WASHINGTON – Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson died in a hail of gunfire, hitting as many as 18 times as he took cover in thick brush, fighting to the end, after the flight of militants who had just killed three comrades in October, an ambush in Niger, The Associated Press has learned.
A military investigation has concluded that Johnson was not captured alive, or killed in close range, to dispel a swirl of rumors about how he died.
The report has determined that Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, was killed by enemy rifle and machine-gun fire from members of an Islamic State offshoot, according to AMERICAN officials familiar with the findings. The Oct. 4 ambush took place about 120 miles (200 kilometers) north of Niamey, in the African capital. Johnson’s body was recovered two days later.
AMERICAN officials familiar with the findings spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to describe details of an investigation that has not yet terminated, or be made public.
A 12-member Army special forces unit was accompanying 30 Nigerien troops, when they were attacked in a densely forested area with as many as 50 militants traveling by car and the transfer of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Johnson was struck no less than 18 times from a distance by a volley of machine gun rounds, according to the U.S. government, who said that he was shooting back as he and two of his Nigerien soldiers tried to escape.
All in all, the four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien troops were killed in an ambush. Two AMERICAN and eight Nigerien troops were killed or wounded.
The bodies of the three AMERICAN Green Berets on the day of the attack, but not that of Johnson. The gap in time led to questions about whether Johnson was killed in the attack and not found, or if he was taken away by the enemy.
According to the officials, a medical study concluded that Johnson was hit by fire from M-4 rifles — probably stolen by the rebels — and Soviet-made heavy machine guns. It is believed that he died in the attack.
The officials said Johnson was found under a thick brush where he tried to take cover. There were no indications that he was shot at close range, or were bound or captured, as a number of messages in the media suggest.
The U.S. Africa Command began her research with a team led by the Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the command’s chief of staff. The team visited locations in Niger to collect evidence and information about the attack and will shortly be submitting a draft of the Cloutier report of Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of Africa Command. Waldhauser may request additional information. The final report is expected next month.
The officials are familiar with the conclusions of the report said that during the attack, Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers tried to get in to a vehicle to escape, but were unable to do so, was separated from the others and were shot as they were running for safety.
The report concluded that Johnson, who is athletic and a runner, was in the lead and was the furthest away, seeking cover in the brush. Officials said that there are a number of enemy grenades around Johnson, and the evidence that he seemed to fight to the end. His boots and other equipment were later stolen, but he was still wearing his uniform.
As news of the ambush was the US military sent in rescue teams to search for Johnson, not making his status public in the hope that he would have gotten away and was still alive and hiding. The Pentagon only acknowledged that he was missing after his body was taken two days later by local forces.
The Pentagon has refused to release more details about the exact mission of the command team. AMERICAN officials have previously said that the joint U.S.-Niger patrol was requested for a second U.s. commando team in the hunt for a senior Islamic State member, who also had former ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The team had been asked to go to a location where the rebels had last been seen, and intelligence-gathering.
After completing this mission, the troops stopped in a village for a short time, food and water, then left. The U.S. army believes someone in the village may have tipped off the attackers to the presence of AMERICAN commandos and Nigerien forces in the area, initiating the ambush.
The AMERICAN special operations forces are routinely working with Niger forces, helping them to improve their ability to fight against extremists in the region. That effort has increased in recent years, the Pentagon said.
The other three Americans killed were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia. Black and Wright were Army Special Forces. Johnson and Johnson were not of commands.
Johnson’s fight against the death led to a political dispute between President Donald Trump and a Democratic congressman from Florida after Trump said Johnson’s pregnant widow in a phone call that her husband knew what he signed up for.” Rep. Frederica Wilson reed with Johnson’s family to meet the body and heard the call on the speaker. The quarrel grew the Trump’s chief of staff, who called Wilson an “empty barrel” sound.
Africa Command: http://www.africom.mil/