The families of Navy SEALs killed in an August 2011 downing of a helicopter in Afghanistan came forward Thursday to blast the U.S. command and the Obama administration for the mission and to call for an official investigation into what they deem a whitewash.
They also rebuked the White House for its extensive leaking of details of the Osama bin Laden raid in May 2011. Identifying the raiders as the secretive SEAL Team 6 put a target on the heads of the members of the doomed mission in Afghanistan, the parents said.
They also said the CH-47 Chinook helicopter used in the mission had no gunship escort and no cover when it was attempting to land at 2 a.m. that Aug. 6. Taliban on a rooftop shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade.
All 38 onboard died in the fiery crash. The casualties included 17 SEALs, making it one of the elite unit’s worst losses in combat. The hastily planned mission was intended to aid 47 Army Rangers in the Tangi Valley, even though the Rangers controlled the battle zone.
The groups that organized the news conference Thursday at the National Press Club said a Muslim cleric chosen by the U.S. command to speak at a memorial service insulted the fallen. According to an English translation of a video of the service, the cleric condemned the dead to hell and mocked “the God of Moses.”
“We demand to know who made the call to send our sons into hostile territory where evidence proves a shootdown attempt had been in full force for weeks and in less-than-adequate, antiquated air frames documented to be in very poor condition,” said Karen Vaughn, whose Navy SEAL son, Aaron, was killed.
“We also discovered that [the Chinook] entered the battle zone that night completely unescorted with no pre-assault fire,” Ms. Vaughn said. “We were told pre-assault fire damaged our efforts to win the hearts and minds of our enemy. … The operation was spun up with such urgency that many mistakes were made.”
A Pentagon spokesman issued a statement:
“First, I want to say that we share in the grief of all of the families who lost their loved ones. The loss of 38 U.S. and Afghan military personnel was a tragic loss during a difficult campaign. The 30 U.S. casualties represent the diversity and talent of America and its military; these warriors served in three services (Army, Navy, and Air Force), in special operations and conventional units, and represented Reserve and active-duty units from 20 states.”
The spokesman noted that the official investigation “found that the tactics employed in the mission were consistent with previous missions.”
The families noted that Afghan security forces were closely involved in planning the mission, yet no one appears as having been interviewed in the military’s official investigative records given to relatives.
The family members suggested that these insiders leaked information about the mission to the Taliban, given the fact that the enemy happened to be stationed near the landing zone on a roof with rocket-propelled grenades.
“[They] were positioned in a tower in a building at the perfect place and the exact time to launch an attack on the CH-47 when it was most vulnerable,” said Doug Hamburger, father of Army National Guard Sgt. Patrick Hamburger, a gunner and flight engineer. “How can anyone justify putting our troops in that type of danger?
“It was not a thorough investigation. It’s a shame that we as parents have to demand a congressional investigation to find out answers.”
Charles Strange’s son, Michael, was a SEAL code-breaker on the mission that night.
“Michael was a brave American,” he said. “He loved Philadelphia where we’re from. He fought for his country.”
Mr. Strange said his son’s code was “serve in silence.” He said that code was violated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other White House officials when they identified bin Laden’s killers as SEAL Team 6. Republicans have charged that Obama aides leaked bin Laden mission details for political reasons to bolster the president’s re-election bid.
“To put my son in the most elite SEAL team in the world in a Chinook helicopter over an active battle that’s been going on for over 3½ hours — unacceptable. Unacceptable,” Mr. Strange said. “Somebody has to answer for this.”
Mr. Hamburger said the White House’s leak “put a target on their backs.”
Mr. Strange recalled meeting President Obama at the Dover, Del., Air Force Base mortuary.
“The president comes up to me and he says, ‘Mr. Strange, Michael changed the way Americans live.’ I grabbed [Mr. Obama] by the shoulders and I said, ‘I don’t need to know about my son. I need to know what happened, Mr. President.’ The Secret Service grabbed me,” Mr. Strange said.
Larry Klayman, a lawyer and founder of the nonprofit public-interest advocacy group Freedom Watch, organized the news conference along with StandUpAmericaUS.org and its founder, retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely.
In August 2011, the U.S. command in Afghanistan first reported the failed mission to the news media as a rescue of Army Rangers in a firefight. But it was learned later that the Rangers controlled the battle zone and were hunting for some Taliban who escaped from a home the commandos had raided.
The Washington Times reported extensively at the time that special operations officers criticized the mission as unnecessary and a waste of lives.
Based on investigative documents, which U.S. Central Command later erased from its website, The Times revealed that special operators were uncomfortable flying with conventional National Guard flight crews, who ferried the SEALs that night.
The Times also reported that Apache gunships could have gone to the landing zone to provide protection, but they were never ordered to do so and stayed involved hunting the Taliban, who had run into some woods.
A Ranger officer told investigators that he could not explain why the choppers were not ordered to cover for the incoming Chinook.
Investigators also were told that special operations helicopters were moved out of their region, which included the Tangi Valley just south of Kabul, and moved farther south. Officers said they were never told why.