It was the best week ever. It was the worst week ever. I welcomed new life, and saw how quickly life can be taken.
On Oct. 2, 2017, my wife, Brooke, gave birth to our second daughter, Eva. During the final months of Brooke’s pregnancy, I was deployed to the West African country of Niger with Third Special Forces Group. I was lucky; my chain of command decided earlier in the year that I would be allowed to fly home for the birth, a decision that reinforced my trust in them. In hindsight, that decision left me grappling with how things could have been different if I had stayed.
While flying out of Niger was logistically very simple, especially compared with my previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, the timing was challenging because I was still getting familiar with the demands from recently deploying as a new company commander in charge of teams of Green Berets. Brooke was experiencing early contractions back at home in Fort Bragg, N.C., and there were constant phone calls and deliberations about when I should jump on a plane to be there on time and to maximize my 10 days of paternity leave.
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Finally, I hopped on a flight and made it home in 20 hours. Holding my daughter for the first time, I was flooded with the joy of fatherhood and with relief that the plan to get home in time worked. Together, Brooke and I adjusted to disrupted sleep patterns, dealt with the uncertainty of feeding and tried to live in a hospital room. I was uneasy for the first day about not being in control of my surroundings, but by the morning we were scheduled to leave the hospital I was more relaxed.
On Oct. 4, in the midst of signing papers, getting the car seat inspected by the nurse and taking the last hospital pictures, I received a text message from a colleague, saying, “Hey man, there’s been an incident. You need to come to work.”
As I frantically searched on my phone for news that offered some clue of what had happened, a million thoughts raced through my mind. I worried about my wife and children. I worried about my soldiers and our partners overseas. I worried about their families back home. I worried about the worst-case scenario: the death of one of my soldiers. But even my worst imaginings could not compare to the truth I would soon learn, standing inside the Third Special Forces Group commander’s office an hour later.
Four of my soldiers, and five of their Nigerien partner force soldiers, had been killed in an ambush by Islamic extremists outside the village of Tongo Tongo in northwestern Niger, near the Mali border. Never before had I felt so helpless.
Half a world away, with only a cellphone, what could I do? I walked out of the commander’s office and entered a conference room full of staff officers ready to support the families and the mission. Notification teams were already in place, and recovery operations were being tracked. I sat next to intelligence analysts and offered my thoughts on the enemy situation. I listened to operational planners as they debated the next moves. I wanted to call my headquarters overseas, but I knew they already had enough help. I did my best to improve the situation, but there was not much to do.
It was at this moment that I finally accepted that I had to trust the institution to do its job. While the Army prides itself on being a people organization, it is also a bureaucracy, full of policies and procedures for every circumstance. In this case, there was a procedure for notifying families of the worst news imaginable, and people ready to deliver that news. There was a procedure to search for and recover comrades in danger. There was a procedure to evacuate the wounded and fallen. My trust in all of these processes and people allowed me to leave the headquarters that afternoon and return home to my wife and family, where I could do more for them than I could for my unit.
Days later, I returned to Niger to refocus my company and to keep our mission in the region moving forward. I led a memorial service to honor our fallen brothers, Sgt. First Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson. I tried to take back control, with trust in the system and people with whom I had served for so long.
The ensuing months were defined by a high-profile investigation to understand the exact circumstances that led to the ambush. I trusted that the Army would find the answers and deliver them to the families who so desperately needed them, and that military leaders would learn from such a harrowing and fatal event, and make needed changes so that my men’s lives were not lost in vain. I trusted that, if warranted, there would be consistent accountability, at all levels.
Fourteen months later, I received a formal reprimand that effectively ended my Army career. Investigators determined that I failed to properly prepare my soldiers for the deployment, a conclusion tied to a training event that occurred prior to me even taking command of the organization. Following a complicated tragedy with no clear proximate cause, First Special Forces Command issued reprimands with inaccuracies and inconsistencies, focusing on predeployment training and personnel issues, instead of operational decisions made leading up to the ambush.
Senior leaders within Africa Command and First Special Forces Command presented their findings to the families of the fallen based on circumstantial evidence, which left them with more questions than answers. Africa Command held a press briefing, that, for the most part, admonished one of my Green Beret teams for their pre-mission planning and preparation, but barely mentioned the decisions made above their level. And while subsequent reviews of the investigation offered yet another chance to hold people responsible, those opportunities fled quickly, leaving the chain of command, in which I had entrusted so much, unaccountable for decisions they made in my absence, but for which I was left responsible.
I joined the Army in 2004, during a time of war, and deployed with units that I called family. A few years later, I joined another family, called the Special Forces, because I expected the level of trust would be even higher. In between deployments I started a family of my own. It was tough at times, but I trusted the right decisions would be made to support and protect the people who volunteered to serve. In so many ways, in those months after the ambush, those expectations fell short. No longer trusting the organization to which I had devoted so much of my life, there was only one thing for me to do: leave. I am proud of my service, but even more so I am disappointed in what it cost and especially in some of the leaders I had aspired to emulate.
Today, exactly two years after we lost Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson, I have no reason to believe any lessons have been learned to prevent more soldiers from being killed under the same circumstances.
Alan Van Saun served 15 years in the Army on active duty, in both the infantry and Special Forces. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval War College. He is married and has two daughters.
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