Green Berets won’t be punished for ‘friendly fire’ deaths

A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Pfc. Aaron S. Toppen of Mokena, Ill., during a dignified transfer June 12, 2014, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Toppen was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command won’t punish two Special Forces soldiers involved in “friendly-fire” deaths in Afghanistan earlier this year, according to officials.

Five American soldiers and their Afghan counterpart were killed June 9 when an Air Force B-1 Lancet dropped guided bombs on their position after they were misidentified as Taliban fighters. American special operators, conventional troops, and Afghan army soldiers had been battling insurgents in the Arghandab district of Zabul province throughout the day.

Following a U.S. Central Command investigation, Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the investigating officer, blamed the deaths on a series of communication problems between the forces on the ground and the aircrew.

“Had the team understood their system’s capabilities, executed standard tactics, techniques and procedures and communicated effectively, this tragic incident was avoidable,” Harrigian wrote in the executive summary of his report.

A redacted version of the report was released in September.

The report was forwarded to USASOC and the Air Force to decide whether disciplinary action should be taken against the people involved, including Army Special Forces Capt. Derrick Anderson and Master Sgt. Travis Zellmann.

“After carefully reviewing all of the information, the Commanding General of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, decided not to relieve the team leader and team sergeant of the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha that was involved in the June 9th, 2014 friendly fire incident in Afghanistan,” Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria, a USASOC spokesman, said in a statement.

Cleveland made his decision on Dec. 24 and the two were cleared of any wrongdoing, according to USASOC.

The Washington Times first reported the decision on Sunday.

Lastoria said that “steps will be taken to significantly reduce the chances of this type of incident from happening again,” but did not specify what measures will be put in place.

The troops killed by friendly fire were Staff Sgt. Scott R. Studenmund, 24; Staff Sgt. Jason A. McDonald, 28; Spc. Justin R. Helton, 25; Cpl. Justin R. Clouse, 22; and Pvt. Aaron S. Toppen, 19; and Afghan army Sgt. Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi.

By Jon Harper (Stars and Stripes)

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