March 25th, 2011
09:51 AM ET

Army accused of covering up mistakes in Afghan battle

By Drew Griffin and Jessi Joseph, CNN Special Investigative Unit

It will go down in history as one of the U.S. military's worst battles in Afghanistan. And according to the families of the soldiers who died there, the history written by the U.S. Army is biased and inaccurate.

Relatives of those killed in Wanat, at a combat outpost in the rugged mountains of northeastern Afghanistan, say the Army is covering up mistakes made by the dead mens' commanders and placing blame on a junior officer who was simply following orders.

The 9 who died at Wanat

"My personal opinion is that the Army is trying to protect their institution," said Dave Brostrom, the father of 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, who was killed in the battle. "It’s a lot easier to blame a dead lieutenant than it is to blame the chain of command."

The July 13, 2008 battle at Wanat, near the Pakistani frontier, was one of the bloodiest since the Afghan war began in 2001.  A U.S. force of 49, plus 24 Afghan troops, desperately fought off an attack by some 200 Taliban fighters, calling in air strikes barely 30 feet from their own positions during the struggle.

The platoon, in close combat with Taliban fighters, repelled the enemy after nearly four hours of intense fire at a cost of nine Americans dead and 27 wounded.

A military investigation that followed, led by Marine Lt. General Richard Natonski, blamed the deaths in part on dereliction of duty by superior officers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and called for career-ending reprimands for company, battalion and brigade commanders up the chain.

Those recommendations were approved by Gen. David Petraeus, then chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Army Secretary James McHugh then tasked Gen. Charles Campbell, the chief of the Army's Forces Command at the time, with reviewing Natonski’s investigation and taking appropriate action regarding the recommended letters of reprimand.  After reviewing Natonski’s investigation and meeting with the chain of command, Gen. Campbell concluded that the officers were neither negligent nor derelict and rescinded the letters of reprimand.

Then the Army published their study of the battle – which, according to Dave Brostrom, put a large part of the blame on his son, who commanded the airborne infantry platoon at Wanat.

That report by the Army's Combat Studies Institute is now the official history of the battle, and Brostrom - a retired colonel who is about to send his second son into the service – says the report needs to be re-written.

Up until the day of the battle, Brostrom said, his son was sending warnings up his chain of command that things were not well in Wanat.

Video taken by the soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company showed crudely dug defensive positions, a few sandbags and the enemy easily visible within shooting range. The Afghan contractors that were supposed to provide heavy equipment and engineers never showed up to help build an actual defensive position, and troops were left to basically dig into the ground in 100-degree heat while water supplies ran low.

Natonski’s investigation found the officers at the battalion and brigade levels had become preoccupied with other matters - including a visit from Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The investigation also found the battalion and brigade commanders failed to heed warnings that the Wanat outpost lacked construction equipment and supplies, was struggling with a shortage of drinking water and was undermanned days before the battle.

Worse, the Natonski investigation found warnings being sent by the platoon of an increasing buildup of insurgents in the area were either ignored or failed to make their way up the chain of command.

General Campbell’s review of the battle excuses the commanding officers' inattention to a platoon under threat, concluding that due to the busy schedules being kept by the commanders and other troop engagements in the area, "It seems reasonable that these officers' attentions were devoted to more pressing matters."

It was a complete reversal from what Natonski and Petraeus had found in their original report.  And Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee last summer that he disagreed with Campbell’s decision not to punish commanders involved.

“I respect his view in this particular case. I support the process,” Petraeus testified. ”But I did not change the finding that I affirmed after the investigating officers provided it to me."

A source close to the Army’s investigation said the commanders were negligent in the planning, negligent on the supervision and negligent in getting the proper resources to the soldiers who were in harm's way.

"If everyone did business this way," the source told CNN, "we'd be losing a lot more lives in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, asked Army Secretary James McHugh to include the higher commands shortcomings in the Army’s official version of events at Wanat, a report that is intended to be used as a learning tool to train soldiers.

"The study's failure to assess decisions made by more senior leaders makes this accounting a flawed and biased 'implement of learning,' " wrote Webb, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a highly decorated Vietnam veteran.

In a meeting between Army officials and several family members of the nine dead soldiers, Campbell explained his decision not to reprimand the commanding officers was to protect future combat missions.

"I informed the Secretary of the Army of the action that I took,” General Campbell told the families. “And my determination is that the officers listed in the report had exercised due care in the performance of their duties."

Brostrom has asked the Army to pull the Combat Studies Institute report, which blames his son for poor placement of defensive positions at the combat outpost in Wanat. He maintains his son was simply following orders, and died carrying out a poorly planned mission by the command staff.

In a statement to CNN, the Army maintains that they have, “thoroughly investigated and shared all findings with family members, Congress, the media and the Army at large.”

The Army wrote that they understand there are still differing views among those who have reviewed their investigation and published study but say they have tried to be transparent, “Any suggestion that the Army has been less than forthright in this matter is simply not true.”

But Dave Brostrom believes the Army is less concerned about his son and more concerned about protecting their institution.

"It's more important than lessons learned and protecting our soldiers," he said.

Brostrom has asked the Department of Defense’s Inspector General to review whether the higher command, originally found derelict of duty, had an undue influence on the re-writing of history.

soundoff (119 Responses)
  1. William

    Ive been reading this discussion with the experience of being in the US Air Force during the Vietnam Era got out in 1980.About our Army i NEVER would have joined, my father enlisted in the Air Force in 1950 to avoid being drafted by our incompetent Army and being sent to Korea as cannon fodder.I avoided our Army to stop them from sending me to Vietnam,i had friends that went there as draftees in the Army and their minds are still screwed up 40 years later.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • justiniowa

      Volunteering and being put in 173rd ABN isn't exactly the same as being a post-'67 draftee in the Electric Strawberry, and anyone with any military mind should know this.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wendell

      Excuses of a coward, Someone went in your place. I served and am not screwed up, you are everything I despise.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
      • William

        Im a coward cause i didnt go to Nam like you Wendell, if it wasnt for the Air Force bombing in Vietnam every time the grunts got into any kind of firefight more of your asses would have been killed.And im not a coward Wendell those are fightin words, me or my father we served proudly in the USAF.

        March 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
      • Earnán

        Yeah, Willy, you're a coward who let someone else go in your place. And you're the son of a coward who did the same. A wide yellow streak runs down the trunk of your family tree.

        "Fighting words"? Puh-leeze. Tough talk from someone who admits he runs from a fight is supposed to scare anyone?

        March 25, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Iraq/Afghan vet

      Well, as a US Army veteran, I can easily say that the Navy and Air Force will never get the kind of respect from me that a Marine or Soldier will. Being in the Air Force or Navy is like being on vacation....or being military-lite. You can hate on the Army all you want and frankly be the coward you obviously are sir, but i'm proud to serve in the Army albeit mostly for the reason of paying for college albeit it has taught me a lot and i've got to experience more than I ever thought possible. Lastly, i've actually trained with the guys of the 173rd prior to my deployment that I arrived back from a few months ago. They command a lot of respect.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cody

    Wait...a force of 200 attacked a U.S.-Afghan coalition of only 73, and 9 U.S. soldiers died? I am in no way implying that it's every okay to lose soldiers...they gave their life for the coalition cause. But it IS war and they were heavily outnumbered and still managed to fight off the overwhelming attack. If this was a poorly executed battle, then we're doing pretty good out there.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheMyth

      I think you missed the whole point of the story. That if command had listened to the warning and took proper precautions then this would never had occurred. The army is not perfect please look at Tillman's story. They burned everything of his to hid the incident and covered it up.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigRed

      It was the bravery of the soldiers that carried the day. But it was the utter stupidity of their headquarters that put them in a position that was tactically and strategically inferior. Those soldiers used their wits to stay alive while their 0-5's and above slept soundly in their air conditioned hootches.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Cody, As an Army Officer I just thought I would shed some light in to the numbers. When a U.S. force is attacking a defending force you typically want a 3 to 1 numbers advantage. Anytime you are in a defensive posture, you are in a stronger position, and should expect to kill more of the attacking force than you lose. In addition, thankfully the U.S. Army is a very well trained fighting force. The enemy is trained, but lacks a lot of the advanced training, as well as the physical abilities of their opposition. Lastly, in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the advantage of air superiority, as well as large amounts of indirect fire weapons (cannons), which greatly aid in FOB defense.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Pctech37

    Was not well-written. I thought CNN was supposed to be a NEWS company, not an exaggeration machine. I mean, they didn't state how some "commanders" messed it up. What I see is possibly a failure by the contractor and what's weird is how they don't blame the attackers anymore. Not like the Taliban ambush trying to kill soldiers who can't even shoot them (until the enemy engages first) is to blame for this. Seriously, since when can a 200-man ambush from hte Taliban w/ AKs and RPGs and IEDs on a ground unit not lead to 10 deaths? If our democratic-lead Congress loosened on RoE for TERRORISTS, we might have been able to kill Osama, as the tier one forces were physically chasing multiple times, and had ten or so chances to kill him. Osama's highest insurgents are smart and do not fire on us, so we cannot fire on them. It's called the Rules of Engagement. It's existed only for Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars. Notice how we totally won those wars? Anyways, enough of my ramblings.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. skurf

    I'm an active duty Marine Infantry officer with multiple combat deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq and have researched this "battle" extensively for my own education. Quite frankly it is obvious that the biggest issue at hand was the fact that this Battalion essentially took what was a model area for counter-insurgency and (utilizing heavy handed tactics and excessive force) turned it into a shooting gallery. At the tactical level of this engagement, the biggest issue seems to lie in complacency at the Platoon level, a lack of agressive patrolling and defensive operations, and poor planning at all levels. A lack of water for a platoon most likely was due to poor planning by the Lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant. The platoon was being actively surveilled from the moment the moved into the area and did nothing to try and deter that activity or deter any sort of attack. The enemy knew their entire layout and defensive plan before the first shots were even fired. Mistakes were made at all levels here, thats what happens after over a year in start smelling the barn.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • justiniowa

      Exactly. Mistakes were made at the battalion level, certainly, but the sheer lack of action on the part of the outpost commander given that he believed he was under surveillance and was expecting to be attacked is the reason why he holds most of the blame.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jack

    Is this politically motivated. It makes no sense...

    March 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • xstongue

      Its the pentegon, they start all the wars, worldwide....

      March 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ProperVillain

    "General Campbell’s review of the battle excuses the commanding officers' inattention to a platoon under threat, concluding that due to the busy schedules being kept by the commanders and other troop engagements in the area, "It seems reasonable that these officers' attentions were devoted to more pressing matters.""
    Seems these bozos were too busy politicing and kissing a$$ to care about their own troops. They deserve to be drummed out in disgrace for allowing those 9 boys to die.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. keith

    typical of alot of higher eschelon officers...they want to cover their own butts and place blame on the lower eschelon, in this case a platoon commander who is dead and can't dispute things. Petraus atleast sounds like he agrees, yet someone else overrode his opinion. It's officers like this that cause our troops to be killed or othewise become ineffective cause they're not heeding warnings and giving troops in the field what they need

    March 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. rrock

    You have to be nuts to join the military because political decisions and incompetence can cost you your life.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • TriXen

      Yeah, you're probably right. Still, I'm glad we have heroes like these who join up anyhow, knowing that they might come home in a box. It might sound cliché, but I don't want to imagine what America would be like without the selfless sacrifices of these brave men. Regardless of whose fault this was, we owe our thanks, our freedom, and our lives to our soldiers. Thank you, Lt. Brostrom, Sgt. Garcia, Cpl. Ayers, Cpl. Bogar, Cpl. Hovater, Cpl. Phillips, Cpl. Rainey, Cpl. Zwilling and Spc. Abad. You are not forgotten.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jake

    I have the utmost respect and sympathy for troops around the world. I have the utmost contempt and hatred of the military commanders and politicians who's less than optimal decisions result in the death of such troops.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • justiniowa

      Ever made a mistake that cost your company an extra hundred bucks? Ever bought toilet paper when the wife said toilet bowl cleaner? Mistakes happen everywhere. In the military profession, mistakes sometimes cost lives. It's simply the nature of the beast.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
      • BigRed

        Are you equating buying toilet paper to loss of life in a combat zone? One word: Idiot

        March 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. time

    A diffrent paradise jack? while their husbands are banging 70+ virgins in the other room? that is really sad

    March 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. time


    March 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. time

    It is said that heaven to muslim men is paradise with virgins. what does a muslim woman receive?

    March 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      Muslim women also find themselves in a paradise – one completely devoid of men much to their good fortune.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kraznodar

      I would tell you but this is a family friendly forum.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • 11:11

      She finds out the truth about Islam and realizes its too late.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  13. wow ppl

    Voidoid did you really call someone an uneducated hillbilly for beliving in God then spell people wrong lmao that's funny stuff. Idiot

    March 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. John

    They did an initial investigation (a marine General), determined that the officers up the chain were too busy worrying about kissing Adm. Mike Mullen's butt to take care of their poorly equiped and THIRSTY soldiers and those officers got career ending discpline approved by Gen Petraeus.

    The culture of butt kissing officers didn't like their butt kissing friends getting slammed for butt kissing, so they sent a senior butt kisser to cover everyone's butt by rewritting the record to blame a dead LT.

    "General Campbell’s review of the battle excuses the commanding officers' inattention to a platoon under threat, concluding that due to the busy schedules being kept by the commanders and other troop engagements in the area, "It seems reasonable that these officers' attentions were devoted to more pressing matters."

    Absolutely disgusting and why I got out of the Army with 9.5 years instead of retiring.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jack

      General Campbell clearly needs a career ending letter of reprimand.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kraznodar

      General Campbell needs a life ending execution.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      I absolutely agree John. I left after my first enlistment as I did not trust the NCO's and officers above me had the men in the best interests. Fortunately, or unfortunately I went into the Army with 2 years of college which is quite a bit more than most NCO's have. I felt many of them did not have a critical enough eye on orders given and how best to put those orders into effect in the best possible way. Don't miss that.

      82nd Airborne

      March 25, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jason

        One question, Why didn't you stay in and become what you wish you had? That was mostly my reason for staying in. I had some excellent leaders and some not so great leaders. I took what I learned from each of them and have applied it to my leadership style. Be the change you want to see.

        March 26, 2011 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
    • JP

      Amen Brother! You hit the nail on the head! I've been there too and I saw all that you speak of. Blame the dead man - the one man that can no longer defend himself. The other branches are just as bad.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • ginamero


      March 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      I agree with your post, John. I retired from the Navy as a Chief after 21 years. During my tennure, I personally witnessed Officers passing blame upon Enlisted men as easily as drinking coffee. I, myself, was almost brought up on charges when my Division Officer thought he was slick, stating that it was my fault that a 300thousand dollar ROV was destroyed completely. I prevailed in that one and 3 days later he was relieved of duty. I never was a butt kisser, John. I knew that my attention to detail and my exceptional performance didn't warrant me placing my nose in an officers butt crack. I see it as a sign of weakness. Those commanders who had a butt-kissing field day were negligent in thier duties and members of the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company gave the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps it would be more satisfying to the soldiers families to see these commanders tried for murder. When commanders make mistakes, people die. It's just that simple. When you give an order to a subordinate, he is expected to carry out that order. It is your responsibility if that order you gave that subordinate results in his being injured or killed. Forethought is paramont. I knew, as an E-7, that I could have easily run a hundred men. I didn't need any brass behind me nor did I want it. Many times I went nose to nose with them. When I made a mistake, I alone, owned that decision and I was willing to accept the concequences of it. We need to have E-7's thru E-9's training these officers. Might save a few lives.

      March 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. thejudge

    soon the harvest will start, many will be left for the pit that belive should be taken, i weep

    March 25, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  16. voidoids

    God doesnt exist JimFromOhio you uneduacated hillbilly. grow up peaple stop grasping for fantasies. the invisible man in the sky is santa stupid illogical

    March 25, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • War is wrong

      I fear for my son to be sent in to a battle zone where the leaders don't support the grunts. I fear that we have Republicans that wouldn't even pay for funding of ceramics for vests or the right armor for vehicals for IED protection or the best vehicals or an educcational bill for the soldiers when the return home. There are many things wrong with War but when our political parties put $ before the lives, health and education of our finest sons and daughters and we as Americans turn around and support those parties we are to blame for the deaths NOT BUSH, NOT OBAMA WE THE PEOPLE ALLOW WAR and WE ALLOW the needs of corporations to come before the lives of our children. WE ARE GUILTY AMERICA we support a CORRUPT MILITARY and CORRUPT government.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
      • Nelson

        A corrupt Military? I have served in the Army 9 years. It may not be perfect but it is far from being corrupt. How long have you served in the Military? How much do you know what goes on in the Military? Say what you want to about the Military, but just don't say it is corrupt.

        March 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • ginamero

        Nelson, you don't think changing the story and blaming the dead guy and saying it's ok the THIRSTY soldiers were attacked is corrupt? You need to go back to school or get a dictionary app.

        March 25, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • tekpiolt

      89 percent of the people on earth believe in a supreme being as God and creator. It is more preposterous to think the majority are somehow dillusional and the remaining 10 percent are correct in saying there is no God.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
      • steve harnack

        Damn near everybody at one time believed that the earth was flat. That sure didn't make the earth flatten out to accommodate them did it. No. One day one or two or three people said that the earth was round. They must have been out numbered by about 500 million to one but they were right. History DOES repeat itself.

        March 25, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
      • ginamero

        You are not too smart. Love the guy's reply to you about the Earth being flat. Matter of fact those God loving freak Catholics made Galileo retract his round Earth theory under penalty of death...freaks...the man had to lie to stay alive. How proud are you of your God/people analogy now?

        March 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jbo

      I saw a flying spagetti monster!

      March 25, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      That's ok. God still believes in you (& loves you) even if you haven't realized it yet. But thankfully what He doesn't believe in is the stupid reasons humans find for creating wars & killing in His name. Wonder how many will be truly surprised on how wrong they were on the day they meet Him.

      March 26, 2011 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  17. ben

    I served 12 years in the Army and they cover up stuff like this all the time and tr to put the blame on junior officers or NCOs. The army is dirty and nobody should join it.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • salerno

      Ben – finally someone with the balls !

      March 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pseudonym

      But if you enlist you should not desert.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
      • salerno

        It depends from the eventual military wrongdoing. They say one thing, but later they change the rules.

        March 25, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      This is why I joined the Air Force.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigRed

      It's not that the Army is dirty. It's the incompetency of its officer corps. It has the best of soldiers, but the worst of leadership. It is almost if the French commanders of WWI, WWII and Vietnam have been training at the Academy and in ROTC units. The result has been chaos in the battlefield, and demoralized soldiers. Private Manning is a poster child of demoralization in the Army. Very sad.

      March 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Pseudonym

    Someday maybe the internal military culture will be one of truth and forthcoming rather than ass covering. In the end, just hope the men did not die in vain.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dindy

      well said again Pseudonym

      March 26, 2011 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  19. Roosevelt

    Drew, hope you never come to interview me. You spend time with the client and screw up his rank. You keep calling him a lieutenant colonel and the guy is a colonel. Can only imagine how much of the reporting is in error. The father is obviously distraught but it seems pretty hard to have an accurate picture of the actual event unless you were there. My condolences to the families. Soldiers willling to risk their lives for this country is what makes them great.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hugh

      Not recognizing the difference between a "Light Colonel" and a "Full Bird" is an easy mistake for a civilian to make. I certainly don't think it's sufficient grounds to dismiss the entire report. As to the situation on the ground, well, we'll never know all the details but you can certainly get some idea from the video.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dale

      Roosevelt's point is important. But it is difficult to trust reporting so unfamiliar with it's subject as to botch something as significant and easily checked as rank. As for other comments, most demonstrate that those who sit around commenting on an internet story about soldiers in combat are unfeeling and inexperienced - and unworthy of carrying the boots of those brave men.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |