The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I represented La David Johnson. Here’s what I still want to know about his death.

The more we learn about the terrorist attack in Niger, the less we seem to know.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger on Oct. 4, in an attack near Niger’s border with Mali. Here's what we know. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

In the nearly six weeks that have passed since we learned of the ambush in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed by Islamist militants, it has often felt like the more we are told about this tragedy, the less we really know. The circumstances that led to the separation of one of those soldiers from his unit is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

As much of America knows, that soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, was not only my constituent, but also a member of the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentoring program that I founded 25 years ago. The uncle who raised him was one of my students during my tenure as a school principal. So his death is very personal to me. Since 2014, I have been working in Congress on behalf of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, which was started in Nigeria after the kidnapping of 276 girls from their boarding school by the vicious terrorist group Boko Haram. For a similar terrorist group in the region to have murdered a young man whose family I’m close with is a cruel coincidence.

Every American should be outraged that it took the loss of Johnson and three other young soldiers — Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright — for senior congressional lawmakers to become aware of our country’s military operation and the hundreds of troops stationed in Niger.

Last week, I attended a confidential, members-only briefing about the ambush. Unfortunately, I left the briefing room with many more questions than when I entered. I was told that the government’s investigation is ongoing, so it was disturbing to read only a few days later some of the harrowing details about the condition in which Johnson was found.

What makes President Trump casually dismiss black pain? White rage.

As the government’s investigation unfolds, here’s what I want to know.

Johnson was somehow separated from his unit, and his body wasn’t recovered until two days later. Initial reports suggested that U.S. forces found his remains, but more recently, it has been reported that a group of children found him in a bushy area about a mile away from where the attack took place. His arms were bound, and there was a “gaping wound” at the back of his head, painting a heartbreaking picture of his final hours. Which version is correct?

It also is imperative that our government investigate why the terrorists targeted Johnson for abduction and how they separated him from his unit. How did he travel a mile away from the attack? Did he walk? Did they carry him? Did they capture him? The Trump administration should give us a factual account of what happened that includes the recollections of the surviving members of the unit who may have witnessed firsthand their comrade’s capture.

Being told there could not be a viewing and that the casket had to be closed at her husband’s funeral because of the condition of his body was a devastating blow to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and to other members of his family. We all want to know if an autopsy was performed and, if so, what the findings were. Learning definitively the cause of death and whether he died in combat or was executed by his captors is an important step in the family’s healing process.

According to news reports, a relatively new Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group, the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, may be responsible for the ambush. Was the Pentagon aware that this group was operating in the area where the attack took place? If not, was the team operating on faulty intelligence?

The terrorists knew exactly where to find the American troops. Who gave them up? More important, why didn’t they know where the terrorists were? From news report and my conversations with experts about the case, it doesn’t seem like any advance route reconnaissance was done, so they were caught unaware, outnumbered and deficiently armed for an attack.

The administration also must tell us what kind of plan or quick reaction force that could deploy itself was in place in the event of an emergency and why no backup force was dispatched to help. When the troops came under attack, who was listening to their communications, and what was that command post’s ability to respond? After this tragic incident, how will Africa Command better equip its Special Forces and military assistance forces to expect the unexpected?

And finally, all Americans should demand to know when President Trump will be ready to present to the Johnson family, Congress and the public a full explanation of the circumstances surrounding our fallen soldiers’ tragic capture and death.

It is excruciatingly painful for the Johnson family and other military families who are watching this saga unfold, and the length of time it is taking to complete the investigation must feel interminable. When such devastating losses occur, we owe it to them and the countless brave men and women who put their lives on the line to keep us all safe to do all that we can to learn what happened in the hope that it won’t happen again.