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Fire Watch: Inside the Fight by National Guardsmen to Repel a Terrorist Attack in Somalia

In late 2019, an explosion rumbled across a remote vista in Somalia, disturbing the low brush and red-brown dirt surrounding a lonely American airfield. It rattled the bolts of the decades-old base and buckled the knees of the National Guard soldiers tasked with defending it. Capt. London Nagai – the commander of the unit – and his Charlie Troopers knew the attack was coming.

A truck, up-armored and sickly yellow against its trailing dust cloud, broke off from the group. Unbeknownst to the soldiers inside the base, that truck carried one of the largest known vehicle-borne explosive devices on the African continent. And it was bound for them.

In 2019, as the Global War on Terror superficially appeared to be winding down, regular troops – many of whom are police officers, fire fighters, college students, and delivery drivers in their civilian jobs – found themselves at the tip of a long spear that many Americans don’t realize is still aimed against terrorism, this battle centered in Somalia.

Main Topics

  • Drew F. Lawrence interviews Capt. London Nagai, the commander of Charlie Troop about their thwarting of the al-Shabaab attack on Baledogle Military Airfield on September 30, 2019.
  • Guests Dr. Tricia Bacon, an extremism expert and professor at American University, and W.J. Bennigan of TIME Magazine help explain the significance of the al-Shabaab extremist group and what the Global War on Terror looks like in Somalia.
  • Co-host Rebecca Kheel and Army reporter Steve Beynon parse through the latest Army publicity debacle that involved a general officer, a Fox News host, and Twitter.

     

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

W.J. Hennigan, Anchors, Steve Beynon, al-Shabaab propaganda video, Drew Lawrence, Dr. Tricia Bacon, Capt. London Nagai, Gunfire, Rebecca Kheel

 

Drew Lawrence

In late 2019, an explosion rumbled across a remote vista in Somalia, disturbing the low brush and red-brown dirt surrounding a lonely American airfield. It rattled the bolts of the decades-old base and buckled the knees of the National Guard soldiers tasked with defending it. Capt. London Nagai – the commander of the unit – and his Charlie Troopers knew the attack was coming.

 

Capt. London Nagai

So we’re just about to pull out, you know, from the gate about to leave and then we heard this massive explosion so it kind of knocked everyone back. And we knew obviously something was something was wrong at that point.

 

Drew Lawrence

The bomb was the work of an islamist extremist group, al-Shabaab, and it exploded prematurely. It was meant for the airfield and the hundreds of people stationed there. As the soldiers rushed to their defensive positions, a convoy of construction trucks materialized on the horizon as the cloud from the first explosion grew hundreds of feet tall. One of those trucks, up-armored and sickly yellow against its trailing dust cloud, broke off from the group. Unbeknownst to the soldiers inside the base, that truck carried one of the largest known vehicle-borne explosive devices on the African continent. And it was bound for them. That clip and other audio recordings in this episode of the attack were obtained by Military.com And until last month — more than three years later — the story of the biggest known attack on U.S. forces in Somalia in 30 years, and the troops who defended against it, remained largely unknown to the public. But after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending decades of operations in the country that shared the spotlight with Iraq, the Global War on Terror is shifting. And places like Somalia are the front lines, where fighting has continued. The battle fought by Capt. Nagai and his soldiers serves as a likely blueprint for what conflict is going to look like as U.S. counter-terrorism efforts enter a metamorphosis. As part of the Global War on Terror, the United States has maintained an often fluctuating presence in Somalia since 2007, conducting hundreds of strikes on suspected terrorists over at least four presidencies. Secretive special operations teams have conducted many of those strikes against U.S. adversaries like al-Shabaab – a group that remains an unfamiliar boogeyman to many Americans.

 

Anchors

Tonight, an upscale hotel under siege in Somali // Attacks on US and European military targets in Somalia // At least nine people were killed and 47 were injured after an attack at a hotel in southern Somalia. The attack claimed by the al-Shabaab Islamist group // The terror group al-Shabaab is claiming responsibility // The attack has already been claimed by al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda linked to militant group that’s been terrorizing the region for more than 15 years.

 

Drew Lawrence

But In 2019, on that late September day, regular troops – many of whom are police officers, fire fighters, college students, and delivery drivers in their civilian jobs – found themselves at the tip of that long, gnarled spear that many Americans don’t realize is firmly planted in the near center of Somalia. For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence – it is January 13th and this is Fire Watch. Before Cpt. Nagai and his soldiers set foot in the country, he realized there was only so much he could control. That realization manifested dozens of times during Charlie Troop’s tenure in Somalia and would eventually prove the difference between life and death.

 

Capt. London Nagai

…when they’re, when you’re in a situation where there’s so little that you can control. You know, we just wanted to make sure that we were very good at the fundamentals and the basics.

 

Drew Lawrence

The energy was high, Cpt. Nagai said, but often quelled or redirected by experienced non-commissioned officers who had seen their fair share of deployments. But two weeks before Charlie Troop was supposed to land in Africa, they heard that the base they were going to occupy was attacked. An unease settled across the unit.

 

Capt. London Nagai

But also the guys obviously now, they’re super on edge, right? They the place that we’re just going to just attack. So first aren’t Greenberg and I were really, we didn’t want to hide information. But again, we kept going back to that mantra of let’s control we can control. Let’s get really good at the basics, focus on the basics. And then when we get there, we trust that you guys will, you know, make the right decisions on the ground.

 

Drew Lawrence

As Charlie Troop was preparing for its deployment, the U.S. was reshaping its own role in Somalia. The State Department announced it had reopened a permanent diplomatic facility in the country’s capital of Mogadishu after nearly 30 years, an apparent sign of renewed commitment to the Somali government in its decades long civil war. And that same year, the Pentagon awarded millions for emergency runway repairs of Baledogle Military Airfield, a tiny strip over 60 miles away from Mogadishu and a relic of Soviet-Somali relations in the ‘70s now owned by U.S. Africa Command. As it so happened, Nagai and his troops would call -this relic their home for nine months. And the second they laid eyes on it, they realized they had a problem.

 

Capt. London Nagai

There’s a false sense of flatness in that area. S o a lot of dead space, a lot of rolling hills, but not to the elevation point where to the naked eye, it looks like anything substantial. But because it just goes so far with nothing in between no infrastructure, no cities, sparse trees, low line brush, you feel like you have a good sense of what’s around you. But what we quickly realize is that you can move a platoon, a company within a couple 100 meters of that base, and no one would know.

 

Drew Lawrence

On top of that, Charlie Troop had a number of other factors to contend with – a rainy season that flushed water and subsequently displaced people through their area of responsibility, dozens of civilian workers hammering away on the freshly approved airfield repair plans to protect, and an enemy, as Cpt. Nagai put it, with the ability to seemingly swell from one person to 100 in a matter of minutes. That enemy, was al-Shabaab.

 

al-Shabaab propaganda video

 

 

Drew Lawrence

That audio is from an al-Shabaab propaganda video, where they’re talking about their plans to kill the Americans at the airfield. As we are about to learn, this is part of the group’s playbook.

 

Dr. Tricia Bacon

Al-Shabaab is what I would describe as a hybrid organization when it comes to a militant…as a militant group. And what I mean by that is it has multiple facets to it. It is in many ways a conventional terrorist organization.

 

Drew Lawrence

Dr. Tricia Bacon is a professor at American University. She serves on the extremism Council at the Middle East Institute, focusing on insurgent groups and US counterterrorism policy. Before teaching she worked at the State Department and much of her professional life has been dedicated to studying groups like al-Shabaab

 

Dr. Tricia Bacon

They’re like the mafia, it engages in a widespread and very effective extortion ring and is really able to extract its “taxation” from basically all facets of Somalia’s economy. I think that Shabaab’s most effective attacks are these combination attacks and they usually involve a vehicle born explosive device and then armed assailants. And what what varies of course, is how big that explosive devices which is often used to gain entry into a facility and then to send the armed assailants through the target killing people. Of course as they go, and these these sort of two pronged attacks are I would say al-Shabaab bread and butter.

 

Drew Lawrence

At the airfield, Charlie Troop eventually knew an attack would come, they learned the al-Shabaab playbook that Dr. Bacon had just explained and the scouts and infantrymen of New Jersey aimed to exploit it. In a remote base in the near center of al-Shabaab’s holdout, Capt. Nagai recognized they lacked depth in their defense. The airfield is small, and while his 70-person troop ballooned into the hundreds during the deployment, they did not have enough personnel to account for the worst of the worst case scenarios. So they created that depth. They dug obstacles, they built positions to look weak to entice the enemy into a trap, probably to the chagrin of the runway project, they started randomly turning away construction vehicles in case they harbored an inside threat, they rotated tower personnel out onto what Capt. Nagai called “defensive reconnaissance” so they themselves could physically see and touch the hidden gullies and pits that pocked the area around the airfield. And they patrolled and they drilled.

 

Capt. London Nagai

I don’t want to say it wasn’t because of altruism but you know, soccer balls and well pumps that was an ancillary benefit to what we are really trying to do, which is like, truly understand the terrain, truly start to build depth and understanding of our environment. And we would use that to kind of start building what we would call our battle drills within the base.

 

Drew Lawrence

In making some of those decisions, Capt. Nagai and his team were at odds with an overall sense of caution that had blanketed U.S. operations on the continent over the last thirty years. The U.S. military presence in the country was largely meant to be kept under the radar, with missions and strikes carried out mostly by special operations units. And prior to that, the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu during the Somali Civil War — a deadly operation which was depicted in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down – had left more than a bad taste in the mouths of U.S. officials who had seen 18 U.S. soldiers killed in it.

 

Dr. Tricia Bacon

The US involvement in Somalia in the wake of this Barre regime downfall and the broader state collapse was what unfortunately became sort of a traumatic incident that’s…that pushed the United States away from turning the us away from Somalia. I remember early in my years at the State Department, people would say I don’t even want to hear the word Somalia, right? It really created this sort of almost traumatic reaction. And to have that kind of engagement end with Somalis dragging the dead bodies of Americans through the street was very shocking and created this, this feeling of wanting to to not be involved in those kinds of events before and to the degree that there’s…

 

Drew Lawrence

According to Dr. Bacon, al-Shabaab grew its roots at that time and flourished when the U.S. left Somalia in 1994. In part, the militant group grew because of its new-found connection to al-Qaeda, the group that attacked the United states on 9/11. US re-engagement, if you will in Somalia, after a decade of studiously ignoring it after the withdrawal in 1994. It came because of this al-Qaeda connection. By 2007, when the U.S. officially resumed military and diplomatic operations in Somalia, al-Shabaab was well on its way to making the country a “source of destabilization” in the Horn of Africa, according to Dr. Bacon…expelling foreign forces, attempting to overthrow the Somali government, and attacking its neighbors like Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia where the U.S. has a staked interest. The weight of that history and responsibility was heavy and tangible for the New Jersey guardsmen, but the dangers that they were up against at the remote airfield called for a kind of creative discipline in the face of these challenges and risks of their own.

 

Capt. London Nagai

And I’ll say this, we had incredible support from, you know, the GO’s. But we also knew that there was zero appetite for risk. You know, Africa is littered with stories, and they’re usually all kind of sad or catastrophic. There was definitely…I don’t want to say pushback, but rightfully so there was, you know, scrutiny and they were saying, “Wait, you’re doing what?” So we invited those senior leaders down there. And we actually taught or brought, you know, one of the GO’s out on a patrol with us. And we did fire missions with him. And, you know, we showed him why we’re doing what we’re doing. And that is ultimately what got us, you know, blessed off to do to do more and more.

 

Drew Lawrence

At this point, it’s worth mentioning a little something about the composition and character of Charlie Troop itself.

 

Capt. London Nagai

It has a reputation in the New Jersey National Guard. I don’t want to say we’re the best but we are very hard on our soldiers, I think in a good way people enjoy that people like being in C Troop. And we have guys who drilled from Texas, from Tennessee, from Florida, who would fly on their own dime just to stay in C Troop.

 

Drew Lawrence

Some were cops, other in corrections…there were guys who worked in administrative offices across New Jersey – there was even a therapist mixed into the unit – and these soldiers were a seemingly a far throw from the special forces that are typically known to operate on the continent. But soldiers who grew up in the city fought alongside soldiers who grew up in the country. Guys from the beaches of South Jersey called their rural compatriots brothers in arms. And the reverse was true as well.

 

Capt. London Nagai

There is no reason for these people to be friends or to hang out, any other reason than they are just all phenomenal soldiers. And you had unlikely bedfellows across the formation, people who you would never expect to be hanging out with each other. But that’s what made C Troop you know, incredibly special.

 

Drew Lawrence

Capt. Nagai said that many of them volunteered to go on extra patrols and when it came time to take a little 72 hour rest and relaxation at the movies or coffee shops that Djibouti had to offer, many begged to stay back.

 

Capt. London Nagai

They were, like, literally faking sickness, not to go and I’m like, guys, you know, that there’s, there’s actually medical up there, like, if you’re gonna say, you’re sick, we’re gonna send you up there and they’re like, crap. They did not, they did not want to leave. They wanted to be there for their guys.

 

Drew Lawrence

By September 2019 – seven months at the airfield – leaders in Charlie Troop had mastered the art of personnel management, and the troopers were as content as they could be. And ready. But al-Shabaab still loomed, and the extremist group began to seethe at the American’s efforts.

 

Capt. London Nagai

Again, we knew al-Shabaab was getting frustrated with us. You know, we were doing things that they didn’t think that we were going to be doing. And it was very hard for them to be like, “Hey, we have this under control, we know America is right there…but like, you know, they’re scared of us and they’re not going to be doing anything.” Well, now we’re out there. You know, we’re doing loom missions, you know, we’re going on patrols, we’re, you know, we’re doing things a lot of these live fire drills. Once again, no notice base defense drills, rehearsals, it got to the point where they started taking credit for attacking us when we were doing these drills, because they just really didn’t have any other way to explain it. The people around we’re like what we see them blowing things up like they’re running around the base like what is going on there. And al-Shabaab actually released something said that they were attacking us just because they could not get a good narrative as to what C Trop was doing.

 

Drew Lawrence

They took pop shots at the base, pressure testing the bases defenses. The hardest part, Cpt. Nagai said, was telling his men to not fire back, and not show their hand.

 

Capt. London Nagai

And that’s again where you get into like the intent of al-Shabaab. If they really just wanted to kill one person, there’s a million ways you could have done it. But over time, we realized what exactly it was that they wanted to get out of this, which was a big public display of violence against America.

 

Drew Lawrence

Charlie Troop was mounting up for a patrol to one of the largest villages in the area. The Americans had intentionally leaked their plan to visit the village, knowing that an US patrol there would elicit al-Shabaab’s ire. And they were right. That day, and as part of their defense plan, the soldiers at the gate turned away one of the construction vehicles attempting to enter the base. It was the one an al-Shabaab insurgent hoped to have followed into the airfield’s perimeter with his vehicle borne IED. But he turned away, repelled by the lost opportunity, and the IED meant for the airfield and its inhabitants, detonated, likely on a timer miles away from the base. It created a smoke plume hundreds of feet high and alerted the troops to al-Shabaab’s nefarious plot.

 

Capt. London Nagai

So within two minutes, the entire basis is essentially locked down. But our big fear was all those civilians on the runway, and then that additional village, which we knew was an extremely soft target, full of women and children that was right next to us

 

Gunfire

Let’s go, let’s go!

 

Drew Lawrence

The snipers manned their towers and mortar teams locked onto pre-planned targets. A group of soldiers ushered dozens of workers off of the runway. An Air Force plane was immediately told to take off while a United Nations aircraft was diverted from what was shaping up to be an uncertain and likely catastrophic event. The al-Shabaab convoy materialized over the horizon and a yellowish up-armored truck broke off from the group and screamed across the low brush and red-brown dirt toward the airfield. Its cargo was nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives and its target was part of the bases fenced perimeter – one that Charlie Troop made look weak, and enticing. A ditch the unit dug the month before lurked just beyond the fenceline, hungry for the oncoming truck. One of the unit’s humvees – operated by some of C Troop’s soldiers – put itself between the airfield, the village, the workers, and fellow service members in case the ditch didn’t work.

 

Capt. London Nagai

So we see this, this 18 Wheeler just barreling towards us. And it’s literally like an old Civil War movie, we’re like hold the line like “hold! hold!” Because we don’t want to shoot them to the point where they try to avoid our bullets and go around the ditch. So we want them to commit to this ditch which is right in front of this beautifully open fenceline, so this guy thinks he’s got a clear path through and then he hits the ditch and he comes up and you could hear a pin drop on that base because if he cleared that thing we were gone. But it worked he bottomed out and then you know a couple seconds later it explodes And it was just insane. I mean it just…the explosion went off and it just took off like 200 meters of fence line, I mean the crater was just massive. We have no hard structures there I mean everything tents coming in like the one solid structure we had on the base of like this iron door that was just completely concaved in, everyone’s knocked off but you know the ditch work the plan worked they were stopped.

 

Drew Lawrence

There was no time to celebrate – the al-Shabaab playbook called for another wave. Another truck, painted to look like the construction trucks, skulked near the newly punched hole in the earth.

 

Capt. London Nagai

And then we see the tarp come off the back of it and we just see loads of guys with you know, AK, 249’s, RPGs tons of grenades…they had fully expected you know to be on the base at this point.

 

Drew Lawrence

But they weren’t, and Charlie troop began peppering them with direct fire and danger close mortar missions.

 

Gunfire

 

 

Drew Lawrence

The dozen or so al-Shabaab insurgents looked for cover in the sparse and hidden defilades. They managed to get a few RPG rounds off.

 

Capt. London Nagai

And then, you know, we see their leader on a cell phone kind of behind this berm. And he’s looking around and yeah, I can empathize with him, plans go wrong all the time. But he’s he’s kind of just looking around being like, crap. You know, this is he’s calling somebody and letting them know that this is not the way that they had planned to do it. And it’s at this time, you know, we have some Civil Affairs guys with us who were awesome and like instrumental to a lot of this. But he shows me his phone, you know, he’s got dataminr…and it’s al-Shabaab releasing this statement saying that they just killed 100 Americans on BMA. Like, they probably haven’t talked to that guy yet.

 

Drew Lawrence

An insurgent aimed an RPG at one of the trucks, and with what became the last mortar mission of the battle, he was dispatched before he could pull the trigger. The battle was over, but the truck that a dozen al-Shabaab militants just poured out of loomed near the swimming pool-sized hole that a similar looking truck had just created. The Americans punctuated the battle by destroying the truck with a remotely piloted aircraft. In an attempt to control the narrative after the attack, al-Shabaab immediately claimed the raid was successful – they said they killed dozens, destroyed American aircraft, and left BMA in a flaming heap. While the group had done none of that and no Americans were killed or seriously injured, it showed the world what could have been had Nagai and his troops failed to stop it. But fake story or real story, the world did not hear any of it outside of a couple newswires, really. Connecting Vets published an account of the attack, citing anonymous soldiers. But the story of the largest attack on Americans in the country in over 30 years and the first time that a New Jersey unit had been involved in a combined arms battle since World War II, was not officially known until last month. A spokesperson for the unit told Military.com that the delay in telling the story had to do with a competing and overwhelming COVID-19 mission the Troop was immediately thrown into after returning from Somalia.

 

Capt. London Nagai

Again, I think it’s that infantry mentality of like, hey, we don’t do this for the awards. We don’t do this for recognition. Like, we’re the infantry, we do this. But we understood pretty quickly that like, there wasn’t going to be a lot of publicity about this, just given where we were and what we’re doing.

 

Drew Lawrence

So as the pandemic continued, the story of the New Jersey unit that thwarted al-Shabaab was pushed further into obscurity. And in 2021 when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years of insurgency fighting there, the Global War on Terror officially ended in most American minds.

 

W.J. Hennigan

But the truth is, is that this is…this takes place in corners of the world, every single day. Right now, as we speak there, you know, drones that are flying over Yemen, Syria, Somalia, there are operators that are planning missions in those countries.

 

Drew Lawrence

That’s WJ Hannigan. He’s a national security correspondent for TIME magazine and he spent time covering military operations around the Horn of Africa.

 

W.J. Hennigan

…competition and these sorts of things. A lot of that’s wishful thinking. Because, you know, the the War on Terror remains and every you know, every year we’re reminded about that, through through some sort of event that that takes place in these places.

 

Drew Lawrence

The tea leaves suggest that the counter insurgency fight for the U.S. in Somalia is not over. Last year, President Joe Biden approved a plan to send troops back into Somalia after the Trump administration made an 11th hour decision to pull them out. And last month, as near peer adversaries stake financial and infrastructural claim on the continent, the Biden White House embarked on a whirlwind media blitz to reaffirm its commitment to Africa– including in combating terrorism. Because of the caution, the secrecy and the tension that blankets U.S. involvement in the African theater, the recognition for C Troop, 1st Squadron, 102nd Cavalry Regiment appeared nearly as hard fought as the battle itself . At an armory in Westfield New Jersey, over a year after the attack, the soldiers of C Troop received those awards. But because of COVID, the troops stood at attention in an otherwise empty building. No audience, no family, just them and their leaders pinning awards to their chests for an event that no one but them really knew about. The public story too was delayed, and many – including Captain Nagai, had moved on from their old troop by the time it was officially told. And despite his own personal humility, that did not stop Nagai from being proud of his soldiers and what they did.

 

Capt. London Nagai

We were happy to do something that a lot of people didn’t think the National Guard did. And then we walked back into COVID. So, you know, we had an award ceremony with nobody there, pinning on Bronze Stars and CIBs and CABs and there was nothing, you know, and obviously, we know that, you know, there’s a lot of bigger things going on, but I think we were somewhat satisfied with that. But over time, I think people realize that the fact that this kind of got lost in the shuffle did kind of hurt some folks, I think. And I’m just really happy to be able to talk about, you know, the guys and what they did and the things that they earned. Because they deserve it. These guys like went out of their way to protect a lot, a lot of civilians and people that they have worked alongside every day. And I think that’s, for me, that’s why it made it important.

 

Drew Lawrence

Stick around for our reporter roundtable, but before you do, Capt. Nagai mentioned over a dozen soldiers and teams within his company who acted heroically that day: his senior enlisted advisor, 1st Sgt. Paul Greenberg. Staff Sgts. Charlie Connolly, Marvin Monroig, and Steven Plumer who ushered civilian workers to safety. Sgts. Robert Keil and David Kerwie], Cpl. John Hackett and Spc. Tyler Chochran who put themselves in front of the oncoming VBIED, knowing that they might have been the final backstop if the ditch didn’t work. Sgt’s First Class Mitchell Costa and Jim Kube, and Staff Sgts. Chris Butell and Nick Swanson valiantly held down various parts of the defense. And the quick reaction force, the mortars, and sniper teams were all instrumental in thwarting the attack as well. Next, my co-host Rebecca Kheel and Military.com’s Army reporter Steve Beynon parse through the latest Army publicity debacle that involved a general officer, a Fox News host, and Twitter.

 

Rebecca Kheel

Hi everyone my name is Rebecca Kheel, co-host of Fire Watch and congressional reporter for Military.com. Welcome to our reporter roundtable. Here’s what you may have missed since our last episode: The Department of Defense revealed a long-awaited parental leave policy that will offer parents up to 12 weeks of leave after the birth of their child. But the policy, which was delayed – and confusing to some service members – does not include troops who welcomed a new child into their life in the last year. This week, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division investigated over a dozen soldiers assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina for drug trafficking. The investigation comes as scrutiny shrouds the base – and the special operations community – about drug use, mysterious deaths and other criminal activity. And in its largest assistance package to date, the Pentagon announced it is sending 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine in support of repelling Russia’s renewed invasion of the country. The Bradleys are a tracked personnel carrying vehicle equipped with a machine gun, chain gun and anti-tank missile launcher, and their transfer marks an escalation of weaponry to the country as Ukraine asks for heavier offensive equipment like tanks. As always, joining me is my co-host Drew Lawrence. And with us today is our own Steve Beynon, who covers the Army for Military.com. Welcome, thanks for being here. Welcome, guys, thanks for being here today.

 

Drew Lawrence

Steve, I’m glad you’re here because there’s this saga that’s happening in the Army about its…how it goes about using social media. And it really centers around this one case with Major General Patrick Donahoe, who was the former commander of Fort Benning, and, you know, he was investigated for a number of things that had to do with with Twitter. He eventually came out, you know, out of that investigation with his full retirement and his full rank. And what it’s really shown as this kind of this broader issue with the Army.

 

Steve Beynon

Yeah, so Patrick Donahoe was the former commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning from 2020 to 2022. He was set to retire earlier in 2022. But that was put on hold after a complaint was made after he kind of got in this spat with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. If you rewind back to early 2021, Carlson ran a segment basically saying that women don’t necessarily have a place in the military and particularly pregnant women. That drew scorn from a lot of senior military officials and the rank and file including Donahoe, right, so he put out this tweet of him re-enlisting a female noncommissioned officer, and all the tweet said was “Tucker Carlson couldn’t be more wrong.” That was it. And it was retweeted and a similar sentiment was shared by other senior officials across all the services and also the Army, including, you know, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. But Donahoe was the one I was investigated for because he was the one somebody, somewhere filed a complaint for. Inspector general investigations, they’d be filed by anyone for any reason against any person. And whoever decided to file this, decided to go after Donahoe, right. So people are…the reaction wasn’t that the investigation happened because those could happen is anyone. It was that the investigation found that his conduct supporting women online and getting that spat with Tucker Carlson made the Army look bad and brought negative media attention. After that tweet, Senator Ted Cruz basically penned this letter to the Secretary of Defense saying, “Hey, your senior members of the military are being outrageous on social media.” I didn’t name Donahoe, but it was definitely referencing that tweet. And that’s when that investigation was spurred.

 

Rebecca Kheel

Yeah, I mean, so I think what was interesting about this case, and one of the reasons it got so much attention is what it said about the Army’s ability to respond to bad faith attacks on cable news and in social media, which obviously, we are in an era where that is really common. And, you know, the Donahoe case seems to be a bit of a microcosm of that I’m thinking I don’t know if either of you read General Mark Milley’s testimony to the January 6 committee, but he also talked a bit about it, how he brought up how, you know, he’s sparred with some Republican lawmakers at hearings, and then that becomes like months of content on he didn’t specifically say conservative media, but that was kind of the subtext. And he mentioned how it’s also happened with Admiral Field Day and the Navy, the Sergeant Major of the Army. So Steve, how do you think this Donahoe case fits into that broader context?

 

Steve Beynon

Yeah, it seems it seems to have been a completely partisan attack on Donahoe, before, before this, and the, you know, the months during the height of the pandemic, and when vaccines started getting introduced, he was a, he’s very…he was very open about talking to soldiers online about the the need for the vaccine. So it was kind of a champion of that, which drew some initial ire of the the far right, and then he gets this spat with Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz complains about, you know, the conduct of Donahoe and other senior military officials to the Secretary of Defense and women serving, particularly pregnant women, is frankly, a issue that some on the right, have a have a problem with. And he was a very, you know, so you got this general, that was very public about his support of vaccine use, and is very much an ally, for women serving and what this report found, and what really drew a lot of problems for people was that it wasn’t the investigation itself. Someone could have done the investigation and said, this happened. It’s not a problem. But it did take an issue with his conduct. It said that his conduct, it didn’t say it was wrong or broken any regulations, it just found that he embarrassed the Army. Right, but he embarrassed the Army to Tucker Carlson, Ted Cruz, those on the right. And then when asked by reporters about it at, you know, conference in October, the Army didn’t have a lot of answers for it. And at no point did they say, at least initially say like, “Hey, we stand by women, you know, partisan attacks, we’re not going to let this you know, steer the army Away at this important time for women.” They just said they want their officers out of politics. But this wasn’t necessarily a political issue. It was just an issue with someone who is a political person that being Tucker Carlson.

 

Rebecca Kheel

Yeah, and you mentioned when the details of the investigation started leaking in October, that the Army kind of struggled to respond. Is there any evidence that they’ve learned any lessons since October? Or has there been a chilling effect on officers wanting to come forward and defend service women or engage on social media? Or things like that?

 

Steve Beynon

Yeah, so the Army was slow to respond to any of this, right? They usually don’t want to touch investigations at all right, to preserve the integrity of those investigations. But there was a lot of room for them to just, you know, backup women in the services. They didn’t have any sort of statement saying, “Hey, women haven’t placed in the service. This isn’t a political issue.” And they could have done it without going after Fox News. But this is a bigger issue of you know, Army Public Affairs being just not understanding how to communicate with the press, how to communicate with the rank and file and this just inability to sort of maneuver with the press. And that’s how the story kind of got out of control for them. Because it just went from did and officers can’t conduct online make the Army look bad, right. And then the investigation found hey it embarrassed the Army, but it was is defending women and embarrassing thing for an officer to do and it took probably it took a good three, four weeks for senior leaders say, you know, “hey, women have a place in the Army. Full stop.” Well, that was a great conference.

 

Rebecca Kheel

Well, that was a great conversation. Thanks again, both of you for participating. And thanks to our listeners as always for tuning in, be sure to tune in next time.

 

Drew Lawrence

Thank you for listening to this episode of Fire Watch. If you liked this program, head over to wherever you get your podcasts and give us a review and five stars if you’re feeling like it. Thank you to my co-host Rebecca Kheel, Steve Beynon, and our wonderful guests. Credit to executive producers Zachary Fryer Biggs and Amy Bushatz. And as always, thank for listening.

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