The Defense Department is opening an investigation into the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month, as President Trump faces criticism for how he has approached the bereaved families.
The probe will examine the military’s preparation for the operation as questions swirl about the quality of the U.S. Africa Command’s intelligence reports, including why the October 4 ambush wasn’t anticipated, CNN reports.
The soldiers, part of a 12-strong Special Forces team led by Green Berets, were on their way back from a meeting with local community leaders when they were ambushed by a group of 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters armed with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, according to CNN. The soldiers were reportedly only armed with rifles and their vehicles were not armored. The attack lasted 30 minutes until French air support dispersed the militants and helicopters evacuated American forces.
The four soldiers killed in the shootout— Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, and Sgt. La David Johnson — were the first American soldiers killed by hostile fire since the U.S. began providing training and assistance to local military forces, the New York Times reported. Another soldiers two injured in the attack and were taken to Niamey, the capital, about 124 miles away.
The probe is also expected to look into how one of the slain soldiers, Sgt. La David Johnson, became separated from the rest of the group. His body was recovered 48 hours later.
President Trump received criticism this past week for failing to personally address the incident or make phone calls to families of the slain soldiers. When Johnson’s body was returned to Dover Air Force Base on October 7, Trump was golfing.
Trump has since begun calling the families. However in a 5-minute call with Johnson’s widow on October 17, Trump told her that “he knew what he signed up for” joining the U.S. armed forces, “but when it happens it hurts anyway,” according to Rep. Frederica Wilson, who spoke to Miami ABC affiliate station WPLG.
Wilson said: “It’s so insensitive. He should have not have said that.”
Johnson, who was 25, is survived by his widow, Myeshia, and two children. The couple are expecting another child.
Trump addressed his response to the attack in an October 16 press conference with Senator Mitch McConnell, saying that he had written letters to the families of the slain soldiers the previous weekend. He added that he was planning on making personal phone calls, and falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama “and the other presidents” did not make such calls in the past.
Infuriated former Obama aides hit back at the accusation, with former foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes calling it “an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.”
Another former White House official, speaking with TIME earlier this week, said “President Trump’s claim is wrong. President Obama engaged families of the fallen and wounded warriors throughout his presidency through calls, letters, visits to Section 60 at Arlington, visits to Walter Reed, visits to Dover, and regular meetings with Gold Star Families at the White House and across the country.”
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