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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Probe urged of battle that killed Hawaii man


By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jonathan Brostrom

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

First Lt. Jonathan Brostrom of 'Aiea was killed after his platoon was attacked in Afghanistan on July 13, 2008.

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Two members of Congress have called on the Pentagon to open a new investigation into a July 13, 2008, firefight in eastern Afghanistan in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 27 were wounded as they were about to return home.

Among the dead was 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of 'Aiea, a Damien Memorial and University of Hawai'i graduate whose 40-member platoon came under attack in Kunar Province by an estimated 200 enemy fighters.

The Battle of Wanat, as it is now known, remains the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since 2005 when five Pearl Harbor Navy SEALs and 14 other soldiers were killed in an ill-fated commando mission and subsequent crash of a rescue helicopter in Kunar.

U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., sent a letter July 9 to the Pentagon's acting inspector general after meeting with Brostrom's father, retired Army Col. David Brostrom, and after reading a report prepared by the Army's Combat Studies Institute that is critical of senior command decisions leading up to the attack.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team out of Vicenza, Italy, had spent 14 months in Afghanistan conducting highly "kinetic" operations, creating animosity with the populace, according to a draft version of the report obtained by The Advertiser.

"We dropped 861 bombs with few questions asked," Lt. Col. William Ostlund, 1st Lt. Brostrom's battalion commander, was quoted in the report as saying.

First Lt. Brostrom's platoon, sent to Wanat to set up a new outpost, experienced shortages of water and heavy equipment to build defenses, the report states.

"A more thorough examination of command accountability associated with an engagement that resulted in the deaths of nine soldiers and the wounding of an additional 27 is warranted for many reasons," Webb said in his letter. "I believe this engagement also offers important lessons that should be considered by U.S. commanders in Afghanistan during the current expansion of counter-insurgency operations."

'FIND OUT THE TRUTH'

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, yesterday said he fully supports David Brostrom's "insistence on a full accounting of the events in Wanat, Afghanistan, on July 13, 2008."

Abercrombie added that the U.S. owes it to the Brostroms and members of the armed forces "to find out the truth."

"Only when the unvarnished facts are known can responsibility be assessed, and if need be, steps taken to ensure that such tragedies are avoided in the future," Abercrombie said.

A separate Army investigation placed no blame on military commanders. Instead, it said U.S. forces "should not become risk averse due to this attack."

Its recommendations included working closely with the local population, replacing or arresting the district governor and chief of police, and streamlining the land acquisition process for bases.

David Brostrom, who lives in 'Aiea with his wife, Mary Jo, said he believes there may have been negligence on the part of senior leadership in the field.

"It may have been negligence, and if it wasn't, what caused this to happen? It needs to be closely looked at," said Brostrom, who spent 30 years in the Army. "You don't have an entire U.S. Army infantry platoon of 40 guys decimated and just say, 'Nobody did anything wrong. Everybody did everything right,' and it's just another day in Afghanistan. You've got nine soldiers killed and 27 wounded and you are saying it's just another day? I don't think so."

CUBBISON REPORT

The report, which Webb based his letter on, was put together by Douglas R. Cubbison at the Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. It notes the deteriorating relationship between Chosen Company of the 173rd and Afghan people and a series of decisions that left Brostrom and other U.S. forces vulnerable at Wanat.

There were 40 Chosen Company soldiers, six engineers, three Marines, three interpreters and 24 Afghan National Army soldiers at Wanat. They had arrived in the village just five days before the deadly battle with the goal of setting up a combat outpost. They were scheduled to head home in two weeks.

"A single platoon was insufficient combat power to establish a (combat outpost) through the construction of numerous fighting positions, establish and maintain local security, and establish and maintain a security relationship presence within the community of Wanat," the Cubbison report states.

Choosing to negotiate with local Afghans over the Wanat land many months before the base was occupied "openly violated well-established security procedures" by offering enemy fighters advance warning of U.S. intentions, according to the report.

Insufficient resources water, heavy construction equipment and engineering materials were dedicated to the mission, it said.

Cubbison said the wisdom of creating such an outpost at the end of a 14-month deployment also was "questionable" while a "relief in place" transition with a new unit was under way.

ORGANIZED ATTACK

The Wanat attack was "directly caused" by inadequate counter-insurgency methods as dictated by the higher Combined Joint Task Force-101 command and practiced by the 173rd Airborne, which engaged in a "highly kinetic" or aggressive, approach, the report states.

The outpost at Wanat was being created after the 173rd pulled out of more remote bases at Ranch House and Bella in the Waigal Valley. Before the attack, most women, children and older males left Wanat, and fighting-age males were noted watching the Americans.

The highly organized attack began at dawn with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire targeting a TOW-missile Humvee the U.S. soldiers had and mortar pits.

"Probably for the first 10 or 15 minutes, it seemed like it started raining on us with RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and small-arms fire," Luis Repreza, a Hawai'i Marine who was in the battle, said last September. "They were trying to take down the vehicles and trying to shoot our fighting positions."

Brostrom was shot in the head and killed with several other soldiers trying to prevent an observation post uphill from the main encampment from being overrun. U.S. attack helicopters arrived an hour after the attack began.

Wanat was abandoned after the attack and the Waigal Valley now is considered a no-go zone for U.S. forces, Cubbison said.