The Complex

Exclusive: Congress Bars Families of Fallen SEALs From Testifying at Hearing About Their Deaths

After more than two years of waiting, the families of service members killed in the United States' deadliest mission in Afghanistan will finally get to hear Defense Department personnel testify before Congress on Thursday about the operation and the questionable ways the remains of the troops were handled afterward. But before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing even begins, lawmakers on the panel are already taking fire for not allowing any members of those families to testify about their pain and lingering uncertainty about why their loved ones died.

The hearing will address the disastrous and mysterious Aug. 6, 2011, mission that killed 38 people and a working dog on board a CH-47D Chinook helicopter that had been dispatched to reinforce Army Rangers locked in a fierce firefight in central Afghanistan. Insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades shot the helicopter out of the sky, killing 17 members of SEAL Team 6 -- the legendary unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden -- as well as 13 other American troops. Witnesses later told military investigators that the aircraft -- call sign "Extortion 17" -- had crashed and exploded in a fireball.

In December, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told Foreign Policy his oversight committee would hold a hearing on the demise of Extortion 17 early this year. The decision raised the prospect that senior U.S. military commanders could be put on the hot seat to answer for a mission that critics say was poorly planned at best, doomed from the start at worse, and needlessly risked the lives of some of the nation's most elite troops.

That won't be the case, however. The witness list for the hearing includes one civilian Pentagon official and four officials who oversee various aspects of military mortuary affairs. In addition, a plan to have a second witness panel comprising some family members of U.S. troops killed that day was scrapped in favor of having them submit written statements expressing their thoughts and concerns.

"This hearing is being conducted at the request of numerous families impacted by the loss of the brave men aboard Extortion 17," Chaffetz told Foreign Policy in a statement Wednesday. "Given the extremely diverse expectations between families, we have tried our best to treat all interests equally. After much consideration, it was determined that the only way to ensure that each family's personal equities and unique interests were addressed fairly was to have a set standard regarding the input of all families, regardless of their point of view or their ability to attend the hearing in person."

The decision is deeply disappointing to the families who had planned to testify, said Doug Hamburger, whose son, Patrick, was an Army staff sergeant and crew chief on board the helicopter when it went down. The elder Hamburger had planned to speak on his son's behalf at the hearing, but will now listen quietly instead.

"My understanding was that I was going to be one of the family members testifying, and I got a phone call from Congress last Thursday saying that wasn't the case," Hamburger told Foreign Policy. "Quite frankly, I think that anyone who lost a son in Extortion 17 should be able to address Congress."

The crash killed 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos, an Afghan interpreter, and a U.S. military working dog in Afghanistan's Tangi Valley in Wardak province, west of Kabul, U.S. officials said. The group included 17 SEALs, all but two of whom were from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, popularly known as SEAL Team 6. A different unit within that fabled SEAL unit executed the daring raid in which U.S. forces killed terrorist mastermind and al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, early May 2, 2011. The other Americans on board Extortion 17 included five special operations support personnel and members of the Army National Guard who manned the helicopter.

Larry Klayman, a lawyer who has represented several of the families affected, said his clients are upset both about being silenced and by the fact that no top military commanders will be called before Congress for a grilling about the doomed mission. The witness list suggests that the hearing will primarily cover how the remains of the fallen troops were treated but not look at why, or how, they died.

To be sure, the treatment of the fallen troops has raised serious concerns since the crash. Charles Strange said the remains of his son, Michael -- a cryptologist with SEAL Team 6 killed aboard Extortion 17 -- were cremated along with many of the service members on board. U.S. military officials initially told the elder Strange his son's body was burned beyond recognition, but he later obtained a photograph from the military that showed his son's remains were recognizable, the father said. Those details were not released in a five-page executive summary published by Centcom in September 2011.

The witnesses include Garry Reid, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict; Deborah Skillman, director of casualty and mortuary affairs for the Defense Department; Col. John Devillier, commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations; Col. Kerk Brown, director of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center; and Cmdr. Aaron Brodsky, director of Navy Casualty services.

It does not, however, include the senior commanders who planned the mission or Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Colt, who was a one-star general when he was appointed by now-retired Gen. James Mattis to conduct an investigation into what went wrong for Extortion 17.

Klayman called the witness list disappointing.

"Notwithstanding the lack of family members as witnesses," Klayman said, "the only way to honor our fallen heroes is to get honest answers to the thus far inexplicable circumstances of their deaths."

Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Geneva G. Brier/ U.S. Navy

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