While the death of U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson remains under investigation, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday the fighters who killed him in Africa last week hadn't operated in that area before.
U.S. officials suspect fighters belonging to an Islamic State affiliate killed Johnson, 25, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson. They were members of the 3rd Special Forces Group, headquartered in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
They and about 40 other service members in a joint mission were in unarmored trucks when the fighters attacked them with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. Mattis said they were "hit hard" and praised the quick response of the French and Niger support forces.
"The French pilots were overhead with fast movers with bombs on them ready to help, and helicopters were coming in behind," Mattis said.
During the initial evacuation, Johnson was left behind in the Niger desert and it took about two days for Nigerien troops to find his body. Mattis said the investigation will reveal areas where there can be improvement.
"We are not complacent," Mattis said. "We are going to do better."
Army special forces have been working with Niger troops for some time, and that training effort has been increasing in recent years.
They are often working in remote locations well beyond what the U.S. military likes to call the "golden hour." That one-hour standard for medical evacuation was set during the peak war years in Iraq and Afghanistan and was aimed at getting wounded troops out within an hour of their injury, making it more likely they will get the treatment needed to survive.