Family members of the fallen SEAL Team Six members shot down in Afghanistan in 2011 said members of Congress and top military brass have ignored their concerns about the circumstances surrounding their sons’ deaths at a press conference at the National Press Club on Thursday.
The families of Aaron Vaughn, Michael Strange, and Patrick Hamburger claim they were misled during the investigation and believe that flawed U.S. military "rules of engagement" policy contributed to the downing of a Chinook helicopter by the Taliban in Wardak province. All 38 people on board the Chinook, which included 15 SEAL Team Six members and seven Afghan National Army commandos, were killed.
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The families also alleged the U.S. military allowed an imam to pray their sons’ "souls into eternal fire" at a ceremony at Bagram Air Base.
Billy Vaughn, father of Aaron Vaughn, said he contacted numerous members of Congress to ask for help with his inquiries about the attack. He said he received no response from House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
"Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), chairman of the [Armed Services Committee] in the Senate, I called him. I called him numerous times. Told him who I was, who my son was, what had happened. They told me to ‘stop harassing the senator,’" said Vaughn. "Thank you, Sen. Levin."
Levin’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The attack occurred three months after the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The families said Vice President Joe Biden’s public disclosure in May 2011 that SEAL Team Six carried out the raid put the entire elite unit at risk of retribution attacks.
"We’re very concerned that the administration disclosed that the Navy SEALs were involved," said Patrick Hamburger’s father, Doug Hamburger.
Charles Strange, the father of Michael Strange, was infuriated by what he characterized as an unprecedented disclosure.
"This is our vice president?" said Strange. "Come on, man!"
Vaughn said his son called him after Biden’s comments and warned that there was chatter that the unit might be targeted.
Vaughn added he was dismayed that 15 members of SEAL Team Six were all placed on the same chopper, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook that was last refurbished in the 1980s, and sent on a route that was rife with enemy fire. He said the helicopter is primarily used to transport troops and is not ideal for an attack environment.
He also said the U.S. military’s "rules of engagement" prevented the men from firing back when they were attacked.
"If my son had gone in on an MH-47 that night with guns blazing and they’d been shot out of the sky, it’d by much easier to live with," said Vaughn. "Why were they not riding on the right chopper? Why did they not [shoot back] when the RPGs were fired?"
Karen Vaughn, Aaron Vaughn’s mother, said that when she asked military officials why the group did not engage in pre-assault fire, she was told it would have damaged efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
"In other words, the hearts and minds of our enemies are more valuable than my son’s blood," she said.
The families also blasted the military for allowing an imam to pray at a ceremony for the fallen troops, which included the Afghan security forces killed in the attack, at Bagram Air Base.
According to a translation played at the press conference, the imam said, "The companions of the fire are not equal with the companions of heaven. The companions of heaven are the winners. Had we sent this Koran to a mountain, you would have seen the mountain prostrated in fear of Allah."
Karen Vaughn said the imam had condemned her son to eternal fire.
"As if dying, due to, in no small part this nation’s submission to its enemy, was not enough, our sons’ bodies were then subjected to the final act of betrayal by our government, as military leaders stood by and not only allowed and imam to pray their souls into eternal fire, proclaiming the Muslims ‘the winners,’ but went on foolishly to praise the beautiful relationship between our two nations, fighting together as one," she said.
Dina James, who represented the families at yesterday’s press conference, also criticized the ceremony.
"The fact that the imam prayed over these boys’ bodies and essentially desecrated them and cast them into hell, in my mind, is a big deal," she said.
Others said the imam’s prayer may not have been intentionally inflammatory.
"We don’t know what he was thinking. He could have known [it was inflammatory] … and it was a dig to get in," Stephen Coughlin, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy who has briefed law enforcement officials on jihadist threats, told the Blaze. "But it’s also possible that he was going through the [typical] motions that an imam would go through at this point."
The families also expressed concern that Afghan security forces, which have occasionally been infiltrated by Taliban sympathizers, were privy to the details of the mission, including flight times and routes.
Concerned Veterans for America’s Pete Hegseth, who was in Afghanistan during the August 2011 shoot down, told the Washington Free Beacon that infiltration of the Afghan security forces would be suspect in an ambush attack like this. He said he was concerned about the families’ claim that the military did not interview the Afghan security forces during its investigation.
"The first people you would have to suspect is anybody on the Afghan side that had access to the flight plan," said Hegseth.
Hegseth also said the amount of infiltration has been exaggerated by the Taliban.
"I don’t think their infiltration is as wide or deep as they say it is, but it is clearly a psychological tactic to make us pull back," he said.
Karen Vaughn said military officials withheld information about the imam’s prayer ceremony and lied to her repeatedly about the investigation. She also said Admiral William McRaven, commander at U.S. Special Operations Command, blew up at her when she questioned him about withholding information.
"[McRaven] made the statement to [my husband and I] … that the military will never withhold any truth from the parents of a fallen soldiers," said Karen Vaughn. "And I quickly said, not meaning any disrespect, ‘What about [fallen soldier, Corporal] Pat Tillman?’ And he nearly came across the table at me, flashed with anger, vessels popped out of his neck, and he said ‘What about Pat Tillman? That was simply a case of friendly fire.’"
"We knew at that point, our discussion was over," she added. "And it was embarrassing that this was one of the highest ranking admirals in our Navy."
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for U.S. Special Operations Command said it "extends its deepest sympathies to the Vaughn family and all of the families that lost loved ones in the Extortion 17 crash."
The spokesperson added that the investigation was conducted by U.S. Central Command, could be viewed online, and that McRaven was not involved.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon did not comment directly on the allegations from the family members but defended its policies.
"We cannot provide details, but the operational planning and execution of this mission was consistent with previous missions, and the forces and capabilities were appropriate given the agility required to maintain pressure on insurgent networks. This was thoroughly investigated and the investigation results are publicly available," said spokesperson James Gregory.
A U.S. counterterrorism official dismissed the concerns of the families as political posturing, arguing that SEALs would be targeted in war zones regardless of whether they were publicly linked to the bin Laden raid by Vice President Biden.
"If you follow this train of logic from these people then other SEALs would never, ever be targeted," said the official. "Come on, please. It’s BS. It just doesn’t comport with reality."
As for the SEALs having an inadequate chopper, the official said there were only minor differences between MH-47s and CH-47s and that the military is often limited by its resources.
"There are not enough night stalkers to fly Navy SEALS everywhere," the official said.