Revisiting the 2009 Ganjgal Ambush

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Dakota Meyer, 23, shows the black wristbands he wears on each arm honoring the three Marines and Navy corpsman who were killed in action in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, Sept. 8, 2009 on his dad's farm in Greensburg, Ky., Aug. 3. Meyer says he will wear these wrist bands everyday for the rest of his life to honor his fallen friends. Meyer will be receiving the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, from President Barack Obama in Washington, Sept. 15, making him the first living Marine recipient since the Vietnam War. He was assigned to Embedded Training Team 2-8, advising the Afghan National Army in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. Meyer will be awarded for heroic actions while trying to save his friends in the Ganjgal valley, Sept. 8, 2009. Read more:

60 Minutes devoted their Sunday hour programming to honoring our soldiers. This included Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer providing his account of the September 9, 2009 ambush that left Afghan soldiers and 4 American soldiers dead: First Lt. Michael Johnson, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin “Wayne” Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton. In addition, Army SFC Kenneth Westbrook lost his life October 7, 2009 at Walter Reed Medical Center.

The rules of engagement that probably cost them their lives?

With an estimated 100-150 enemy fighters dug in on the high ground above them, the Marines called for artillery fire from a nearby base. The first rounds missed so First Lt. Michael Johnson, one of the four Marines trapped inside the village, radioed new coordinates of the enemy positions. But the commanders in the operations center, back at the base, refused to fire.

“They denied it. The Army denied it and told him it was, it was too close the village. . . And he said, ‘Too close to the village?’ And the last words I heard him say was, ‘If you don’t give me these rounds right now I’m going to die,’” Meyer said.

“Did he get the artillery fire?” Martin asked.

“No, he didn’t. The response was basically, ‘Try your best,’” Meyer said.

More background of the Ganjgal ambush controversy here and here, with related links.

The interview originally aired September 16, 2011.


9 Responses to “Revisiting the 2009 Ganjgal Ambush”

  1. 1



    This is a sad and tragic story, but the irony of it all, is the man who is putting the MOH around the Marine’s neck, is the same man who devised the ROE that got the Marine’s teammates killed and had the artillery officers too spooked to send in the rounds that would have possibly saved them all.

  2. 3



    I assume the Pentagon writes the ROE. Whether they wish to curry favor with the CIC or whether he exerts pressure, the ROE reflect policy. Obama establishes policy on the prosecution of the war.

    Whether it was Johnson, Nixon, Kennedy, Truman, or Roosevelt the prosecution of the war was influenced by the president of the era. Some presidents, (Roosevelt) allowed their generals to fight their wars to achieve victory: others, like Johnson wanted to micromanage the war. I suspect we will hear of Obama’s management of his war generals in the decades to come, assuming I live long enough.

    The ROE seemed to be politically motivated to retard the effectiveness of the armed forces. In effect to fight a war without the presumption of victory as the ultimate goal. This relates back to the political cadres of the Pentagon being influenced by the whims of a president with dubious goals regarding our war effort and to the idea of fighting wars without clear definitions of victory. Consequently, the war becomes an ever changing war game of attrition with no clear goals or commitment to victory. Yes whether Obama writes the ROE or not, is less of an issue than fighting a nebulous war with his predetermined goal, of withdrawal in 2014 as a measure of victory.

  3. 4



    Skook, the ROEs discussed were issued by McChrystal, who was ISAF commander at that time. ISAF falls under NATO… ergo much of their command is shared and decided by NATO committee.

    You can read the McChrystal guidelines for COMISAF-COIN at the NATO site. Petraeus issued a new version in Aug 2010, tho how many effective changes (in a positive way, if any) there were, I don’t know. I would expect it became even more restrictive.

    While many of us are highly critical of ROEs.. most especially those concocted under the blue banner of NATO…Blackfive had some tempered views on the inclination to always race to blame ROEs. This is not to say they aren’t problematic far too often, but they are the easy, one-size-fits-all scapegoat when things go wrong. It’s an ugly fine line to walk between the type of heinous warfare these cockroaches use, and trying to minimize collateral damage to civilians who are known to be used as human shields. It’s heartbreaking to know it’s our guys, caught in the middle of the ROE political crossfire, but it’s also an ugly fact of military strategy and policy.

    But no matter how you examine it, the ROEs for ISAF-NATO, or those for the small amount of troops under US command, are not written by Obama. He just ain’t that clever. Now if you want to use “the buck stops here” argument, it’s certainly a valid criticism. But in reality, this POTUS… like others before him (and both Petraeus and McChrystal were active in the Iraq-Afghanistan theatres prior to Obama under Bush)… simply deferred to his appointed military leadership, who also end up deferring to NATO command by committee.

    Unfortunately, sometimes these events also set divisions against each other in criticism as well. Kit Up over at linked to an internal report that seemed to call into question the 10th Mountain Division’s lack of commitment to the Marines, Army and Afghan troops. This is the link to that five page DoD Report. You’ll note that they believed the key elements to the mission failure was the lack of experienced senior command officers in the operations center, and a lack of situational awareness and decision making. This is also mentioned in the article linked by Wordsmith in the OP. In fact, one of the commanders stated that:

    “… he did not feel constrained by the [ISAF] Tactical Directive in employing indirect fires.” However that perception clearly existed in the minds of ETT leaders during and after the battle

    Tough to lay the failure at the feet of the ISAF Tactical Directives and ROEs when one of the commanders at that moment says he didn’t feel “constrained” by those limits, right?

    The recommendation for punishment was that of a reprimand… something I don’t think would have consoled the grieving families of those who’s lives were lost. And I can only attempt to imagine the horror of the guys in the 10th Mountain at the results. I don’t believe any US warrior is willing to stand by, and not race to the aid of their peers. However they are at the command of their leadership… who, in this case, seems to have badly dropped the ball. Not because of ROEs necessarily, but because of inefficient and bad decision making at the top.

    Boggles the mind…

  4. 5

    another vet

    @Skook: If we are not going to fight to win or give our military the support they need to accomplish their mission, it is time to pull out. NATO does have different ROE. Once they are involved, the situation becomes more political. In Bosnia and Kosovo, both NATO operations, it was frowned upon if you were shot at and returned fire. An American Humvee was fired upon, in I want to say Banja Luka. The soldiers took cover behind the vehicle and a civilian tackled the shooter. The commander, Admiral Joulan (spelling?) publically praised the soldiers for not returning fire. The base I was on outside of Sarajevo, was a target of sniper attacks. A French Special Forces soldier who was a counter sniper, shot and killed one of the snipers as he was getting ready to take up his position. I was in the base’s OPCENTER when this French soldier was brought in and listened to the British officers grill him as to whether or not it was absolutely necssary for him to have killed the sniper. Kosovo was no better. Contrast that with Iraq. If you were shot at and didn’t return fire, you were grilled as to why not.

  5. 7

    another vet

    @MataHarley: Ufortunately, NATO has become more of a political club than a defense umbrella. The whole Balklans issue was made out to be about the risk of another WWI because that is where that war started, which was an oversimplification of the causes of the war. WWI would have happened regardless of the Balklans. Our involvement in Bosnia and Kososvo was about justifying the existence of NATO in the absence of the Cold War. Just my opinion.

  6. 8



    Mata and Another Vet, thank you for bringing me up to speed on the ROE.

    However, after being schooled on the subject, I feel even more exasperated with the whole issue.

  7. 9




    National Geographic Channel’s new series “No Man Left Behind” which premieres Tuesday June, 28th at 9/8c takes viewers on a harrowing, inspiring journey into real-world combat situations, revealing the lengths of human heroism and the incredible bonds that exist between soldiers on the battlefield. The soldiers themselves recount their stories of survival, taking us inside their struggles and victories like never before. And “No Man Left Behind” gives an intimate glimpse into these heroes’ lives at home and the difficulties they face in readjusting to life outside of a combat zone. In this piece, we take a similar look at the intense battle of Ganjgul, Afghanistan, featuring interviews and multimedia elements to tell the real story of what happened on the ground.

    On the morning of Tuesday, September 8, 2009, before the first of the sun’s rays began to creep above the mountainous horizon of eastern Afghanistan, U.S. Army Captain William D. Swenson set off on foot from the U.S. base in Shakani. Alongside him marched more than 100 coalition soldiers, Afghan troops, and border police officers, all heading toward the tiny village of Ganjgal in the rolling hills of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, more than 100 miles northeast of Kabul.

    The men walked softly, each step a calculated decision. IEDs were rare in this area, but nobody was willing to lose a leg or even his life for the sake of a casual misstep.

    Swenson was supporting the 10th Mountain Division Light Infantry, a unit leading a small contingent of Afghan Border Police officers as part of the ABP Mentor Team, designed to help Afghan authorities learn from American military training and secure the country’s volatile borders more effectively. A unit of Marines was also leading a Marine-embedded training team on that fateful morning, and the two squads worked well together.

    Having already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Captain Swenson was no stranger to the subtleties of working with the Afghan forces.

    “With the Afghans, one cannot overtly lead,” Swenson says. “They are their own military, independently run by their own leadership, but you can also influence them with advice and your presence.”

    Despite his knowledge of the local political landscape and his considerable combat experience, Swenson could not have foreseen the tragic events that were about to unfold.

    Read more

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