence in West Africa and set off a public war of words between President Donald Trump and Miami Rep. Frederica Wilson, in whose district Johnson's family lives.
Wilson attended last week's declassified but private briefing with the Johnson family at U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral.
"The widow, she is still traumatized from the briefing," Wilson said, her voice trembling with emotion. "They just kept saying that they were expecting more closure."
Wilson said Johnson's mother left the briefing at one point because she was upset that military officials were unable to provide sufficient answers to their questions about why Johnson was left behind after the ambush.
"Everyone was expecting the briefing to clarify or let them know what happened to their loved ones, who paid the ultimate sacrifice," Wilson said. "They expected more closure as to his remaining hours or days because he was missing for two days."
Military officials publicly released a 10-minute reconstruction of the Niger attack on Thursday afternoon, showing how U.S. commandos and Nigerien forces were routed by ISIS fighters who outnumbered them 3 to 1. Lawmakers, including Wilson, received classified briefings earlier this week, though Wilson said the information divulged to them was no different than the information given to Johnson's family last week.
The group of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers did not initially call for air support after being attacked, military officials said. Their first radio call for help came 53 minutes after first contact with the enemy, after multiple U.S. and Nigerien soldiers had been killed.
French aircraft arrived on the scene 47 minutes after the call and flew just above the tree tops to scare off the enemy, though they did not use lethal force because radio contact with the remaining U.S. and Nigerien soldiers had been cut off.
"They flew at low altitude in four separate shows of force that cause the enemy to retreat for cover, likely saving the lives of the surviving members," the report said. The survivors were evacuated by French helicopters about five hours after the initial attack.
Wilson said Johnson and his fellow soldiers were supposed to be offering intelligence and guidance to the Nigerien army, but their mission was changed. Instead, the group was supposed to visit the campsite of a suspected terrorist.
"La David’s regiment was not equipped for battle and La David wasn’t trained for that," Wilson said. "He was a mechanic, he was a little boy who grew up taking apart things and putting them back together. He shouldn’t have been on any mission to kill or to capture a terrorist."
Johnson was a constituent of Wilson’s who participated in a program founded by the longtime legislator called the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, which mentors African-American boys and young men in Miami-Dade County. She has stayed in close contact with Johnson's family since his death and accused Trump of being insensitive when he called Johnson's widow to offer his condolences.
"Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action," Trump tweeted last October. "Sad!"
Wilson said in an interview on Wednesday that she mostly sat and listened while the Johnson family asked questions last week, though she did ask to see a video from an unmanned plane that flew to the scene of the firefight.
"I was thinking that I’m going to see this video, since this was near the end of the firefight," Wilson said. "When I asked about the video the gentleman making the report was visibly annoyed that I asked that... and the evening went on so late and I never saw the video, so I just assumed that I would see the video in Washington."
Military officials did not show video of the attack or its aftermath on Wednesday, and said an unmanned aircraft that was providing support for the group during its initial mission continued north toward the Mali border after the group turned around, so it was not present during the attack, even though Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford said last year that an unmanned aircraft with video capability was deployed to the ambush scene. When asked by a reporter, Dunford said he had not viewed video of the ambush himself, but did not say a video of the attack did not exist.
"So am I to assume the joint chiefs of staff and Gen. Joseph Dunford misled the American people at a press conference at the Pentagon on October 23rd 2017?" Wilson asked. "I don’t think this is the end of this. This is just the beginning."
Cloutier and U.S Africa Commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said they don't have the authority to award Johnson or the other soldiers killed in action the Medal of Honor, a decision that is ultimately made by the president after it works its way through a long bureaucratic process, but they said there were "numerous acts of extraordinary bravery" on display last October.