Partial human remains belonging to Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson were found about five weeks after he was killed in Niger, the Pentagon disclosed Tuesday, raising more questions about the incident that claimed the lives of four U.S. soldiers.
An investigation team from U.S. Africa Command discovered the remains Nov. 12 at the site where Johnson’s body was found outside the remote village of Tongo Tongo. He and the other Americans were killed there Oct. 4, having been ambushed by as many as 50 Islamist militants.
Five Nigerien soldiers also died in the battle.
Johnson’s body was found two days later. It’s unclear how the remains located Nov. 12 were missed during the initial sweep.
Tuesday’s announcement comes after The Washington Post reported that Johnson was found by villagers with his hands bound and a gaping wound in his head, raising the possibility he was captured alive and later executed.
It is unclear what remains the team uncovered or whether they produce additional evidence indicating a capture. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White disclosed the information in a written statement. The Pentagon has not provided additional details or addressed related questions.
“The Army takes tremendous care to ensure our Gold Star Families are treated with dignity and compassion and that a casualty assistance officer provides them with the latest information available on the loss of their loved one,” said Cynthia O. Smith, an Army spokeswoman. “It would be inappropriate to comment on information shared between the casualty assistance officer and the family of a fallen Soldier.”
The announcement does seem to help explain the saga over Johnson’s remains and what his widow, Myeshia, described as the military’s decision to block her from viewing them.
“Every time I asked to see my husband, they wouldn’t let me,” Myeshia Johnson said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “They told me that he’s in a severe wrap — like I won’t be able to see him. I need to see him so I will know that that is my husband.”
“They won’t show me a finger, a hand,” she told “Good Morning America.” “I know my husband’s body from head to toe, and they won’t let me see anything. I don’t know what’s in that box. It could be empty for all I know.”
The Pentagon has said the soldiers were on a routine reconnaissance mission when the attack occurred. Under U.S. military rules, American troops in Niger are not supposed to go on combat missions, but they can “advise and assist” local forces when the chance of enemy contact is low.
Air support from French Puma helicopters and French jets took an hour or longer to arrive. The incident, still under investigation, has put pressure on the Pentagon to explain whether U.S. troops in remote and dangerous postings like Niger have acceptable levels of air support and medical evacuation capabilities.
There are about 800 U.S. service members in Niger — part of a contingent of 6,000 American troops throughout Africa. They include Special Forces soldiers, who began arriving in 2012 to provide counterterrorism training, as well as others who work on a drone base in the desert.
About 4,000 French troops also are based in the region.
Sudarsan Raghavan and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.